Telling voices Friday Review

How the brain learns to read


Professor Stanislas Deheane demystifies how teaching is processed by the brain.

How wonderful it would be if you could peep into a learner’s head and see whether what you are teaching is actually being processed by the brain? Well, cognitive neuroscientist, Professor Stanislas Deheane does just that with language learning. He says, “When you read one word…even what you have just read…you have the word unfolding from the back of the brain to the front of the brain in the left hemisphere. Reading starts like any other visual stimulation in the occipital lobe of the brain and very quickly moves into an area that we have discovered which helps in the recognition of the written word. I call it the letter box….that is where we store our knowledge of letters. From there we have seen its explosion into at least two networks, one that concerns meaning of the words and another that concerns the pronunciation and articulation of the word. So brain activity is two fold: one recognizing the letters and secondly understanding the sound they make. This network is shared by spoken language too. Reading connects vision and articulation…When a child comes to school it already has a sophisticated spoken language system, a sophisticated visual system, it needs to create an interface between the visual and spoken system.”

For greater progress in this process, Prof Deheane says it is better to teach the child a letter at a time and not attempt whole word readings, “The main changes in the brain when you learn to read…the first major change is the activation of the letter box area…it is active only in those who have learnt to read. It activates in direct proportion to the reading score and is activated by only by the letters you know/ recognize. It is accompanied by major changes in the visual cortex.

“The visual area, which is generic and so is for all sorts of visual tasks, by reading you have changed the precision of coding. Most importantly you have changed the representation of visual sounds…how you code the letter…Connection of letters to sounds is being reinforced and being changed…when you hear a sound you can write the letter. It is an anatomical change. So phonics is superior to word reading…brain reads letter by letter…whole word reading is a myth…”

A fascinating piece of information comes with Prof Dehaene saying, “This region also reacts to faces and recognition…as you learn to read, the response to sounds of letters increases but other responses decreases…making room for more words. Words compete with faces…” says Deheane and so faces move to the right hemisphere!

Does that mean the more words you know, the less number of faces you recognize? Well, the right hemisphere pitches in when there is shortage of space in the left.

Prof Dehaene says there is no age for learning. The anatomical changes created by learning in the brain happens for the child and adult alike, though for the child it may happen a little faster. To accelerate learning one has to change the inner brain which comes with improving concentration and the promise of a reward help. He sees nothing wrong in video games that children play. He says that may actually help in concentration. He says sleep definitely helps a child learn much better. “Giving children more sleep is one way to make them learn,” says Prof Deheane. Prof Dehaene says cursive writing is very helpful to prepare a child to learn to write. So practising the drawing of lines and curves is beneficial.

Prof Dehaene concludes, “We think that the brain mechanisms are very universal. Children have the same basic layout of the brain circuits. The predictors of learning to read in young children is how well they are in phonics…sound systems of language and what is the size of their vocabulary. If they know many words, their learning will be faster…we can help reading by enhancing their vocabulary and sound system of language.”

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Printable version | Jan 24, 2020 10:25:42 PM |

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