Thursday, January 01, 2009

Brain pathways for reading

As an educational consultant who helps parents find books for their children, the number one question I'm asked is "what can we do because our child is having such difficulty with reading?"

First of all, let me say the problems with reading are not usually a weakness or learning disability of the child, rather it points to the methods and process of how and when the child has been exposed to the reading in a relational way, specifically the written word. Before we point blame at educators, parents, or pass the problem off on a disability, lets note that the experts in the field of reading education have always said -- they all catch up around 5th or 6th grade.

Quite a generalized statement -- too bad it doesn't come with an explanation. I will attempt to explain -- This great 'mystery' of teaching reading has everything to do with the brain development of the child from birth until the day they show up in the classroom. This place in time is sometimes referred to as "The Window of Opportunity" and I will do a follow up post on specifics.

The early or late factor is actually about the types of experiences the child has with words and books long before he ever walked through the doors of a school!

So for starters, the truth is children do eventually catch up. For some it doesn't take all that long, for others it may seem to take forever, the bottom line is -- so long as they have an interest in reading.

This is all about timing. The debate goes round and round over when to formally begin to teach reading. Lets look at how the brain develops to see when the optimum time for learning to read is easier vs more difficult. Early or late, a child can and will learn to read.

Babies learn spoken language and understand it long before their ability to speak. The same is true for sign-language. But in general, no one seems to think that the written word can be understood as early, well why not?

Speech Language Pathologists will tell you that if there is obstruction of the hearing mode, it directly affects speech development. The brain wires the phonemic sounds of the native language during these crucial first 2 years of life. So if hearing or seeing are affected, then, these two channels of mapping the brain are vital to creating the infrastructure that reading depends upon.

Brain research has discovered that the neurons in the brain at birth are firing off up to 1,000 trillions of connections a second. It basically records channels to everything it gets exposed to. Heat, cold, quiet, loud, bright dark. All the senses provide the input. Seeing, Hearing, Smell, Taste, Touch, etc. When those things are not involved, the channels available for those tasks drop of significantly.


This process is all about the amount of time the brain synapses are exposed to the various elements of reading (there are 4 major pieces) and WHEN, (early or late) in their brain development this exposure takes place. The more frequently those passageways are used to connect useful information, (the phonemic coding, letters, sounds, and their combinations into words) this process links together into a complex neural network from which their ability to read will emerge.

Its all about exposure and repetition.

This process the brain creating this network, from which the process of learning to read comes from can done be over a short period of time (when exposed to the pieces, in a relational way early) , or can take a very long time (when this relational exposure is done later.) This depends upon when in their brain development this 'building project' is being specifically happening.

Children are born, wired for learning -- more so from birth and significantly less by age 5. Ninety percent of a 5 year old child's neural network is formed, and the synaptic activity for mapping learning activity has dropped off significantly. Learning to read later means the brain has to work through this lower synaptic activity channel. It also relates to where the brain decides to put the reading center, and the distance it is, from the language center of the brain.

If the neural network has not been exposed early to the phonemes and their relational symbols and combinations, the resulting network has to go a greater distance to connect the information.

It is therefore a process of exposure and repetition. Early exposure requires less repetition to form the process of reading fluently than late exposure, which will require more exposure and time to end up with a similar result of fluent reading.


Reading can be a playful, fun and engaging process.

What is essential to the late reader, involves the need for them to be inspired (either from outside himself or from within.) The inner drive and motivation which comes through inspiration plays a major role in being a driving force to work through any challenge. When their own personal desire to learn gets fired up, then their motivation to do the work necessary (mentally) that the subconscious brain will connect the dots. Forcing the idea that a child must read by a certain age, expecting them to perform when they just aren't really ready to do so, tends to backfire in the whole process. When they avoid, the subconscious brain will slow the process down, and causes it to take longer.

Are their playtime activities associated with connecting the dots to the pieces of reading, words and sounds together, written word and action together, etc? Most young children today are amused by the TV/Videos that do not offer much, if little of any relational meaning, most of it not at all, which delays this process significantly. (media watching is a passive brain activity, learning to read and reading is an active brain activity.)

Other factors involved was the infant talked to with regular spoken language--(rather than baby talk i.e. mispronunciations because they sound 'cute' -- ask any speech language pathologist and they can tell which families actually speak to their babies, vs those that either don't talk at all or talk incorrect spoken language, they can identify the affects of temporary hearing loss from chronic ear infections.) The vocabulary of the understood language of children is also a base from which the brain uses for phonemic cataloging.

Learning with fewer sensory wired modes, takes twice as long, or worked more frequently compared to the same time one would learning with significantly more sensory modes over a shorter period of time.

As parents, the bottom line is, we must ensure to show joy in the process of learning. Young children can learn to read naturally and easily so long as they are exposed to the linked elements in a fun, engaging and playful way.

Remember a babies work is his play. Engaging the older child in various forms of "play" with the educationally rich materials he is bound to learn to read so long as we don't treat the process as a chore. Realize the subconscious, will resist when forced to perform in a manner it is not ready to.
When the child exhibits his will to tackle a problem he can overcome it -- personal drive and motivation play a significant part in the learning curve of the older learner.

Just like learning to play a musical instrument. The earlier the exposure, physical experience with and the amount of practice with it all affect the individual's ability to learn quickly and achieve mastery.

I like to think of reading as the musical score of our spoken language.