Explainer: how the brain changes when we learn to read



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Learning to read is not actually that easy.
from shutterstock.com

Nicola Bell, The University of Queensland

Right now, you are reading these words without much thought or conscious effort. In lightning-fast bursts, your eyes are darting from left to right across your screen, somehow making meaning from what would otherwise be a series of black squiggles. The Conversation

Reading for you is not just easy – it’s automatic. Looking at a word and not reading it is almost impossible, because the cogs of written language processing are set in motion as soon as skilled readers see print.

And yet, as tempting as it is to think of reading as hard-wired into us, don’t be fooled. Learning to read is not easy. It’s not even natural.

The first examples of written language date back to about 5,000 years ago, which is a small fraction of the 60,000 years or more that humans have spent using spoken language.

This means our species hasn’t had enough time to evolve brain networks that predispose us to learn literacy. It is only through years of practice and instruction that we have forged those connections for ourselves.

How the brain learns to read

Brains are constantly reorganising themselves. Any time we learn a new skill, connections between neurons that allow us to perform that skill become stronger. This flexibility is heightened during childhood, which is why so much learning gets crammed in before adolescence.

As a child becomes literate, there is no “reading centre” that magically materialises in the brain. Instead, a network of connections develops to link existing areas that weren’t previously linked. Reading becomes a way of accessing language by sight, which means it builds on architecture that is already used for recognising visual patterns and understanding spoken language.

Words and letters are initailly stored in the brain as symbols.
from http://www.shutterstock.com

The journey of a word

When a skilled reader encounters a printed word, that information travels from their eyes to their occipital lobe (at the back of the brain), where it is processed like any other visual stimulus.

From there, it travels to the left fusiform gyrus, otherwise known as the brain’s “letterbox”. This is where the black squiggles are recognised as letters in a word. The letterbox is a special stopover on the word’s journey because it only develops as the result of learning to read. It doesn’t exist in very young children or illiterate adults, and it’s activated less in people with dyslexia, who have a biological difference in the way their brains process written text.

Words and letters are stored in the letterbox – not as individually memorised shapes or patterns, but as symbols. This is why a skilled reader can recognise a word quickly, regardless of font, cAsE, or typeface.

Information then travels from the letterbox to the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain, to work out word meaning and pronunciation. These same areas are activated when we hear a word, so they are specialised for language, rather than just reading and writing.

Because information can travel so quickly across the skilled reader’s synaptic highways, the entire journey takes less than half a second.

But what happens in the brain of a five-year-old child, whose highways are still under construction?

Learning to read takes a lot of effort.
from http://www.shutterstock.com

The growing brain

For young children, the process of getting from print to meaning is slow and effortful. This is partly because beginning readers have not yet built up a store of familiar words that they can recognise by sight, so they must instead “sound out” each letter or letter sequence.

Every time children practise decoding words, they forge new connections between the visual and spoken language areas of the brain, gradually adding new letters and words to the brain’s all-important letterbox.

Remember, when a practised reader recognises a word by sight, they process the letters in that word, rather than its shape.

Literacy instruction can therefore support children’s learning by highlighting the symbolic nature of letters – in other words, by drawing attention to the relationships between letters and speech sounds.

Here, evidence from brain imaging research and educational research converge to show that early phonics instruction can help construct an efficient reading network in the brain.

What might the future hold for literacy development?

As technology evolves, so too must our definition of what it means to be “literate”. Young brains now need to adapt not only to written language, but also to the fast-paced media through which written language is presented.

Only time will tell how this affects the development of that mysterious beige sponge between our ears.

Nicola Bell, PhD student, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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How do we learn to read?



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The aim of all reading is comprehension.
from http://www.shutterstock.com

Misty Adoniou, University of Canberra

The sign on the public car park in the tiny Tasmanian town of Wynyard reads, The Conversation

Egress from this carpark is to be via the access lane in the rear.

“Egress?” I wondered.

As my 21-year-old son quipped, perhaps the council had called in the local duke to write its signs. Or at least the local lawyer.

I could say all the words on the sign with very little effort, and with impressive fluency.

That is called decoding.

I had to work a little harder to understand what the sign was saying.

That is called comprehending.

The aim of reading is, of course, comprehension.

In essence, debates around how to best teach reading have been about which comes first, the decoding or the comprehending.

Research concludes these debates are redundant because comprehension and decoding are codependent.

The federal government’s recent proposal, however, for a Year 1 Phonics Screening test – which tests a child’s ability to decode made-up words – appears to support the view that decoding comes before comprehension.

Comprehension, therefore, is deemed irrelevant – at least initially.

So who is right? The researchers or the politicians?

Let’s take a look at what the research tells us about how we learn to read.

Tackling unknown words

It was the first word in the car park sign that threw me. “Egress.”

I used my knowledge of how sounds map on to letters in English to decode it. However, because I couldn’t remember ever hearing the word said out loud, I wasn’t sure if I was decoding it correctly.

It might be EE-gress or ee-GRESS, EGG-ress, or egg-RESS. It is the first, apparently. I Googled it later.

In any case my decoding efforts didn’t help me understand what the word means. In order for decoding skills to be of any use in reading, children need an excellent vocabulary to which they can cross reference as they attempt to decode.

Tip 1: teach phonics through words already in the children’s vocabulary.

Building children’s vocabularies

Before we rush out and start teaching children lists of vocabulary, words in lists are not enough.

If someone had shown me “egress” by itself on a flashcard, I might have guessed it was a bird.

Luckily, “egress” was in a full sentence on a sign in front of a car park, and all of that context helped me comprehend the word.

Without context, words are just letters on a page. This is because all words in English are polysemic – they have multiple meanings depending upon the context.

The wind in my hair. My baby has wind.

And some words keep their spelling but change their pronunciation as well as their meaning.

I’d like to wind you up. I need to wind my clock. Why do I always **wind **up doing the dishes.

Tip 2: build your children’s vocabulary by talking and reading to them so that they encounter words in all their many and varied guises. Seeing a word in many different contexts is more important than just seeing the word flashed at you many times.

Grammar matters

The grammar of the parking sign in Wynyard also helped my comprehension.

I had figured out from the context that “egress” meant either entry or exit.
I hear a lot of language so I understand how words “collocate” in English – that is, how some words always hang out together grammatically. My experience with the language meant I knew that we exit “from” and enter “into”.

The more we hear and read real language, the more we learn about how word order works in English.

Tip 3: teach reading through real books with real language so that children learn the rhythm and patterns of English grammar.

Experience counts

I relied on my experience as a driver to look around and see that a median strip in the road would make “egress” from the front of the car park tricky. Life experience helps us read too.

If I write I live in a studio apartment in San Jose, your interpretation of where I live will depend upon whether you understand a studio apartment to be a basement bedsit, or penthouse bachelor pad. It will depend on whether you understand San Jose to be an affluent tech hub or an working class industrial city.

The words alone cannot carry all the meaning of my message. You bring your life experience to the task of reading my words.

Tip 4: give children lots of real life experiences and talk to them about what they see. Trips out and about, and chats about things beyond their everyday environment are important.

Are we giving poor readers the help they need?

Good readers have a full repertoire of skills, each dependent upon the other.

  • They have excellent oral language and a wide vocabulary. They know what words mean and this helps them decode.

  • They can decode and this helps them locate the word in their existing vocabulary.

  • They know the structure of English through exposure to authentic complex written and spoken language.

  • They use rich life experiences to support their comprehension of written texts.

Poor readers need all of these skills too. Yet our interventions for poor readers typically only address one skill – decoding.

Our declining results in international tests of literacy show us that our 15 year olds can decode but they can’t comprehend.

Until we pay full attention to all the other reading skills, the decline will continue.

Misty Adoniou, Associate Professor in Language, Literacy and TESL, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Is there a right way to learn to read?


Emily Harrison, Birmingham City University

Phonics teaching in UK primary schools is rightly recognised as giving children the essential building blocks needed to become successful readers. Indeed, we are so pro-phonics that little is done to raise awareness about other methods, even those which might be seen as an accompaniment to phonics, not a replacement for it.

Schools tend to stick to what they know and, with more and more demand being put on teachers to raise standards and achieve excellent Ofsted reports, there is little in the way of “free time” to be allocated to testing out new methods, even those aimed at children who have had phonics training but who still have reading difficulties.

Phonics is based on training children’s “segmental phonological awareness” (that is, raising their awareness of letters and sounds and teaching them segmenting and blending skills). But there is a second part to phonological awareness known as “suprasegmental phonology”. It refers to the rhythmic components of spoken language that accompany the segmental elements, such as stress placement, intonation or pitch, and timing.

Phonics teaching in practice.

There is a growing body of evidence which supports the idea that awareness of, or sensitivity to, these rhythmic components is related to reading at various levels, including reading acquisition, comprehension and, more interestingly, reading difficulties. What this means is that children who have reading difficulties also tend to have poor speech rhythm sensitivity – and the better a child’s speech rhythm sensitivity is, the better their reading skills tend to be.

Surely, if we can somehow improve childrens’ speech rhythm sensitivity, their reading skills will also improve, right?

During my time at Coventry University, this question interested us enormously, yet there was no intervention that had attempted to train children on their awareness of speech rhythm as a possible way of enhancing literacy skills. So we set about designing a set of materials to help children gain better awareness of these rhythmic elements of spoken language.

We wanted the intervention to be suitable for children who were non-verbal – that is, children who do not speak, whether this is due to a disorder or just shyness – as well as children across a range of ability levels, so we decided on a picture and sound format, where children were presented with a picture card and a corresponding prerecorded audio sound for each item. This meant that children didn’t have to give a verbal response and that the format of delivery was repetitive to ensure some level of understanding between sessions. The intervention was designed to run for ten weeks, giving time for pre and post-test assessments to be administered within a school term.

We ran two experiments, one with reception children, age four to five years of age, who were just starting to learn to read – and one with children in year three, aged seven to eight years, who were falling behind in their reading. In each study, the intervention was compared to a traditional phonological awareness intervention and a control.

Reading rhythms

The results were very promising. In both the beginners and the older struggling readers, the speech rhythm intervention resulted in significantly greater gains in reading than the control intervention. This means that speech rhythm training is effective both at the beginning of reading tuition and once children have already received some formal training.

One of the things that interested us most is that the children in the second study were categorised as being struggling readers. For the speech rhythm intervention to work for these children is heartening and important. It means that this could be an alternative way in to teaching these children the skills they need to become successful readers.

Two papers describing similar findings, supporting the notion of speech rhythm training in struggling readers, have also since been published. However, there are no other studies to date which have investigated the effects of such training methods for beginner readers.

What our research adds is that speech rhythm training can also be effective in children who have yet to receive formal reading tuition, meaning that it can be implemented effectively from the start of primary education.

This is an exciting prospect for reading researchers – and it opens many doors for further investigation. It also has the potential to significantly improve reading instruction in schools – and will in fact soon be doing so, through a new programme which incorporates this speech rhythm sensitivity training.

The Conversation

Emily Harrison, Lecturer in Applied Psychology, Birmingham City University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

What Shakespeare Play Should I Read?


The link below is to an article/infographic that looks at determining which Shakespeare play you should read.

For more visit:
http://ebookfriendly.com/shakespeare-plays-flowchart/

Puritan Works Available to Read Online


The link below is to an article that outlines some great Puritan works available to read online for free – a great resource.

For more visit:
http://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/justintaylor/2016/01/12/j-i-packers-rare-puritan-library-now-digitized-to-be-read-online-for-free/

10 great books that all children should read


Belle Alderman, University of Canberra

The books we remember strongly as adults are often the ones we read as children. Not only do we remember particular books, but the emotions we experienced.

Children’s books are reread and remembered over a lifetime, and many authors believe their best writing is for children.

Rereading favourites is a good thing. With each rereading, deeper meanings emerge and understanding becomes richer.

Reading books aloud, and being read to, is also important, with research pointing to enhanced levels of brain activity for children who are read to before bed. Some research even recommends reading to a child from birth to help stimulate brain development and build language, literacy and social-emotional skill.

For young people, reading fiction can provide excellent training for developing and practising empathy and understanding how others feel and think.

Here is a selection of some of the best books to share with your child over the festive season on the topic of family and friends:


Penguin Books Australia

1. Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes by Mem Fox and Helen Oxenbury

(Penguin Books Australia, 2008)
Age: 0-2 years

Fox’s exuberant rhythm, rhyme and repetition feature in a short 148-word story, making it perfect read to aloud for babies. The book features eye-catching watercolour illustrations and a series of fun activities, including counting fingers and toes and an end game of a kiss on the nose.


Goodreads

2. Over the Hills and Far Away: A Treasure of Nursery Rhymes from Around the World by Elizabeth Hammill

(Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 2014)
Age: 0-6 years

A collection of nursery rhymes should be in every home. They are perfect for dipping into from birth and throughout the preschool years. This one features a multitude of enticing brief stories from different cultures, rhymes honed to perfection, and rich illustrations by 77 of the world’s best illustrators.


Australian Picture Books

3. Bear and Chook by Lisa Shanahan

(Hodder Headline Australia, 2002)
Age: 2-5 years

Bear and Chook are close friends, loving and patient with each other’s eccentricities. Bear is adventurous and accident-prone. Chook is cautious and careful. As friends, they have an immense respect for each other. A perfect combination of rollicking, rich and enticing read-aloud language and humorous, touching illustrations.


Enchanted Lion Books

4. The Lion and the Bird by Marianne Dubuc

(Enchanted Lion Books, 2013)
Age: 3-7 years

The text says little. The illustrations are minimal. Yet we experience an immense satisfaction in this deep friendship between Bird and Lion. Lion nurses Bird back to health after an injury, and they share winter together. With spring’s return, Bird must leave and Lion is alone again. The illustrations convey the seasonal cycle, and we cheer as Bird returns. A powerful story of friendship with perfect images that linger.


HarperCollins

5. The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt

(HarperCollins, 2013)
Age: 4-10 years

A highly original, quirky and funny story for sophisticated readers. Duncan reaches for his crayons, but instead finds they have left him handwritten letters. They have quit their jobs as crayons and complain bitterly. Purple laments Duncan colouring outside the lines. Grey is tired of colouring large objects like elephants. Black wants to be more than an outline. Duncan finds a clever solution to remain friends with his crayons.


Penguin Books Australia

6. Herman and Rosie by Gus Gordon

(Penguin Books Australia, 2012)
Age: 4-10 years

An unlikely pair explore the meaning of friendship, loneliness and life in the big city in this unforgettable, multi-layered picture book. Herman, a crocodile, and Rosie, a deer, each lives alone on different floors of the same New York apartment block. They do not know each other, but they have common interests in music and both love films about the sea. Music brings them together when each loses their job. This story reveals the importance of friendship and belonging in understated elegance with quirky, whimsical illustrations.


Goodreads

7. My Two Blankets by Irena Kobald

(Little Hare Books, 2014)
Age: 4-10 years

A young girl arrives in Australia unable to speak English. She wraps herself in her familiar blanket woven with cultural familiarities. A girl in the park befriends her and together they share experiences and language. Gradually she relinquishes her blanket, realising that her culture comes from within. A moving story for exploring cultural similarities and differences.


Goodreads

8. Animalium by Katie Scott and Jenny Broom

(Five Mile Press, 2014)
Age: 5+

Animalium explores the animal kingdom with clarity, precision, excitement and highly detailed illustrations. Excellent features include its large size, sumptuous layout, tantalising questions and answers, clever analogies, multi-layered information and detailed index. Seven sections cover brief differences and commonalities, environment, food and behaviour. A perfect coffee table book for sharing among the family.


Bloomsbury

9. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (illustrated edition) by J K Rowling

(Bloomsbury, 2015)
Age: 6+

Harry Potter appeals to all ages, making the series of seven books an ideal family sharing experience. The unique aspect of this book is its copious illustrations, which capture mood, magical moments, unique characters and above all a sense of other-worldliness. This illustrated edition is the perfect opportunity for families to share a reading aloud experience with bonus images.


Philip Pullman

10. His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman

(Scholastic Books, 1995)
Age: 10+

His Dark Materials trilogy is a contemporary epic high-fantasy adventure with lyrical writing, highly original, memorable characters and a story with dazzling originality. It is the perennial story of pure evil and angelic good, of bravery and courage and inventive ideas rarely explored with such conviction and believability. A great book to share with the family.

The Conversation

Belle Alderman, Emeritus professor of children’s literature, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.