What Happens in Our Brains As We Learn to Read

HOW WE LEARN

Reading is an essential skill, required for almost anything we do. For most of us, it’s an almost magical transformation – learning the letters, sounding out the words, putting them together with ideas … and then … the wonderful moment we find ourself pulled completely into a book. We’re reading fluently! 

But not everybody learns to read easily. Some people struggle to recognize new words long after their friends have moved on to more advanced books. These people may be dyslexic.

Why does the magic of reading happen easily for some but not for others? To understand how we learn to read, we have to understand how we learn any new skill.

Different Hemispheres, Different Jobs

The brain is divided into two halves,called the right and left hemispheres. The two sides of the brain are connected. They share information and work together. The brain needs both sides to function well.

But the right and left hemispheres of the brain are good at different things. They process information in very different ways. Think of it this way: the right brain looks at the whole, “big picture”, the left brain works with a limited number of details. 

Right Brain Jobs

When we are just beginning to learn how to do a task, we do more of our thinking in the right hemisphere of our brain. The right hemisphere works with huge amounts of information from all the senses. It is slow and takes a lot of energy, but sees the big picture as it explores. For the right brain, anything is possible.

Left Brain Jobs

The left side thinks in details, is logical, analytical and fast. To do this, the left brain limits what it looks at. Streamlining options means more brain power for other thoughts.

People Have Unique Strengths

Some people are very good at using the skills and strengths of both sides of their brains. Others think more with one side or the other, either being more analytical, or more intuitive. Most people are strong in some areas and less so in others. 

Learning New Things

When we learn something new, the right and left brain hemispheres have different jobs. As beginners, we start off using both sides of our brains, looking at everything needed to get the job done. By the time we’ve become an expert at the task, we are only using the parts we need, stored on the left side of our brain.

So to learn something new, our brain has to: 

Left HemisphereRight Hemisphere

1) decide what it is we want to learn 

2) take in a lot of new information
3) figure out what’s important to get the job done
4) correct bits linked together

Experts Switch to Left

As the skill becomes automatic, the left hemisphere limits options and possibilities. Only the bits needed to do the job are linked together. We store the linked bits together in the left brain.

We do the steps over and over again. By repeating them, we get better at remembering which bits are important and which bits we can ignore. The more we practice, the more often the correct brain areas fire together, the stronger the connection, the better we get.  The linked bits have become one smooth thought. It’s like our brains create little apps that run when we want to do something. Psychologists call these scripts.

When we are done, our brains only need to run the last step in the left hemisphere. Very fast. Very efficient. This is why practice is so important in mastering a skill — we are teaching our brains to fire in the right pattern.

Illustration: a little of the brain firing on the left rear hemisphere and none on the right as a kid concentrates on playing X-box.

Brain Apps 

Most of the things we do in life follow these scripts. Brushing our teeth, walking to gym class, using a cell phone — all use scripts. 

Once we learn the scripts, our brains go to them first. The brain apps work really well most of the time. And they leave the brain enough processing power to have a conversation with your friend as you walk to gym class. 

How We Learn to Read

For most people, it’s the same with reading. Beginning readers: 

Left HemisphereRight Hemisphere

1) see the letters and hear the sounds

2) attach the sounds to the letters
3) practice putting sounds to groups of letters as words
4) create scripts for what the words mean – they become sight words. 

Fluent (Expert) Readers Use Left Hemisphere

Our amazing brains learn to recognize language in squiggles on paper, slowly at first, then with increasing speed as we store the information in the expert left hemisphere. Pretty soon most people can skip the first three steps when we read. We recognize each word and what it means on sight, and quickly move on to the next one. This frees up enough brain power to read easily, and we get sucked into the book. We are reading fluently!

Sidebar: Fluency

Fluency is when a reader is able to decode and remember a word easily enough that they have brain power leftover to understand the story. The end result of fluency is that wonderful feeling of being pulled completely into a book.

PROCESSING DIFFERENCES

Public domain

Do you see a bunny or a duck? Neither answer is wrong – they are just different. 

The reason you see a duck and your friend sees a bunny is that everybody’s brains process information differently.

It is the same with learning, including reading.

Learning Differences

Learning differences often show up in people as problems in school. In fact, you’ll often hear them called “learning disabilities.”

People with learning differences usually have average to above average intelligence. They just have trouble making sense of some skills that most of us take for granted. They see the world in a different way than people who learn easily.

But since the world is built for people who learn easily, people with learning differences face greater challenges.

Dyslexics Have Trouble Becoming Fluent Readers

Dyslexia is the most common learning difference. People with dyslexia struggle to become fluent readers. And not reading fluently can be an obstacle to overcome. 

WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?

Beginning readers use many areas on both sides of their brains to sound out words. Once they have learned a word, fluent readers use just a few areas on the left side to quickly recognize and remember it.

Dyslexics Have Different Brain Wiring

A hundred years ago, Samuel Orton, of the University of Iowa School of Medicine, realized that some children who had trouble reading had average to above average intelligence. Since then, researchers have proven that dyslexia can be a problem with any of the areas of the brain used in reading, or the connections between them. That explains why dyslexia looks different in every person who has it.

Dyslexic brain reading.

Dyslexics Stay On the Right

Sally Shaywitz, a researcher at the Yale Center for Diversity and Learning, has shown that one of the main problems for dyslexics is that their fast, efficient left-hemispheres have a hard time learning and remembering the scripts to recognize a word on sight. Dyslexics have a hard time switching to using just the expert left side where written-word scripts are stored. Instead, they use the right sides of their brains to sound out a word each time. 

People with dyslexia have to sound the words out many more times before they become sight words. This process takes more time and more brain energy. It is a slow and tiring way to read. 

THERE’S AN UPSIDE …

Dyslexics can learn to read. But they have to see a word many more times to learn it.

Right Brain Use May Make Dyslexics More Creative

The same traits that make it hard for people with dyslexia to read may make them awesomely creative. Because dyslexics have a hard time moving to the left hemisphere to read, they use the right side of their brains more than other people. The right side of the brain is associated with creativity. That means dyslexics may be more creative than non-dyslexics.

The brain has two halves.

Beginning readers use both sides of their brains 

Fluent readers use the left side of their brain 

Learn to limit possibilities

Sound out and remember words

Efficient experts

Limit options or possibilities by using scripts

Let the brain get sucked into written words

Read fluently

Dyslexic readers use the right side of their brain 

Creative 

Big picture

Cut to the gist of the idea

Reading is slow, not fluent 

But get very good at using creative right side 

Even better, dyslexics tend to be very good at cutting out the useless stuff, and getting to the main point, or “gist”. They can rearrange facts in their minds to come up with better solutions without worrying about what the “rules” are. They put the same facts together in fantastic new ways. People with learning disabilities literally see the world differently. They are the ultimate “outside-the-box” thinkers.

Connect the dots by drawing four straight, continuous lines that pass through each dot once, without lifting your pencil.

Conclusions

How we learn to read shows us a window into how our brains work. Everybody’s brain is wired a little differently. 

While most people learn to read easily, reading can be very hard for dyslexics. But it may give people with dyslexia a unique way of looking at problems. They often have the creative new “outside the box” ideas that can change the world!

Successful Dyslexics

Some of the most famous people in the world are dyslexic: Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Computers; Orlando Bloom, actor; Whoopi Goldberg, actor; Kiera Knightly, actor; Richard Branson, business entrepreneur, and founder of Virgin Group of companies; Anderson Cooper, TV anchorman; Steven Spielberg, producer of Star Wars, Transformers and Jurassic Park movies; Carol Grieder, Nobel Prize winner; Dav Pilkey, author of Captain Underpants; Ingvar Kamprad, founder of IKEA, Magic Johnson, star basketball player and businessman.

Courtesy: Steve Gustafson (aka Smerdis of Tlön) under Creative Commons license.

Solution: Think outside the box.

Published by Amy Law

Amy Law is a science geek. She feels about science the way some people feel about music, or art, or sports – a total and complete emotional connection. She thinks in science. For Amy, there’s nothing better than helping people see the beauty of science as she does. She loves to untangle a complicated subject into its parts, explaining it so that anybody can understand what’s happening. Let her show you her world...

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