Teaching the brain to read

Teaching phonics to second and third graders with reading problems improves their reading skills by changing their brains to resemble good readers’ brain patterns, says a new study. Unfortunately, poor readers usually get poor remedial instruction that doesn’t change their skills or their brain activity, concludes a study by pediatrician Sally Shaywitz and neurologist Bennett Shaywitz of Yale University School of Medicine. Science News reports:

At the beginning and end of the school year, the investigators administered reading tests and functional magnetic resonance imaging scans to three groups of children, ages 6 to 9, attending school in New York or Connecticut. The brain scans were taken as each volunteer tried to identify written letters that matched spoken letters.

In one of the groups, 37 underachieving readers were given experimental tutoring that consisted of 50 minutes of daily, individual instruction in letters and combinations of letters that represent speech sounds called phonemes. The lessons also focused on development of fluency in reading words, oral reading of stories, and spelling.

Another 12 deficient readers received standard remedial reading and special education programs in their schools. These students didn’t receive explicit instruction in learning to recognize how letters correspond to phonemes.

A third group, this one consisting of 28 good readers, received regular classroom instruction.

At the end of the school year, only poor readers in the experimental program showed marked gains in reading accuracy, speed, and comprehension, the researchers report in the May 1 Biological Psychiatry. Good readers still exhibited the strongest literacy, but the poor readers who received phonetically based instruction had closed the gap considerably.

After poor readers completed the experimental program, their brains displayed pronounced activity in several of the same left-brain areas that are active when good readers do reading-related tasks. In an earlier study of poor readers, Sally Shaywitz and Bennett Shaywitz found that one of those neural regions remains inactive as these kids grow up. Preliminary evidence from other researchers indicates that this structure, located near the back of the brain, fosters immediate recognition of familiar written words and is thus crucial for fluent reading, Sally Shaywitz says.

A year later, the benefits in reading skills and brain activity persisted for children in the phonics program.

Via Brian’s Education Blog.

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  1. Two Tone says:

    I learned how to read using phonics and it always seemed to me that “Whole Language” reading, where you’re taught to recognize entire words and associate them with pronunciations and meanings, was akin to pictographic reading (e.g., Chinese characters) where you memorize symbols which represent words or concepts. This strikes me as a radical departure from what I’ve come to believe was a core approach in American education for decades. As such, I would expect that powerful evidence would have had to be presented to justify the radical departure to Whole Language.

    Was powerful evidence ever presented? If not, it means that Whole Language was adopted on what amounts to a whim, a wish or a hunch.

  2. JimInNOVA says:

    What I’d really like to see is a group of “good” readers on a phonics-based program, to see if it makes them better readers as well. It would be a good excuse to junk “whole language” entirely instead of just in special ed and remedial classes.

  3. Rita C. says:

    Although there are aspects of whole language that I do not like, most kids do well with a combination of whole langauge and phonics, so junking it entirely would be just as bad as relying on it exclusively.

    One of the things reading theory is based on is teaching kids who are poor readers to read like good readers. We’ve observed what good readers do, so we try to teach poor readers to do the same thing. This study is suggesting something else entirely — teaching poor readers differently than good readers in order to make them resemble good readers. Cool study.

  4. I think the “evidence” for whole word reading was that good readers recognize most words as a whole and don’t spend much time looking at individual letters or sounding words out. The trouble is, this totally ignored the process by which children become good readers. In my case at least, it definitely involved learning phonics and sounding out a lot of words until I learned to instantly recognize them, then getting a bigger book with more words and repeating the process. At home, because while the school taught phonics well, it also presented us with boring and inane books to read.

    Without phonics, a child will be stuck everytime she runs into a word that she has forgotten or that is new. Reading will remain a painful struggle instead of a joy, and no one will ever get that poor child to read enough to become good at it.

  5. Rita C. says:

    One of the great errors many people make is extrapolating how you personally learn to everyone else. I’m sure you’ve looked at all the studies, taught reading, etc. to support your assertion that children taught using whole language are doomed to find reading painful for the rest of their lives.

  6. Margaret says:

    Well, Rita, don’t kill me, but I’m going to extrapolate from what I’ve seen watching my kids learn to read. Four of them are old enough at this point to have been through at least part of “the process.” My first three kids all basically learned to read by osmosis. Some combination of lots of reading aloud at home, Sesame Street, and whatever basic ABC’s they got in pre-school (3 hrs/day, 2 days/wk) had them reading before entering kindergarten. I don’t think the public school they attended placed a particularly heavy emphasis on phonics, but it didn’t really matter because they already grasped the matter of sounding out words and had a large, growing sight-word vocabulary.

    Contrast with my newest reader, who entered kindergarten this year not even recognizing all of his ABCs, never mind knowing what sounds they made. Lucky for us we are in a different public school now, where there is a heavy emphasis on phonics, particularly at the K level. He has gone from no reading to reading at the “graduation” level to move on to first grade this fall. If my other kids had been in this same class they probably would have been a bit frustrated by such “easy” work. I suspect, however, that my current kindergartener would have really floundered without the intensive phonics. Reading with him the first few months of kindergarten was a pretty painful experience, because he simply didn’t have the full repertoire of letters/phonemes. I kind of shudder to think how long that painful period would have dragged on for if he hadn’t received all the ongoing, explicit phonics instruction in school… This is not to say that whole language does or doesn’t have a place, but I am convinced that at least some portion of the population (and not just kids coming from unstimulating, non-literate home environments) really need phonics to get them started reading. It’s not the end, but it’s an essential beginning for some kids.

  7. Rita C. says:

    We agree completely, Margaret. My kid was exactly the opposite of your youngest. She was in a phonics-only program and wasn’t learning to read at all. I moved her to a different school, which uses whole language. In a year, she has jumped 4-5 grade levels and is now in the 97th percentile on the Terra Nova. If we shelved phonics, your kid would be disserviced, if we shelved whole language, my kid would be. It’s not about the politics of methodology. It’s about the kids. Serve them all.

  8. Fuzzy Rider says:

    I think this is the real danger in centralizing everything in education. EVERYBODY is different, and each learns in his/her own way. All of our ‘reforms’ seem to be efforts to cram everyone into a particular learning system to the exclusion of all others.

    The same applies for teachers. Each teacher has an individual style, yet the effort of the ‘reformers’ seem to work toward homogenizing instruction along with curriculum. In my neck of the woods, and in my subject (mid-school science), there seems to be a concerted effort to suck out everything interesting from the topic, all in the name of good test scores.

  9. Two Tone,

    The “pictographic” nature of Chinese characters is a myth which I debunk in this post:



    What do you see as the problems of whole language and phonics methodologies? markm, though in favor of phonics, pointed out that he had “boring and inane books to read.” I learned to read by osmosis before I went to school, so I can’t speak from personal experience about either method.

    As someone who has formally studied over a dozen languages and who has tried to teach himself to read many more, I must say that phonics is the only way to go for adults learning how to read foreign language. Without sufficient input (e.g., what one might find in an immersion program for kids), one has to learn systematic sound-symbol correspondences, exercise massive memory power (some can pull that off), or sink.

    Some time back, I read an anecdote by a woman who learned how to read French through phonics (and French spelling, of course, is almost as bad as English) as a student and who claimed that she had an easier time reading French than her native English. (By reading I assume she meant “sounding out” rather than “comprehension” since I doubt her French was near-native.)

  10. Tom West says:

    I think that Rita has made the most cogent point. There is no *best* method for *all* children. A combination (though I suspect more heavily weighted towards phonics) is the only technique that isn’t going to do a disservice to our children. Besides, in the end, we’re all whole word readers until we encounter a word we don’t know, in which case we’re all phonetic readers.

    As for me, I’ve one child that is a fantastic phonetic reader and the other just doesn’t grasp the “sound-out” principal. The only thing he doesn’t like about reading (which he does reasonably well for a kindergartener) is that I keep trying to ram phonics down his throat when if I’d just tell him the word, he’d have it memorized… (What I’d give for that sort of memory :-))

  11. Tom, I went through the same struggle with my now-6yo. She wanted to learn to sight-read, and even now that she is reading at a 3rd-grade level refuses to sound out large words. She has a great memory, like I used to before brain-altering drugs took the edge off of it. Because I know the impermanence of memory and the importance of conserving it for bigger tasks coming up in the future, I am insisting that she learn phonics as well. It is a constant struggle to get her to learn to sound out large, unfamiliar words. She has definitely benefited, though, from learning phonics by the Spalding method at school.

  12. Tim from Texas says:

    Both whole language reading and phonics can be useful. But why must we always invent the wheel or reinvent the wheel. There are two methods out there that other countries have been using with great success for years. These methods are the dictation and the reproduction. First, the dictation is mastered which leads into the reproduction.

    These methods,all at once, supplement and teach reading, writing, good penmanship, listening, grammar,syntax, punctuation,spelling and stretches the students attention span to the maximum, and all the while, the students are listening to good lessons and/or storys.

  13. Tim from Texas says:

    Oh, the dictation and reproduction teach and expand vocabulary as well. These teaching tools are just fantastic.

  14. Reading researchers have told me that good readers use phonics as their primary reading method. They’re very fast at it and it becomes effortless. Some kids pick it up quickly with little or no teaching; any method will work for them. Others need explicit teaching to learn phonics. Poor readers rely primarily on guessing words from pictures and context. They improve when taught phonics explicitly; those with phonological awareness problems need a lot of explicit teaching to learn phonics.

    Once kids know the phonics, they need to move on to reading more complex books and practicing comprehension techniques. If the good readers are stuck at the phonics level, they’ll get bored.

  15. I think phonics trains a part of the brain that is used in early development of reading skills. Once you learn to read and start recognition of larger words, phonics becomes so subjective that it seems as if you are ‘recognizing’ the whole word. But it’s quite possible that phonics has become almost intuitive, to the point that you don’t even realize you’re using it anymore.

    Some people are good at breaking things down into chunks (phonics) and then reinteegrating the chunks into a whole, and others can only absorbe the whole (whole language). By choosing one over the other, we do some portion of the children a disservice. I suspect that we do many more a disservice by not consistently teaching both to all children.

    Five out of my seven first-cousins have dyslexia, and the ones who have had phonics training have overcome it to the point that even they forget they have it. The two who didn’t but instead got only ‘whole language’ training are still poor readers; one dropped out of high school at 14 and the other at 15, and both are borderline functionally illiterate. (They both refuse to go to adult ed, either, because they’re afraid people will think they are ‘dumb’. Their mother (they’re brothers) is an elementary school teacher.

  16. Rita C. says:

    I think whole language is weak in teaching the big picture when it comes to grammar. Whole language tends to throw grammar concepts at kids whenever they come up in the text (look, this short story has two passive constructions in it, let’s do passives!) without explaining how grammar works as a system. I think that’s a major weakness, and it really shows in high school when composition starts in earnest.

    I think phonics is fine except that it just doesn’t work for some kids. As for learning to read “by osmosis” — sounds like a pretty good description of using whole language.