Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: dyslexia

What happens in the brain when we read?

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Image by Наталия Когут from Pixabay

If we are a fluent reader we have a massive number of words stored in the occipital lobe of the left brain, which takes just 1/6 of a second to recognize each word and we read smoothly and effortlessly.

But that only happens if we have learned to read by recognizing the sound made by each letter. If we have learned to read by memorizing each word individually, our brain frantically searches the word pictures stored on the right side of the brain, then switches to the left side to decide what the word means. 20-25% of the oxygen used by the body is used by the brain, thus we soon become physically tired if we struggle to read like this.

It may sound contradictory to say that using memory storage on the left side is somehow different from using memory storage on the right side. The difference is in how that memory was stored in the first place. When we learn to read by phonics, we are teaching the parietal lobe in the brain how to recognize the word and what it means. After the parietal lobe has decoded a word a number of times it downloads that word to the occipital lobe for instant retrieval whenever needed.

When we learn to read by whole word recognition it is like having the pictorial part of the brain, on the right side, take a snapshot of the word. That takes far more memory and makes it more difficult to sort out all the pictures to recognize the one that matches the word on the page. Yet this is the method by which reading has been taught in the public schools for 75 years or more.

There was a time when most people in Canada and the USA were fluent readers; the literacy rate was at least 95%. That was back in the day when everyone knew that phonics was the only way to teach reading. The change in the method of teaching reading has been accompanied by an explosion of illiteracy and learning problems.

It is said that 40% of children will pick up the letter-sound correlation even if it is not being taught. Another 30% will eventually catch on. The remaining 30% will be labelled with some kind of learning disability. Many methods have been invented to help them learn to read, with only minimal success. Almost all of these individuals could learn to read if they were given direct instruction in phonics. That’s the way it was done years ago.

Children who have difficulty learning to read are often diagnosed as being dyslexic. A very small percentage of these children actually have the neurological condition that makes reading difficult. Even for those, the only workable solution is intensive instruction in phonics. Some children complain that the lines of type do not march straight across the page but wander up and down. Often the real problem is that their eyes are searching desperately here and there for some clue as to what this word means and the eyes lose track of where they started out. The solution to this problem is phonics, perhaps aided by a ruler or card to hold under a line of type.

There are programs in use that claim to use phonics, but don’t. Any program that uses flash cards or other visual aids is not based on phonics. Pure phonics focuses solely on the letters with no other visual distractions. Once the sounds are learned, a child learns how to blend the sounds together to make words. Every word needs to be sounded out, every time it is encountered, until the brain is able to instantly recognize it. Most children progress very quickly at this.

With proper instruction in phonics boys and girls learn to read at much the same rate. Without that instruction, girls learn much more quickly that boys. It seems that the female brain is more intuitive or flexible. What this means is that with our current method of instruction in the public schools most girls become fluent readers and at least half of the boys will struggle. The great majority of functionally illiterate people in the English-speaking world are men.

Some of the behaviour problems exhibited by boys in school may simply be due to the fact that they struggle to read and find it difficult to understand what is being taught. All subjects in school are dependent upon the ability to read. When a boy acts out the usual response is to implement some kind of discipline or behaviour modification. Maybe helping them learn to read would be more effective.

The joys of English

Earlier this week, the sisters of our congregation had their last sewing day of the winter season. Why is sewing pronounced so-ing and not soo-ing? There is a word in the AV (KJV) Bible that is spelled shew. A lot of people pronounce it shoo, when it really should be sho; it’s just an old-fashioned way of writing show. A shoo is something that I wear on my feet, though to look at the way it is spelled (shoe) it seems like it should be pronounced sho.

These are the little things that trip us up in English. Since the language evolved from a mish-mash of five other languages (Celtic, Latin, Norse, German and French) there are frequent inconsistencies in spelling and pronunciation.

Some folks believe that this makes the learning of phonetics useless in learning to read English. However, 92% of the words in English conform to the rules of phonetics. It is much more effective to learn the rules of phonics for 92% of the words and memorize the remaining 8%, than to attempt to memorize 100% of the words in English. Yet that is the way our public schools teach reading.

The teaching of phonics was abandoned before I started school 66 years ago. Thankfully, my favourite toy was a set of alphabet blocks and through them , with minimal coaching from my mother, I learned to read almost by accident at the age of four.

It is said that roughly one third of children will pick up the sound-letter correlation very quickly, no matter how reading is taught. Another one third will take a year or two longer, but will eventually catch on. The reaming one third will be labelled as having a learning disability.

An article by Margaret Wente in the Globe and Mail five years ago described a private school in Toronto where children labelled with learning disabilities were quickly taught to read and gained confidence that helped them in other areas of their life. The head of this school says that the children were simply not taught to read in the public system.

There are enormous funds poured into dyslexia research and in developing methods to help dyslexic students learn to read. Some people doubt that there is such a thing as dyslexia; no visual or neurological cause has ever been discovered. This is not to deny that some physical or visual conditions may exist, but most dyslexic students experience dramatic recovery with the teaching of phonics. There is almost no dyslexia among people who speak completely phonetic languages, such as Hebrew or Korean. The massive increase in the diagnosis of dyslexia among English-speaking people occurred after schools stopped teaching phonics.

MRI studies show considerable activity in the left occipital lobe of people who are able to read quickly, smoothly and accurately. It appears that this is the area that stores information about the phonemes that make up language and make this information instantly available when reading. Those who struggle to read are shuttling information between different areas of the left and right hemispheres of the brain, but make very little use of the left occipital lobe. Approaches to reading which does not develop this phonemic awareness are the real cause of reading disabilities.

English has complex, puzzling, often hilarious inconsistencies. Yet learning it is child’s play.

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