Jun 30, 2011 by Bill Jenkins, Ph.D.

Learning and literacy

Reading is a recent cultural invention. It is not a skill we are naturally programmed to develop like walking or vocalizing. It is a relatively recent development in human history estimated to be only about 6000 years old. The development of oral language in humans is believed to be nearly 300,000 years old.  Oral language is thought to have co-developed with the use of tools as both require complex motor control.

To quote from the recent book Reading in the Brain (Dehaene, 2009): "At this very moment, your brain is accomplishing an amazing feat­—reading. Four or five times per second, your gaze stops just long enough to recognize one or two words.  You are, of course, unaware of this jerky intake of information.  Only the sounds and meanings of the words reach your conscious mind.  But how can a few black marks projected onto your retina evoke an entire universe?" [i]   

In 2010, Stanislas Dehaene, et al. published a study which evaluated whether learning to read improves brain function, and also whether there are tradeoffs for such learning. [ii] In other words, does learning to read “occupy” a space in the brain that could or would be used for something else in our evolutionary past?

Dehaene and his research team have used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure how the brain responded to various stimuli, including spoken and written language, visual faces, houses, tools, and checkers in a group of literate and illiterate adults. Ten were illiterate, 22 learned to read as adults, and 31 learned to read as children.

In the end, their studies generated a number of fascinating conclusions. Literacy—no matter at what point in life the skill is acquired, in youth or as an adult—enhances brain response in three ways:

  1. It boosts the organization of the visual cortex. Located toward the back of the brain, this is the area that processes visual information.
  2. It allows the area of the brain responsible for spoken language—the planum temprale—to be activated by written sentences.
  3. It refines how the brain processes spoken language.

Granted, there is much more detail to understand behind these conclusions, and I certainly invite you to read the entire article. Still, for us as educators, these conclusions hold useful insights.

In being aware of how literacy is related to these other skills, such as speaking and visual processing, we can use this information as yet another tool to help us better understand what we can expect from our students, no matter their ages. If they come into our classroom able to read, we know that we can expect them to have greater capacity for speech. If they come in with fewer or no reading skills, we might want to be aware that they might have challenges in processing visual input. 

Given these conclusions, the more we can continue to develop technology solutions that can teach while detecting deficiencies and adapt to student needs“on the fly,” the better we will be able to individualize instruction, fill in gaps in learning and strengthen essential skills.

As these scientists continue their investigations and the research sheds more light on how reading affects brain processing, we as educators will continue to increase our abilities to make better targeted instructional decisions that will help every individual student achieve optimal success.

[i]Dehaene, Stanislas. Reading in the Brain . Penguin Viking Publishing. November, 2009.

[ii]Dehaene, Stanislas et. al. How Learning to Read Changes the Cortical Networks for Vision and Language. 2010.

Related Reading:

How Learning to Read Improves Brain Function

The Essential Nature of Developing Oral Reading Fluency