According to Hill for Literacy, about 66 percent of fourth-grade readers cannot read proficiently, which often translates into a growing achievement gap for these children. Why is reading such a difficult task to learn and teach? While humans are born with a natural ability for spoken language, reading is much different. In fact, Dr. Vera Blau-McCandliss, vice president of education and research at Square Panda, said that reading is a relatively new and unnatural phenomenon which she described in “Reading and the Brain.”
Reading requires two systems of the brain to connect. First, the brain has to learn the meaning of a letter, and then it has to combine that with spoken language. Bringing these two systems together is a key to becoming a skilled reader. In addition, the brain must learn to understand the meaning of written text and develop essential skills such as phonological awareness, working memory, executive control, and more. Most of this requires fundamental changes in brain organization, and there are four key processes to this.
1. Fine tuning visual brain areas for processing printed letters and words.
The human brain is wired to recognize that a right-side-up object is the same object if turned upside down. Therefore, it needs to learn to recognize that the lowercase letter “p” is completely different from the lowercase letter “b.” A Visual Word Form Area (VWFA) develops as this is learned, and research has shown that there is decreased activation in the VWFA in dyslexic individuals.
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2. Developing specialized and fast recognition of phonemes in language areas of the brain.
Once the brain understands letters, it drives another kind of specialization inside the language areas. It can now understand language not only at the level of the word itself, but at the much finer levels of the individual speech sounds. This function is critical for a child to link individual letters with their corresponding individual sounds, as opposed to learning spoken language as larger chunks of words.