In Getting to Know Your Child’s Brain, I note that the brain is not pre-programmed to learn to read. I want to expand on that a bit today.
Humans are programmed to communicate. We are very social beings, even if some of us prefer to interact with a few people, and some prefer to interact with many people. The number of languages being used in the world today is astounding…all stemming from the need to explain our needs and thoughts to others. When humans are born, their hearing is the most advanced of all senses. We are already listening to the sounds around us, using sounds to make meaning out of the new world. Vision is way behind!
At the neuropsychology conference in San Diego that I attended earlier this year, a paper about what parts of the brain are used during reading was presented. [For reference, it was “Universal brain signature of proficient reading: Evidence from four contrasting languages,” written by J. Rueckl, P. Pas-Alonso, P. Molfese, and many others.]
The authors were interested in what parts of the brain were used during reading, and if that changed with different languages. They included brain scans from people reading Spanish, English, Hebrew, and Chinese. The scans were amazingly similar. In fact, the “similarities outweigh differences, especially with respect to print/speech integration.”
The individuals utilized the visual parts of their brains as well at the auditory areas in all four languages.
Why would people use auditory areas to read? Apparently, since language begins with listening and copying what others say to us, our auditory processing is physically integrated with our understanding of the printed word. That is likely one reason why phonics is so important for learning to read, and is associated with strong reading skills.
We need to train children to associate auditory information with the symbols they see. It might also be the reason that I find it difficult to read when music is playing. As a musician, the music I’m hearing takes precedence over my auditory association with the words I am reading.
The authors of the paper found that less skilled readers could be differentiated from skilled readers by “the degree of print/speech integration in key LH [left hemisphere] circuits.” They went on to conclude that early speech and motor deficits in children made them more vulnerable to reading disabilities later.
Conclusion: Talk to your children…a lot. Use words at their level, but also words that you might feel are too difficult for them. That will help them progress in auditory language, which could help them be better readers later.
A child’s own speech also is associated with their ability to read later.
Note: when doing research with humans, we can never say there is a causal relationship. We can’t say “this causes that” because humans are so complex, there is no way to make a clear cause. We can say, however, that people who did “this” had a statistically more common occurrence of “that.” It’s all about relationships!
So we can say that children who learned to talk later than their peers had a higher occurrence of reading problems later on. Tests that measured children’s receptive (incoming) language and those measuring expressive (outgoing) language were both associated with reading outcomes. Strong receptive and expressive language was associated with strong reading.
Parents were asked to rate their child as an early, on time, or late talker. Then the children were given a test for reading words accurately. (They did not have to know the meaning.) The early talkers scored highest, the on time group was in the middle, and the late talkers had the lowest scores. Keep in mind these were large groups of children. There are always exceptions, but as a group, the early talkers were also better readers.
What we can take from this is that parents need to talk to their children, even from a very early age. And they also need to take time to listen. That isn’t always easy because young children are not necessarily efficient communicators and parents are busy. But time spent listening, even if it doesn’t seem like the child is saying much, is extremely important. They are developing important skills. Grandparents can really help here!
If your children are older, don’t give up. Children are resilient, and it is not impossible to make up for lost time! Reading opens many doors for all folks who are lucky enough to have that ability. Give your kids or grandkids the keys!
Tressa Reisetter has a new book out for parents:
Getting to Know Your Child’s Brain.
Here’s the link: