I’ve just been to a fantastic conference in Perth, organised by the Dyslexia SPELD Foundation of WA. I missed the first one in 2017 because of a diary facepalm, and have been kicking myself and looking forward to this conference ever since.
I took my laptop, imagining I’d find time each evening to write a riveting blog post about the day’s new learning. Instead I kept going out for drinks with colleagues, sorry not sorry, but a room full of like-minded colleagues is an irresistible thing of beauty and a joy forever.
Then I was going to write a blog post on the plane, but found myself chatting to the nice and distractingly handsome young bloke sitting next to me, sorry not sorry again. Since then I’ve realised that any blog post that did justice to the whole conference would need to be about a kilometre long. So I’ve decided to just write a few posts about the best bits.
Learning is a process of neuronal recycling
French cognitive neuropsychologist Professor Stanislas Dehaene gave the opening keynote address of the conference. He firstly told us we should forget everything we’ve heard about the differences between the left and right brain.
Young children’s brains are astonishingly flexible and able to reorganise. There are twice as many synapses in a child aged one or two as in an adult. Synapses come and go all the time.
A child whose entire left hemisphere was surgically removed in infancy was still able to learn language and literacy more or less along the usual lines.
Learning to read = establishing a visual interface into the language system
When we learn to read, we establish a new visual interface into the language system. It develops in an area of the brain otherwise used to recognise faces and objects, but the cells (called voxels) in it are weakly specialised. When you teach children to read, you specialise voxels for words.
In the process of learning to read, the task of recognising faces and objects is partially displaced to the right hemisphere. The lack of this displacement is therefore also a marker of dyslexia.
This makes room for the creation of the Visual Word Form Area (VWFA), and the development of a whole new circuit for processing language visually. Learning to read increases the physical connections (myelination) between vision and language in the brain.
The VWFA develops in the same area in the brain, regardless of which language you speak.
Learning music or maths also reorganises your brain. Competition for neurons means that learning music shifts your VWFA slightly. Brain scans of mathematics professors looking at numbers and formulas appear different from scans of the brains of humanities professors on equal salaries looking at the same numbers and formulas.
The process of learning to read then changes the spoken language system.
It’s much harder to learn to read as an adult
The brain area that children typically re-purpose for reading has already been specialised for recognising faces and objects by the non-literate adult brain.
This makes it much harder to learn to read as an adult. We see this in the slow progress of most adult learners. It’s a bit too late for their brains to re-specialise.
It’s also harder to relearn reading if this skill is lost. A colleague of Dehaene’s had a small, specific stroke to the reading area of the brain and lost the ability to read. He was eventually able to relearn in a painstaking, letter-by-letter way, but not able to read fluently.
While neuroplasticity declines gradually over time, puberty is an important moment for the loss of brain plasticity.
Studying les enfants’ learning
France has a national phonics check to make sure children can read 50 simple words by the end of grade 1. This is not controversial.
To study brain area activation in children in Dehaene’s lab, they ask children to pretend to be astronauts going on an adventure in a rocket, and this helps them find going into a scanner to have their brains scanned fun, not scary.
Learning to read is at first very effortful. In their first year of learning to read, children’s brains light up a lot on scans during reading.
In the second year, skills are more automatised so there is lower activation.
Our brains have a mirror invariance system that allows us to recognise objects as the same, even though they look different from different angles.
We have to override this system when we learn to read, so we can perceive letters like p, q, b and d as different. This is difficult and takes time, which is why children often reverse letters.
Learning the different gestures involved in writing each letter allows us to surmount this problem.
The difference between novice and expert readers
Children need strong oral language in order to learn to read, including strong phonology (speech sounds) and a strong lexicon (vocabulary).
When they start school, teaching needs to focus first on phoneme-grapheme (sound-spelling) mappings, as this is the main route into reading.
These must be explicitly taught, as the concepts involved are very abstract. Children must relate the space of the written word to the time of the spoken word.
At first, graphemes must be consciously processed in a series/one by one.
As the learner’s skills and experience grow, the letters of a word start to be unconsciously processed in parallel/all at the same time.
This frees up the learner’s attentional resources to focus on the meaning of what is being read.
Dehaene says, “Reading is never global or whole word, especially not in children”.
Beginning readers engage in slow, serial decomposition of words, and skilled readers engage in fast, parallel decomposition of words.
This means it’s time to stop asking children to memorise lists of high-frequency words. Research has shown that whole word memorisation doesn’t help to create the brain’s reading circuit.
Attentional focus affects learning
A group of researchers (Yoncheva et al) taught two groups of adults to read an artificial script.
One group was taught to pay attention to the words as wholes (taught in a Whole Word way).
The other group was taught to pay attention to the graphemes and phonemes (sounds and letters) in the words (taught in a phonics way).
Only the group taught using the phonics approach were then found to have left brain activation when reading the script. The whole word group had right brain activation.
The group taught using a phonics approach were able to generalise what they had learnt to allow them to read new words written in the same script. The group taught to pay attention to whole words couldn’t do this.
Think about this. Intelligent adults did not deduce the alphabet from words, yet that’s what young children are often expected to do. Directing attention correctly sends information to the correct brain circuits.
The Rosetta Stone and reading comprehension
Whenever you train phonics you improve comprehension, because reading is a cipher.
Think of the Rosetta Stone. If you can’t decode it, you can’t understand it.
Developing adult-level language comprehension is a long-term process, involving vocabulary enrichment, understanding of complex referents and so on.
Once you can read, this changes your spoken language system. It gives you access to more and different language.
The importance of writing for reading
Our brains have a circuit which specialises for recognising writing gestures. There is a lot of evidence that reading improves when learning to write.
The research is very clear that reading and writing should be taught together. You can learn to type later on.
Daily practice and sleep are also very important for learning.
Want to find out more?
Reading in the Brain by Stanislas Dehaene is published by Penguin Random House. Highly recommended. I have a dog-eared copy, but in a weird, groupie way bought an extra copy I will probably never read for him to sign at the conference.
He also wrote a book called “Apprendre à lire: Des sciences cognitives à la salle de classe“, which my rusty high school French translates as “Learning to read: from cognitive science to the classroom”. I’m looking forward to the (apparently imminent) English translation.
In 2015 I wrote a couple of blog posts about Prof Dehaene’s work, one of which includes a link to a video of him giving a talk. They are here and here.