The Neurology of Reading:  A Brief Overview of The Research and Its Implications For Parents and Educators

The Neurology of Reading: A Brief Overview of The Research and Its Implications For Parents and Educators

For the past six years, third grade reading proficiency has been a focus on the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. On September 26th 2012, Governor Deval Patrick signed H. 4243, “An Act Relative to Third Grade Reading Proficiency” which is a piece of legislation with the goal of making every child in the state reading proficient by the end of third grade (Governor’s Press Office 2012). This is obviously a noble goal that pretty much everyone would support. In addition, statistics show that that large numbers of children in the state of Massachusetts are struggling to read proficiently at third grade; 39 percent of all third graders in Massachusetts did not meet reading proficient scores on the MCAS  test in 2012 which is nearly identical to the 38 percent who  were not proficient readers in 2001 (Sege 2012) [1]. However, one might wonder why Third Grade reading was picked for this piece of legislation and why we measure that specific grade more than others. Why not have every child be reading proficient by Second Grade or by Fifth grade? Did they pick an arbitrarily grade for their goal? In fact, this was not a random grade picked out of a hat, but based on the fact that third grade is an important pivot point in a child’s educational career in terms of the type of instruction they will receive and the type of work they will be expected to do.

The old axiom that one often hears in education circles is that from preschool till third grade children are learning to read and after third grade children are reading to learn. Starting after third grade, children are often asked to read to learn facts and concepts in science, social studies, math and pretty much every area of school. If a child struggles with reading, they are much more likely to fall behind in all academic content areas after the third grade (Wennersten, 2013). A variety of studies have shown that this can have far reaching consequences; a recent study found that 63 percent of the students who do not graduate from high school on time were not reading on a proficient level when they were in third grade.  Conversely, only 4 percent of children with high scores on  third grade reading skills fail to graduate high school on time (Hernandez, 2012). The statistics that show the importance of early reading skills relating to later reading ability and academic achievement have actually been given a name; it is called the Mathew Effect.

The Mathew Effect was first coined by researcher Keith Stanovich in 1986. The term Mathew Effect is actually derived from the Gospel of Mathew in the bible which states “

"for whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath."  To put in more economic terms, think of this adage when it comes to reading, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Here is a simple synopsis of how these “Mathew Effects” that Stanovich found and others have confirmed work when it comes to the snowballing effect of early reading ability. Think of two children one who has early foundational reading skills/knowledge and one who does not. The child who has early reading skills/knowledge is more likely to become a successful reader than the child who does not. The child who becomes a successful reader is more likely to read more and enjoy reading. By reading more they gain greater reading comprehension skills, build their background knowledge about a variety of topics, and improve their vocabulary. This is a virtuous cycle which will allow the child to progress in their reading skills and by extension their academic achievement throughout their educational career. On the other hand, the child who initially struggles at reading, is less likely to read, and less likely to enjoy reading. Because that child is less likely to read they don’t receive all the ancillary benefits of reading that the first child does such as improved vocabulary and background knowledge which creates an ever increasing gap in reading ability between the two children throughout their academic career. Hence, it is very important we find ways to improve children’s early reading abilities in order to create that virtuous cycle of ever increasing reading skills and academic success.

Fortunately, modern technology might be giving us some new knowledge and tools to help children who are struggling readers. A variety or researchers such as those at The Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Mind Brain and Education Program, The University College of London’s Center for Educational Neuroscience, Peabody College of Education at Vanderbilt’s Brain Institute, and Neuroscience and Education Program at Teacher’s College at Columbia University are leading the charge to use modern neuroscience and brain imaging technology to determine the structures in the brain which  effect how children learn and the types of interventions which might be most effective.   

We all have an interest in improving the educational outcomes of current and future students and the state of Massachusetts recently in the aforementioned legislation codified into law the goal of making every student a proficient third grade reader which we know is tied to long term education success. Thus, it is imperative that educators and parents be aware of the most up to date information from the bourgeoning field of educational neuroscience regarding the neurology of reading development. The following research review will give an overview with the most up to date information regarding the neuroscience of reading development with a particular focus on how the brains of dyslexics differ from those who do not struggle to read. This is a broad and very technical topic; thus the focus of the review will be to give information related to how the brain works such as separate regions, but the review will only go into a  rudimentary understanding of this information to provide an initial baseline of knowledge  to teachers, parents, and others that work with young children learning to read and practical ways these brain differences effect developing readers.   The paper will then discuss possible practical application of this information. For those who would like a more in depth or technical look at the neuroscience behind reading development a good place to start will be the books and journal articles referenced in this research review.

Neurology of Reading

            Humans first emerge around 200,000 years ago (King 2012); yet, it was not until around 4000/5000 years ago did we see the genesis of systems of writing and by extension reading start to emerge  initially around Mesopotamia with the Sumerian system of writing. (Sumerian Language 2013) This historical context is important to consider because it means for the vast majority of human existence, the human brain was not being used to read or write. This fact would suggest that the ability of reading is not something that humans evolved to specifically be able to do in the way we evolved in a fashion that allowed us to walk on two legs. On other hand, in the last few thousand years literally billions of humans have acquired the  ability to read. How is it possibly that so many humans are able to do something that we might not have been biologically predisposed to do?

            The answer to that question may lay in the plasticity of the human brain. The human brain is remarkable in its ability to change itself based on experience. The more we use certain neural pathway and systems, the more connections are created between them while others we do not use are pruned away, which results in our ability to perform certain tasks and functions efficiently. It should be noted that the brain is at its most “plastic” whith the ability to create new connections between neurons in the earlyest years of life (Wessen 2010) This relates back to the above mentioned Mathew Effects. Since the brain is more adaptable and able to make new connections when it is young, it makes sense that a child’s early experiences with reading and literacy play an oversized role on their lifelong reading ability. All that being said, just being flexible does not explain what is exactly happening in the brain when a child is forming the neural connections that lay the foundations for reading.

            In his book Reading in The Brain researcher Stanislas Dehaene describes the part of the brain which he has coined the “Letter Box Area” (sometimes called the “Visual Word Form Area” depending on which article or researcher you are reading[2] ) which seems to be central in  humans ability to read. Using functional magnetic imaging (FMRI) , researchers located an area in the brain located in the left lateral occipito-temporal sulcus that is always active when the person being studied is engaged in a reading tasks;  it should be noted that this nuerologcial development pattern holds for people who have learned to read different systems of writing such as Chinese characters and it appears that there are similar specialty areas to process visual stimulus such as faces and objects so the idea of a specialized area to process visual stimuli is not unique to letters.  In fact, studies of people in remote societies who have never been exposed to print suggest that the area where the “Letter Box” resides is actually used for different specialties such as “reading” environmental cues in forests or jungles (Dehaene 2009). While the exact location of this “Letter Box Area” is most likely not relevant to teachers, parents, and others concerned with teaching young children to read, the existence of a location in the brain that appears to be central in reading development is important to consider when thinking about children’s reading development and if and when problems occur. Here is an example, of how this knowledge is practically relevant to both teachers and parents.

            Some parents of preschool aged children and most likely nearly all preschool teachers have encountered children who produce “mirror writing.”   Mirror writing is when children write letters, words, or even entire sentences completely backwards so they would look correct if you viewed them from a mirror; hence the coining of the term mirror writing. Mirror writing is seen often in children between the ages of three to six who are learning how to write and is more prevalent in left handed children; adding to the oddness of mirror writing is that often the penmanship and the formation of the letters is perfect aside from being completely backwards. (McIntosh & Della Sala, 2012).  To see visualyl how this would look like, the sentence “my name is Theodore” would be written by the child producing mirror writing looking like “ɘɿoboɘʜT ƨI ɘmɒИ yM”. It is easy to see how this could be alarming to parents or teachers; in fact, in the past this type of mirror writing in preschool aged children was thought to be associated with learning difficulties like dyslexia or in older times a sign that a child may be possessed by demonic forces (McIntosh & Della Sala, 2012). Luckily, Dehaene along with other researchers may have found the neurological basis for this phenomenon and it revolves around the previously discussed Letter Box Area.

            Our letters, especially lower case letters often look like mirror opposites. For example, a lower case “b” and a lower case “d” essentially are the same shape and mirror images of each other. Even with their similarities, all fluent readers in English can easily distinguish between a lower case “b”and ‘d”. Now instead of letters, think of an animal such as a cat; if a cat is facing with its head pointed toward the right and its tail to the left we recognize it as a cat. If the cat is facing in the “mirrored” position with its head pointing to the left and its tail pointing to the left it is still obviously the same cat. However, letters do not work like this. As we saw earlier, flipping a letter around can make it become a completely new letter.   Neuro-imaging again helps us find the answer to the mirror writing phenomenon. Young children and or those who have not been exposed to written letters do not automatically process them in the “Letter Box Area.” Instead, the children process the letters in the same way they would process any visual stimuli like the image of a cat and thus do not see the difference between a lower case b and a lower case d (Dehaene 2009). This is a perfect exemplar of how knowledge of the neurology of reading can help teachers and parents have a better understanding of what stage a child is at in their reading and writing development and why.

            While, Dehaene’s research has been repeated and confirmed by others, other researchers have tried to poke holes in some aspects of the “Letter Box Area” theory. A recent study confirmed that this “Letter Box Area” was activated when test subjects were given orthographical cues (i.e. words and letters) as opposed to visual information like pictures; on the other hand, when test subjects were shown pseudo-words and not asked to read them, the area of the brain that Dehaene described as the “Letter Box Area” was not as active which suggests that though this area is most likely used in the phonological processing of orthographical information, it might not be the central player in identifying and distinguishing between visual stimulus like identifying and distinguishing between different letters (Mano, Q. R., Humphries, C., Desai, R. H., Seidenberg, M. S., Osmon, D. C., Stengel, B. C., & Binder, J. R. 2013)

            In some of the previous studies the link between visual perceptions systems has been mentioned, but not explicitly discussed. Consequently, this review will shift focus and look at some of the research related to how the visual systems in the brain can affect a child’s reading development. Research has shown that sometimes when children have difficulty reading, it is not an issue with phonetic knowledge but due to visual deficits. At this point it is important to note that visual systems in the brain are separated into Dorsal and Ventral Pathways with “dorsal stream functions process information about locations and movements, while ventral stream functions process about shapes and identities” (Englund, J. A., & Palomares, M. 2012). Research has shown that the coherent form detection which is located in the Ventral systems

 is strongly correlated to reading accuracy even when controlling for other factors such as the child’s age and non verbal abilities (Englund, J. A., & Palomares, M. 2012).  The Dorsal System also plays an important role in our ability to read. It is the system that focuses on not an object shape but its distance in space, speed, and orientation. This is the system that helps us distinguish the difference between a number 6 and a number  9. There have been numerous people who have lost the ability to distinguish between those two numbers due to brain legions in the Dorsal System in the brain (Dehaene). Thus, if a child still seems to be having problems distinguishing between 6 and 9 or b and d after the age of 8 when this system should be fully developed, it could be a sign of a neurological problem. 

            While it would be great if we could simply diagnose and determine the neurological basis for a particular issue for a young reader who is having difficulty, sometimes the same difficulty can be caused by different systems.  A child might not have any issues in their Dorsal System, Ventral System, and have a developed “Letter Box Area” to process letters but still have many issues that are related to difficulty reading such as confusing W with M or not being able to associate letters with their sounds. This is because our auditory processing systems can also have problems that lead to similar difficulties in reading as problems in our visual processing systems. (National Coalition of Auditory Processing Disorders, 2013) That’s why it behooves us to take a closer look at the neurology behind auditory processing disorders.

            “The central auditory nervous system (CANS) extends from the cochlear nucleus in the brain stem to the auditory cortex. The superior olivary complex, lateral lemniscus and inferior colliculus, medial geniculate body, and reticular formation are important relay stations. (Bamiou, Musiek & Luxon, 2001)” It is problems in this system which can cause auditory processing disorders. For example, extreme cases such as children with tumors in these areas have had difficulty in processing auditory information and any sort of even lesser problem in that area can lead to secondary problems relating to auditory processing such as the above mentioned difficulty in reading because of problems such as the inability to distinguish letter sounds (Bamiou, Musiek & Luxon, 2001).

            All of this discussion of reading difficulties based on a variety of factors leads us to the discussion of the elephant in the room which is dyslexia and the neurological factors that go into it. Many people often believe that if a person is dyslexic it means that they see letters backwards such as the previously discussed mirror writing style. This is a falsehood. Dyslexia is“characterized by difficulties with accurate and / or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction (International Dyslexia Association 2002).” While it is already established in previous paragraphs in this review that these type of difficulties can be caused by a variety of factors, there is research that supports the idea that in the case of many dyslexics their brains are wired completely differently than those who have learned to read normally. This review will now look at those major differences, why those differences cause problems in reading, and some of the positives associated with brain types that are associated with dyslexia.

            One of the biggest differences in the studies looking at brains of both children and adults diagnosed with dyslexia is a marked increase in activity in the right hemisphere of the brain compared to children who have developed into fluent readers. In fact, the brains of dyslexic children and adults show similar high levels of right brain activity to the brain of young children who are in the pre-reading skills stage (Eide & Eide 2011). Going along with this increased activity in the right side of the brain is a decreased level of activity in the left temporal cortex and the region below it which not so coincidently is the region where the “Letter Box” area is located (Dehaene 2009). All that being said, it is important to remember that while this one region is important, it may not be the only factor in dyslexia because dyslexia itself as we saw earlier is a broad term that describes a variety of reading issues including those relating to decoding and comprehension. In order for successful reading to happen multiple networks in the brain must simultaneously work together to see the words, decode them, understand them, and make inferences. In order to gain meaning from text, the information must be stored in working memory and then analyzed by systems located in the pre-frontal cortex (Willis 2008).

            Working memory is defined as the temporary memory storage required to complete a task; for example remembering a series of numbers such as a phone number (Medicine.net , 2011).  Working memory is associated with different parts of the brain but it appears the frontal gyrus and superior and inferior parietal cortices are key areas. Furthermore, studies show that training can be done to improve working memory and by extension reading comprehension (Olesen, Westerberg & Klingberg, 2004). It has also been found that it is harder for the brain to keep information in working memory and or eventually store it to be analyzed more fully if the information is more novel and cannot be connected to previously learned and stored information. It appears that when one becomes an expert on something different regions of the brain become transformed to focus on that topic; for instance if someone is an expert about car engines and reads countless books about them, they will have an area in their brain that is at least partially dedicated to information about car engines; when they read a magazine article that describes a new kind of car engine that region of the brain is activated and they can quickly assimilate and comprehend as opposed to a person who known nothing about car engines reading the same article. The person who knows nothing will have a hard transferring the new information from working memory into longer term memory where they can fully comprehend the information. Brain scans of experts and novices encountering new information show brain activations patterns that correlate with this phenomenon (Willis 2008); therefore, when helping children who are having reading disabilities it important to take a holistic approach and look at potential difficulties in working memory and activities that can help improve it as a way to remediate reading difficulties as well as doing activities that increase their background knowledge about a particular topic.

             Confounding all of this even more is the fact that that reading difficulties are often associated with the learning disability that has grown in diagnoses rates exponentially the past 25 years which is Attention Deficit Disorder aka A.D.D.. Dyslexia and A.D.D. are sometimes confused for each other due to symptoms that often overlap. Cases in point, both disorders have symptoms such as the inability to complete homework, problems retaining information, difficulty organizing writing, and more (Vincent & Purvis). While there is not one neurological cause of A.D.D, research is pointing to lower levels of dopamine possibly being a main factor in causing A.D.D. (Martin 2007). This is why misdiagnoses can lead to many frustrations for children and their parents. If a child is having reading difficulties due to A.D.D. caused by low levels of dopamine and gets misdiagnosed as having dyslexia and subsequently get interventions helping with dyslexia, it will not help that child with fixing the underlying causes of their problems with reading.

            This review has discussed a lot about dyslexia and when we think of “dyslexia” it is universally almost always in a negative connotation; on the other hand, there are actually plenty of positive characteristics associated with the dyslexic brain type that shows higher activation on the right side of the brain which have been documented in a variety of studies. This research has been best synthesized in Brock and Fernette Eide’s book The Dyslexic Advantage. The next two paragraphs will be a short overview of some of the main advantages of the dyslexic brain highlighted in their book with the first paragraph summarizing chapter 5 and the next paragraph  chapter 10.

            Research has shown that another one of the brain differences of dyslexics is that they have broader spacing in the clusters of neurons in their cortex. This type of brain organization has been correlated with problems with tasks that are detail orientated like reading but actually are associated with stronger abilities in “big picture” tasks like understanding broader concepts and being able to create three dimensional representations of real world environments which is a positive in many situations. For example, if you are trying to figure out how to get back to our parking space in a giant parking garage, a person with a brain organization that is associated with dyslexia may have a particular strength at finding where your car is. Thinking about these types of skills for younger children, these strengths might manifest themselves as being able to build creative structures with Legos and blocks.

            Another strength that is often associated with dyslexia that may be a product of their “right brain” style thinking is interconnected reasoning; because a larger portion of their brains are activated than those who are normal fluent reader, those with dyslexic brains often are able to come up with a wider array of connections between concepts, objects, phenomenon, and more. For example, if a typically brained person was asked to read the words Tigers and Lions and asked what the connection was between the two, they most likely would respond with the most obvious connection that they are both large animals in the cat or feline family. However, a dyslexic child who encountered those two words and had more of their brain regions activated while processing them, might come up with that initial connection but they would also be more likely to come up with extra connections like they are the names of 2 sports teams in Detroit (The Detroit Tigers are a baseball team and the Detroit Lions are football team). Other researchers have recently found similar finding as to Eide and Eide. In his books Neurodiversity, Thomas Armstrong discusses the fact that an outsized portion of children who were diagnosed as being dyslexic excel in fields as diverse as becoming entrepreneurs or artists due to the earlier mentioned benefits of the differences in the organization of many dyslexics brains and that the best solution to help dyslexic students maybe to help them find their niche in society that best matches their unique abilities.  

While there may be advantages to having a brain organization often associated with dyslexia, it would still behoove dyslexic students and all students to improve their reading abilities.  This research review has so far given an overview of a slice of the latest developments in neurology relating to reading development. Now we will move from reviewing the neurological research into highlighting five main takeaways from the review about how that research can be practically applied by teachers and parents to help children succeed in school and in life.

 

5 Practical Uses of Neurological Knowledge For Parents and Teachers Of Young Readers:

1.      Remediating early reading difficulties before third grade is optimal because children are expected to “read to learn” as they progress into middle and high school

2.      Children’s brains are “plastic” and change to fit the needs of their environment at a young age; therefore, exposing them to large amounts and a variety of print from a young age will most likely cause their brains to adapt in a way that allows them to process print concepts easier and eventually learn to read.

3.      Mirror writing by children younger than seven is normal and due to the fact a child’s brain might not have created a specialized place to process letters coined the “Letter Box Area’ compared to other visual stimuli.

4.       Reading difficulties can be caused by a variety of numerological factors; if your child experiences reading difficulties work with your child’s doctors, teachers, and possibly reading specialists to rule out various possible causes such as visual processing, auditory processing, working memory, and A.D.D.

5.      A diagnosis of dyslexia does not have to be looked at as a death blow to your child’s potential; in fact, their brain might not be organized for reading well, but there is a good chance that they have other strengths. Make sure to look for and value those strengths and give your child opportunities to succeed using whatever strengths they possess.

Works Cited:

Armstrong , T. (2010). Neurodiversity . Cambridge, MA : Da Capo Press.

Bamiou, D. E., Musiek, F. E., & Luxon, L. M. (2001). Aetiology and clinical presentations of auditory processing disorders--a review. Archives of Disease in Childhood85(5), 361-365.

Dehaene, S. (2009). Reading in the brain . (pp. 68-107). New York : Viking Penguin Retrieved from http://readinginthebrain.pagesperso-orange.fr/index.htm

Eide, B., & Eide , F. (2011). The dyslexic advantage . (pp. 33-167). London: Penguin Books

Englund, J. A., & Palomares, M. (2012). The relationship of global form and motion detection to reading fluency. Vision Research, 6714-21. doi:10.1016/j.visres.2012.06.020

Governor's Press Office (2012). Governor Patrick signs legislation to help close achievement   gaps in reading and get all students to proficiency by grade 3. Retrieved from website: http://www.mass.gov/governor/pressoffice/pressreleases/2012/2012926-close-achievement-gap.html

Hernandez, D. J. (2012). Double jeopardy: How third-grade reading skills and poverty influence high school graduation. The Annie E. Casey Foundation; Center for Demographic Analysis, University at Albany, State of New York; Foundation for Child Development, Retrieved from http://www.aecf.org/KnowledgeCenter/Publications.aspx?pubguid={8E2B6F93-75C6-4AA6-8C6E-CE88945980A9}

International Dyslexia Association (2002, November ). What is dyslexia? . Retrieved from http://www.interdys.org/FAQWhatIs.htm

 

King , B. (2012, September 23). For how long have we been human?. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/blogs/13.7/2012/09/11/160934187/for-how-long-have-we-been-human

Mano, Q. R., Humphries, C., Desai, R. H., Seidenberg, M. S., Osmon, D. C., Stengel, B. C., & Binder, J. R. (2013). The role of left occipitotemporal cortex in reading: Reconciling stimulus, task, and lexicality effects. Cerebral Cortex, 23(4), 988-1001. doi:10.1093/cercor/bhs093

Martin, B. (2007). Causes of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD). Psych Central. Retrieved on May 9, 2013, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/2007/causes-of-attention-deficit-disorder-adhd/

Medicine.net (2011, April). Definition of working memory. Retrieved from http://www.medterms.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=7143

McIntosh, R. D., & Della Sala, S. (2012). Mirror-writing.The Psychologist.org 25, Retrieved from http://www.thepsychologist.org.uk/archive/archive_home.cfm?volumeID=25&editionID=218&ArticleID=2151

Olesen, P., Westerberg, H., & Klingberg, J. (2004, January ). increased prefrontal and parietal brain activity after training of working memory. Retrieved from http://www.cogmed.com/increased-prefrontal-and-parietal-brain-activity-after-training-of-working-memory

National Coalition of Auditory Processing Disorders. (2013).What is apd?. Retrieved from http://www.ncapd.org/What_is_APD_.html

Sege, I. (2012, September 12). 2012 mcas results show little progress in third grade reading. Retrieved from http://eyeonearlyeducation.org/2012/09/17/2012-mcas-results-show-little-progress-in-third-grade-reading/

Stanovich, K.E. (1986). Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, 21, 360-407.

Sumerian language. (2013). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved fromhttp://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/573229/Sumerian-language

Vincent, J., & Purvis, P. (n.d.). Discriminating between attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (adhd) and developmental dyslexia: differential diagnosis and interventions.. Retrieved from http://www.therapycenterwichita.com/featuredarticles/adhdDys.pdf

Wennersten, M. (2013, March 18). Move on when reading…why is third grade so important?. The International Dyslexia Association, Retrieved from http://www.interdys.org/MoveOnWhenReading.htm

Wessen , K. (2010, August 26). Neuroplasticity. Retrieved from http://brainworldmagazine.com/neuroplasticity/

Willis, J. (2008). Teaching the brain to read . Alexandria, Virginia : Association For Supervision and Curriculum Development

 


[1] There is an argument to be made that Standardized Tests like the MCAS are not the best way to measure students reading ability; this is an argument I am sympathetic to and in many ways agree with. However, that is a debate for another paper and since MCAS is the current way the state measures reading proficiency the statistics are relevant in order to frame where we are in terms of third grade reading.

[2] For example in this article which Dehaene wrote along with others: The visual word form area: expertise

for reading in the fusiform gyrus by Bruce D. McCandlis, , Laurent Cohen, and Stanislas Dehaene

http://ureca.recherche.univ-lille3.fr/sparrow/M1/0607/UE15/The%20visual%20word%20form%20area_expertise.pdf

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