How Children Learn to Read


This post is inspired by Maria Konnikova’s article in The New Yorker.

“You know where the color of your eyes came from, your facial features, your hair, your height. Maybe even your personality—I’m stubborn like mom, sloppy like dad,” Hoeft says. “But what we’re trying to do is find out, by looking at brain networks and accounting for everything in the environment, is where your reading ability originates.”

As I progressed through the LAUSD school system, I had to take countless standardized tests, including a yearly exam that measured my reading level. Many of my peers boasted a so-called high reading level–“I am at a twelve grade reading level,” one friend proclaimed proudly. She was a seventh grader at the time.  I was not at a twelve grade reading level when I was twelve. I wondered, why are some of my peers at a higher or lower reading level than me? Is it the frequency that we read? The types of material that we read? What could it be?

Cognitive neuroscientist and psychiatrist Fumiko Hoeft and her colleagues recently published a study that reveals the partnership between the scientific and environmental factors influencing a child’s reading capacities. Scientifically, they note the importance of white matter, “a neural highway in the brain,” through which information in the form of electrical signals travels from one part of the brain to another. As Konnikova says: “you see something, you give it meaning, you interpret that meaning.” There’s a notably large volume of pathways in the left temporoparietal, a center for phonological processing, speech, and reading. Environmentally, Hoeft and her team found that there is a crucial stage in school and at home at which the development of white matter is key to reading ability–that is, from kindergarten to third grade.

This brings us to one of the main questions that drives Hoeft’s work:

How should early reading education work?

As of right now, children traditionally begin with a foundation in phonological processing, or, more simply, sounds. This leads into phonics, decoding each sound into letters. And then, finally, automatic reading comprehension. This method does not work for all children–or rather, not all children learn how to read in this order. Some children master some aspects of reading and not others: a child may have trouble decoding certain sounds, but may excel at reading comprehension. Hoeft emphasizes that while some children may have difficulty with certain aspects of reading, they have the capacity to overcome these challenges and even become “superior readers.” This sort of resilience is credited to the executive function of the brain, the part of the brain that helps the individual achieve goals. Thus, Hoeft suggests that we focus on developing educational experiences that cultivate this executive function, teaching children not only the basics of reading, but how to overcome obstacles during that process.

This, to me, is an especially exciting approach to reading education. It promotes the personalization of teaching; it is a step away from the standardization of all things learning that so many schools have embraced. Ideally, this creative teaching style will inspire the development of creativity (as well as confidence!) among young students.

To read the full article, click here.

Post submitted by JoAnna 


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