The Reading Brain: Essential Practices for Educators
By: Michelle Elia
It’s Not Personal, It’s Neuroscience
Esteemed French neuroscientist Dr. Stanislaus Dehaene was a keynote speaker at the 2022 Plain Talk About Literacy Conference in New Orleans. In a drop-the-mic moment, he stymied any dissension about instructional pedagogy in reading.
“Among neuroscientists, there are no reading wars,” he said.
Neuroscientists, Dehaene said, know exactly how reading develops in the brain, and therefore there is no war, no disagreement, about how to teach students to read. Those arguments, unfortunately, often are perpetuated among educators, many of whom are unaware of the processes in the brain that should direct how students are taught to read. In his book, Reading in the Brain: The New Science of How We Read, Dehaene identifies not only the neural-biological processes that are involved in learning to read, but how our instructional practices can either enable or hinder them.
Building a Better Reading Brain—Educator Practices
- Teach the letters of the alphabet—letter name, letter formation, and sounds
- Teach phoneme-grapheme correspondences
- Teach to automaticity, not just to cover content
- Use and teach elevated vocabulary to wash children in waves of words
- Guide students as they practice reading words in context
What do all of these practices have in common? They require explicit instruction by educators. Students do not learn these skills naturally or simply via exposure. When educators teach these specific skills, they change the brains of children, growing completely new neural pathways. Deheane said, “Reading is not a natural task, and children are not biologically prepared to it by evolution (unlike spoken language acquisition). Thus, teachers must be aware that many of the reading steps that they take for granted, because they are expert readers and have a fully automated and non-conscious reading system, are not at all obvious for young children. Massive changes are needed, at the phonological and at the visual level, before children master the skill of reading.”(2011)
Practice 1—Teach the letters of the alphabet
The region of the reading brain that identifies each and every letter, the brain’s letterbox, does not recognize letters from birth. It is only through explicit instruction in letter recognition that the brain engages in neuro-recycling, or repurposing, of a region of the brain in the occipital lobe. The brain’s letterbox actually recognizes faces from birth, and is neuro-recycled, through instruction, to recognize letters. This only happens when educators direct children’s attention to the print or letters. Children will not learn to recognize letters on their own; it is a skill that must be taught. Letter recognition is a visual process, whereby children are taught to identify both uppercase and lowercase letters by name, as well as recognize the sound(s) those letters represent.
Practice 2—Teach phoneme-grapheme correspondences
Reading happens in the brain when letter strings (graphemes) establish a link to the individual sounds (phonemes). The letters and sounds are processed in separate areas of the brain, but instruction in phoneme-grapheme correspondences builds neural pathways to link these distinct regions. When the brain encounters a word, first the letterbox (letter recognition) is activated, and then there is an explosion into the phonological and meaning regions in the brain. Graphemes are connected to phonemes in the brain to enable decoding. It is only through these connections that children can store words for automatic retrieval when reading.
Practice 3—Teach to automaticity, not just to cover content
To become a sight word, the neural network from letters to sounds must be developed through instruction and practice. This laborious phase, practicing letter-sound correspondences to automaticity, cannot be skipped or avoided. For each child, the number of repetitions may vary. Linnea Ehri reminds us that many children learn to recognize words in as few as four to six repetitions, but other children need far more. Dehaene said, once students automatize a word, the brain takes a more direct, “unconscious route,” immediately connecting letters to sounds and meaning. But to achieve this, children must be given adequate opportunities for practice. Educators cannot skip this often long, laborious phase. Practice makes automatic.
Practice 4—Use and teach elevated vocabulary to wash children in waves of words
When it comes to a child’s oral language vocabulary, size matters. The larger the vocabulary, the more successful the reader. To build their oral language lexicons, students need both implicit and explicit instruction in vocabulary. The benefit is twofold. First, vocabulary knowledge enables comprehension of texts. Second, a child’s spoken vocabulary actually helps the process of sight word recognition by helping the brain to move to the “unconscious route.” As students learn to decode words, they use oral language to check the accuracy of decoding but also to connect to meaning. Meaning helps with permanent word storage. Educators can increase students’ vocabularies by modeling use of sophisticated language, reading aloud complex texts, explicitly teaching Tier 2 and Tier 3 words, and engaging in turn taking conversations with young children. According to Romero et al ( 2018), it is not just about the quantity of language use, but the number of conversational turns between the child and caregiver.
Practice 5—Guide students as they practice reading words in context
A critical piece of the practice to automaticity is for students to read words they have learned to decode within connected texts. Dehaene said, students need to read a lot, using a variety of texts. This practice with reading includes both decodable (connected) texts and rich grade-level texts. Decodable texts are controlled to ensure students will practice the previously taught phoneme-grapheme correspondences in context. Students also need to access grade-level rich texts that include sophisticated vocabulary and complex sentence structures. These rich texts build knowledge, critical for comprehension. Reading both decodable and grade-level rich texts requires guided practice (or the “we do” of explicit instruction), with feedback from a teacher.
Educators have learned much in the past 30 years about how print and language are processed in the brain, as well as the neural networks necessary to achieve literacy. When this knowledge is applied to classroom practice, teachers become neurosurgeons, using explicit instruction to create neural networks in the reading brain. Armed with this knowledge, teachers can replace practices not aligned with the brain with those that will ensure all students learn to read.
Want more? A valuable resource is available to educators in the “Teaching Phoneme Awareness in 2023: A Guide for Educators”. This dynamic guide was compiled by experts in the field with a broad range of perspectives and expertise, including Dr. Lucy Paulson.
If you have ever struggled to translate the science of reading into actionable strategies, Michelle Elia turns neuroscience into literacy game plans that work in “The Reading Brain: Essential Strategies for Educators.” The latest installment in Lexia’s All for Literacy webinar series walks watchers through what exactly happens in the brain when students are learning to read. Watch now!
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