Reading requires multiple parts of the brain to work rapidly and in tandem. As a result, more than one form of instruction is required to build and connect all the processes that make up this essential skill.
The neuroscientist David Eagleman (2011) recently wrote that the brain’s cells are “connected to one another in a network of such staggering complexity that it bankrupts human language and necessitates new strains of mathematics. . . . There are as many connections in a single cubic centimeter of brain tissues as there are stars in the Milky Way galaxy” (p. 1). It is the capacity to make these mind-reeling numbers of connections that allows our brain to go beyond its original functions to form a completely new circuit for reading (see research summarized in Wolf, 2016). A new circuit was necessary because reading is neither natural nor innate; rather, it is an unnatural cultural invention that has been scarcely 6,000 years in existence. On any “evolutionary clock,” reading’s history occupies little more than the proverbial tick before midnight.
The lack of a blueprint for reading circuitry means that its formation is subject to considerable variation, based on the reader’s specific language requirements and learning environments. A large, fundamental mistake — with many unfortunate consequences for children, teachers, and parents around the world — is the assumption that reading is natural to human beings and that it will simply emerge “whole cloth” like language when the child is ready. That is not the case; most of us must be taught the basic principles of this unnatural cultural invention.
Happily, the brain comes well prepared to learn a great many unnatural things because of its basic design. The best-known design principle, neuroplasticity, underlies just about everything interesting about reading — from forming a new circuit by connecting older parts, to recycling existing neurons, to adding new and elaborated branches to the reading circuit over time. Plasticity also underlies why the reading-brain circuit is inherently malleable and influenced by key environmental factors: specifically what it reads, how it reads, and how it is formed.
A large, fundamental mistake is the assumption that reading is natural to human beings and that it will simply emerge “whole cloth” like language when the child is ready.
The second principle invokes the contributions of psychologist Donald Hebb (1949/2002), who helped conceptualize how cells form working groups that enable them to specialize in particular functions. These specialist groups build the networks that allow us to see the smallest features of letters and process them in milliseconds.
More specifically, and equally important, cell specialization enables each working group of neurons to become automatic in its specific region and to become virtually automatic in its connections to the other groups or networks in the reading circuit. In other words, for reading to occur, there must be sonic-speed automaticity for neuronal networks at the local level (such as within the visual cortex), which, in turn, allows for equally rapid connections across entire structural expanses of the brain (e.g., connecting visual regions to language regions).
In essence, the combination of these three principles forms a reading circuit that operates something like a circus, with three large overlapping rings (representing vision, language, and cognition), connected to two smaller rings (representing motor and affective functions), all of which are overseen by an “executive center” that handles attention, memory, hypothesis generating, and decision making. It incorporates input from two hemispheres, four lobes in each hemisphere (frontal, temporal, parietal, and occipital), and all five layers of the brain (from the uppermost telencephalon and adjacent diencephalon below it to the middle layers of the mesencephalon to the lower levels of the metencephalon and myelencephalon). Anyone who still believes the archaic canard that we use only a tiny portion of our brains hasn’t yet become aware of what we do when we read.
The many reading brains
When children step through the kindergarten door, they come in all sizes, abilities, languages, dialects, and cultures — all of which have influenced brain formation. The school’s first job is to figure out who is ready to learn, who is not, and what to do about it. From the very first day, the schools must be able to assess what is needed for those children who did not receive a quality preschool experience and may well be behind in language development and other precursors of reading. From the second day, teachers need to know whether children who have had a high-quality preschool experience have different strengths and weaknesses that will require specific emphases before they are more formally taught to read. Everyone involved in what happens next needs to be aware of some important new research as well as some well-established older research, neither of which is sufficiently known or implemented in many schools.
An exciting new study could change business as usual in the first two days of school. My former Ph.D. students Ola Ozernov-Palchik and Elizabeth Norton, along with John Gabrieli and his colleagues at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT and Nadine Gaab at Boston Children’s Hospital, recently finished one of the largest reading prediction studies ever conducted (Ozernov-Palchik et al., 2016). These are the kind of studies that help us predict who will go on to do well in important subjects such as reading and math and why, and who will need to be followed carefully.
Our group studied well over a thousand kindergarten children from every economic circumstance and from all over New England. Six developmental profiles emerged that can help teachers and parents understand what each group needs and how each group best learns to read. Two of the profiles comprise children who are either average or very much above average and will need only good instruction to excel. Another group has difficulty with letters and sounds and may well come from environments where there is little exposure to the alphabet or the English language. We can redress these issues fairly straightforwardly. Some children in this group, however, may have rarer visual-based difficulties that need further testing.
Three of the profiles comprise children who we know will go on to be diagnosed with some form of reading disability or dyslexia. There are few discoveries more important to those of us who study dyslexia than to be able to predict it before the child has to endure ignominious, daily public failures before peers, parents, and teachers. Indeed, there is little more destructive for a six-year-old child than to suddenly think that he or she is dumb because everyone else can read but him or her, whether the reason is biological or environmental or in some cases both.
By assessing struggling young readers early on, we can prevent some of the emotional detritus that often characterizes their reading experiences. In the process, we can save society large sums of money by preventing the need for some prison beds and by preserving the spirit of children with dyslexia, who can then go on to become some of our most creative members and successful entrepreneurs (Wolf, 2007). The critical point here is that we are now on the threshold of being able to predict highly specific reading trajectories of young children before they ever begin to read. Such information in the hands of trained teachers could prevent some reading problems, ameliorate others, and deliver intensive early intervention for the children most at risk for dyslexia. Nothing in reading acquisition is more important than beginning systematic, targeted intervention as early as possible.
This research helps all children, not just those with more obvious learning challenges. The prediction battery also demonstrates the tremendous developmental variability at this age among the largest group of the more typically developing children. Some children, particularly boys, show no obvious areas of weakness in their profile but are simply not yet ready to learn to read. Understanding this group requires more in-depth evaluation (to ensure that there are no underlying weaknesses) and also more reasonable expectations for our children than is sometimes the case. Too many schools have school administrators who are under such pressure for their children to do well in later grades on the publicly recorded state tests that they pressure their teachers to push reading acquisition earlier and earlier in the kindergarten curriculum.
The Johns Hopkins pediatric neurologist Martha Denckla vehemently argues that we may be causing as many impediments to reading as preventing them by our push to get every child reading before they leave kindergarten (personal correspondence, 2015). The British reading researcher Usha Goswami (2003) reinforced this conclusion in a study of reading practices in Europe. She found that in the countries that introduced reading later, reading developed with fewer problems for the children. In other words, European children who began instruction in what we would consider 1st grade acquired reading more easily than those who began a year earlier.
Fears about 3rd-grade state test results should never dictate decisions about when whole kindergarten classes receive instruction for reading.
These results are, to be sure, confounded, because there is more orthographic regularity in the languages of the countries that introduce reading a year later than we do. Nevertheless, there are sound physiological and behavioral reasons why some children are simply developmentally not ready in kindergarten (Wolf, 2007). The bottom line is that fears about 3rd-grade state test results should never dictate decisions about when whole kindergarten classes receive instruction for reading. Some children are pushed to read too hard too soon, before they are developmentally ready. Some children read well before they end kindergarten or even enter it. Others are sent to 1st grade to receive the intervention du jour in their school that is inappropriate for their specific learning profiles. Perceptive, well-trained teachers, excellent prediction tools, and better-targeted, evidence-grounded interventions are our best defense against any of these all-too-common errors that derail children’s development.
Knowing how to introduce all children with their many differences to the reading life today requires as complex a set of knowledge bases as any engineer or rocket scientist is ever called upon to use. Today’s teachers need to be prepared with new knowledge, particularly about the reading brain and its implications for how we teach teachers and children. As Stanislas Dehaene (2009) emphasized, what we know about the reading-brain circuit can enrich the development of teachers’ understanding, especially concerning the merits of different forms of reading instruction. It may ultimately bridge one of the most intransigent debates about methods of teaching, the so-called Reading Wars.
The debate that should never have been
By and large, 20th-century educators were trained within two strikingly different approaches to the teaching of reading. In the approach called phonics, reading instruction begins with children understanding the basic elements underlying the alphabetic principle: that words consist of sounds or phonemes and that these sounds correspond to letters in the alphabet, with rules that are to be learned as the entry to reading. Teaching is explicit, and the emphasis moves from a foundation in English phonemes and letters to systematic rules about connecting letters to sounds and about decoding different types of words.
In the approach called whole language, learning is to be implicit: The rules of decoding are to be inferred or figured out by the child, with little to no explicit instruction in decoding or emphasis on the phonemes in English. The emphasis centers on engagement in stories, authentic literature, word meanings, and the imagination of the child to the exclusion of phonic principles. Indeed, some earlier professors of education erroneously labeled phonics methods “drill and kill” and characterized teachers of phonics approaches as less progressive and child-centered.
Both approaches came to be favored by very fine teachers, many of whom maintain to this day a loyal, sometimes even zealous, belief in the methods they were originally trained in. That each of these approaches ever came to exclude the emphases of the other is one of the great unfortunate errors of the 20th century. Unfortunately, it continues. Even though there is a movement toward “balanced reading,” the too-frequent reality is a thinly veiled variation of the whole-language approach with a cursory, unsystematic nod to phonics principles. This is understandable but lamentable.
Extensive, federally funded research studies unambiguously support the importance of children’s learning to read through the explicit teaching of the basic principles of decoding (McCardle & Chhabra, 2004; Miller, Cutting, & McCardle, 2013; Miller, McCardle, & Long, 2014; Pugh & McCardle, 2009). While clearly supporting phonics principles, however, these results should never mean neglecting engagement with literature.
The problem is that neither evidence from science nor the experience of being unable to teach many children to reach functional literacy levels has proven sufficient to persuade many teachers who are bound by their allegiance to whole-language methods. In one of the best new overviews of research on reading, Mark Seidenberg (2017) memorably described these methods as “theoretical zombies that cannot be stopped by conventional weapons such as empirical disconfirmation, leaving them free to roam the educational landscape” (p. 271). Such a situation is a double waste: It wastes the unquestionably idealistic intentions of the whole-language teacher, and it thwarts learning to read for many children, especially those with reading or learning differences or dual language needs.
That said, neither Seidenberg nor I would ever take one minute away from the whole-language teacher’s time spent on bringing words, stories, and a life of reading enjoyment to children, as long as they do not preclude a systematic, informed approach to learning the phonemes of the language, the alphabetic principle, and decoding rules. From a cognitive neuroscience perspective, the repetition fostered in the latter approach provides children with the multiple exposures they need to learn and consolidate the rules for letters and their corresponding sounds and increase their knowledge of words, stories, and literature. Repetition fosters the growth of high-quality representations from phonemes and graphemes (letters) to word meanings and grammatical forms. As a very old teacher once said, “Most times, the lower rungs of a ladder are the best ones for learning to climb. I always hate to ask a child to jump to the top rung without them.” All of the rungs are important if we are to prepare children to become fluent readers who use both their imagination and their analytical capacities.
Furthermore, knowledge about the reading brain can help teachers of every method see what rungs in the ladder may be missing in how they teach children. The reading circuit activates everything it knows. So should our teaching during the entire 5- to 10-year age period. Within such a perspective, teachers of children from 5 to 10 years of age would give ample, explicit attention to every component of the reading circuit: from phonemes and their connections to letters; to the meanings and functions of words and morphemes (e.g., the smallest units of meaning) in sentences, to an immersion in stories that require ever more sophisticated deep-reading processes, and to the daily elicitation of the children’s own thoughts and imagination in speaking and writing.
Knowing how to introduce all children with their many differences to the reading life today requires as complex a set of knowledge bases as any engineer or rocket scientist is ever called upon to use.
In such a way, nothing relating to cognition, perception, language, affect, and the motor regions is neglected. Learning the meanings and grammatical uses of words in increasingly complex sentences is important in 1st and 3rd grades. Learning about new letter patterns that always reappear and help us figure out the meanings of words is important in both 1st grade and 4th grade. Over time — by the 3rd and 4th grades — these lower-level, basic circuit components need to be so practiced and automatic that children can turn their attention to ever more sophisticated comprehension processes, beginning with expanding their background knowledge and ending with the elicitation of their insights and reflections.
This is the basis of fluency and the best way of acquiring it (Katzir et al., 2006; Wolf & Katzir-Cohen, 2001). Fluency is not simply about the speed of decoding, an assumption that has led to the common but insufficient practice of having children reread a passage over and over again. Think back to the circus image: Each ring has to be fast enough in and of itself so that it can pass its information forward to the other rings. Only when each of the rings is fast enough to work in tandem with the other rings can time be allocated to comprehending what is read and having feelings about it, too.
We now have extensive evidence that an approach to reading that emphasizes all of these parts of the reading circuit benefits many children. A decade of randomized treatment-control studies (Lovett et al., 2017; Morris et al., 2012; Wolf et al., 2012) demonstrates that when the major components in the reading circuit are explicitly emphasized — the earlier the better — children become more proficient readers, even when they begin with significant challenges like dyslexia.
Further, as illuminated by new work published in English by Melissa Orkin, in Hebrew by Tami Katzir, and in Italian by Daniela Traficante, fluent reading involves knowing not only how words work but also how they make us feel. Empathy and perspective taking are part of the complex fabric of feelings and thoughts, whose convergence propels greater understanding.
Completing the circuit
Emphases on the multiple aspects of words are not only critical for fluent, proficient reading in the two-thirds of our children in the United States who are failing to achieve proficiency, they are the bridge that connects the decoding of words to deep-reading processes. Rereading the same stories and sentences over and over again is helpful practice for gaining speed on a particular text, but it will never prepare children to connect concepts, feelings, and personal reflections. Deep reading is always about connection: connecting what we know to what we read, what we read to what we feel, what we feel to what we think, and how we think to how we live out our lives in a connected world.
Stories are one of humanity’s most powerful vehicles for making lasting connections to people we will never meet. To feel like Charlotte about Wilbur’s plight in Charlotte’s Web, to identify with Martin Luther King Jr. in Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or with Ruby Bridges in Through My Eyes prepares children to empathize both with their neighbors and with people around the world or across the proverbial railroad tracks. Think about the ways you have been changed by fictional characters such as Celie in The Color Purple and Hamlet in Shakespeare’s play and the real lives of people such as Eleanor Roosevelt in her autobiography and James Baldwin in I Am Not Your Negro. Whatever our age, we can be changed by the lives of others if we learn to connect the whole of the reading circuit with our moral imagination.
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Ozernov-Palchik, O.E., Norton, E.S., Sideridis, G., Beach, S.D., Wolf, M., Gabrieli, J., & Gaab, N. (2016). Longitudinal stability of pre-reading skill profiles of kindergarten children: Implications for early screening and theories of reading. Developmental Science, 20 (5), 1-18.
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Wolf, M. (2007). Proust and the squid: The story and science of the reading brain. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Wolf, M. (2016). A neuroscientist’s tale of words. In Tales of literacy for the 21st century. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Wolf, M. & Katzir-Cohen, T. (2001). Reading fluency and its intervention. Scientific Studies of Reading, 5 (3), 211-238.
Wolf, M., Ullman-Shade, C., & Gottwald, S. (2012). The emerging, evolving reading brain in a digital culture: Implications for new readers, children with reading difficulties, and children without schools. Journal of Cognitive Education and Psychology, 11 (3), 230-240.
Note: Adapted from Reader Come Home: The Fate of the Reading Brain in a Digital World (New York, NY: HarperCollins). Copyright © 2018 by Maryanne Wolf. Reprinted here with permission from Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
Citation: Wolf, M. (2018). The science and poetry in learning (and teaching) to read. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (4), 13-17.