The Brain and Reading: What Every Educator Can Gain from Neuroscience Research
Why can't Johnny read? When a student has difficulty reading and comprehending texts, educators may ask several questions to determine the nature of the problem. The teacher may ask if the student would benefit from whole-language or phonics instruction; whether the student can hear the sounds that are spoken; or whether the child comes from a home where parents have little or no literacy skill and there is a limited amount of dialogue.
Current brain research shows there are other factors educators should also be considering. For example, the amount of exercise students get may influence their performance. Research shows that exercise may have a positive effect on student reading. A study conducted at Naperville High School shows that students' reading improves when they get aerobic exercise and raise their target heart rate each morning (Ratey, 2008). Physical activity improves cognition, raises oxygen levels, and increases blood flow in the brain. It also causes the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter of pleasure and focus. It makes sense that students will perform better when they are more focused and enjoying the experience.
The teacher may also find that age could play a role in students' reading skills development. Neuroscience suggests that the angular gyrus, the brain structure that attaches letters to sounds, may not be developed until a child is between 5 and 7 years old (Wolf, 2007).
Students may experience difficulty in reading and comprehending texts for a variety of reasons; looking to brain research may help decipher some of these problems and help educators create more effective interventions.
Building Brain-Compatible Classrooms
Using information culled from recent brain research can assist educators in building brain-compatible classrooms.
According to Martha Denckla (Patoine, 2008), a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, reading problems should be labeled an "inconvenient difference." Her brain research has sparked an interest in the differences in neural pathways in children. The white matter, or myelin, that coats the axons of brain cells may be breaking down in some brains, causing difficulties in transmission of messages. This can affect the pathways to vision, sound, and comprehension. To help students with reading difficulties, educators should learn about these pathways and understand the consequences of each.
Research also shows participating in the arts may also aid students in reading and other skills development. Brain-compatible teaching follows the principles of using music and movement to help the brain form patterns. A three-year study by the Dana Foundation, Learning, Arts, and the Brain (2008), reveals that music training can help with reading: "Correlations exist between music training and both reading acquisition and sequence learning. One of the central predictors of early literacy, phonological awareness, is correlated with both music training and the development of a specific brain pathway" (vii).
Taking research and applying it in the classroom may seem challenging, but I believe that as teachers, we should be experts in our field. We need to understand the differences in our students' brains. We need to understand how to change brains and know what structures we might be affecting as we do this.
When educators understand brain-based teaching and stay abreast of current research and standard principles of the brain, they can have a positive effect on student reading ability. Brain-compatible teaching also requires that educators understand students' different learning styles, pay attention to students' emotional states, and provide continuous feedback to students.
Brain-compatible classrooms stimulate and motivate teachers and students. Along with the educational research, neuroscience has found its place in assisting and encouraging both struggling readers and normal readers as they are given more choices, more movement, and more understanding.
The Dana Foundation. (2008). Learning, arts, and the brain. New York/Washington, DC: Dana Press.
Patoine, B. (2008). Ready to read? Neuroscience research sheds light on brain correlates of reading. Retrieved November 6, 2008, from www.dana.org/media/detail.aspx?id=13124
Ratey, J. (2008). Spark: The revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain. New York: Little, Brown, and Co.
Wolf, M. (2007). Proust and the squid. The story and science of the reading brain. New York: Harper Collins.
Marilee Sprenger is a professional development consultant and author of several books on brain-based teaching, including How to Teach So Students Remember.