Dyslexia and the Reading Brain

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When I was a boy, I loved taking mechanical things apart. All the moving parts that created a functioning clock, watch, radio, and so on just fascinated me. I was always amazed that something so small could contain so many tiny moving parts that all worked together to do something meaningful.

I still love understanding how things work. For the last ten years or so, I’ve been especially interested in studying brain science, especially as it relates to dyslexia and other conditions that impact learning.

A photo of the inner workings of a pocket watch, showing many tiny gears and screws. Modern imaging techniques let us see into the brain, so we can learn about Dyslexia and the Reading Brain.

As it turns out, learning to read requires multiple parts of the brain to work harmoniously together to turn our natural gift for spoken language into a decoding system for the written word. And as many of you know, the more “moving parts” something requires, the more finely tuned the machine must be to stay on task.

Taking apart an alarm clock is one thing; peering into the human brain is something else entirely. Thankfully, we live in a time when medical imaging tools such as fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging), PET scans (Positron Emission Tomography), and SPM (whole-brain statistical parametric mapping) can watch the brain work while a person is performing a task such as listening or reading.

What have all these high-tech gadgets revealed?

Brain Anatomy Lesson

There are at least four major parts of the brain involved in learning to read and that play a role in the effect of dyslexia on the reading brain.

The first is the frontal lobe of the brain, located behind the forehead. This massive front part of the brain is responsible for helping us produce speech. It is also responsible for comprehension, understanding of grammar, and reading fluency.

Next, if you picture a pair of over-the-ear headphones, they would be sitting over the part of the brain known as the temporal lobe. Part of the temporal lobe’s job is to process the sounds we hear. The term for this is phonological awareness or phonological processing. Each of those terms means an awareness of and an ability to work with sounds in the spoken language environment. The temporal lobe needs to be very discriminating. So many sounds in language are similar to each other, and each one must be differentiated in order for us to learn language.

Finally, if we had a couple of cherries balanced atop our headphones, those would be roughly where the supramarginal and angular gyrus reside, above and slightly behind the temporal lobe. Together, these two areas comprise the inferior parietal lobe. These brain areas process spoken and written language by integrating all the necessary processes. They help us remember what each letter of our alphabet looks like when written, sounds like when spoken, and how the different letters can blend to make different sounds. These parts of the inferior parietal lobe also generate emotional responses.

Multiple studies (there are links to two of them at the end of this blog) point to some common denominators in dyslexic students. Across the board, dyslexic learners seem to face a challenge with phonological processing (the awareness of the sound structures of words). And a significant subgroup of dyslexics also has a disruption in connectivity between the four parts of the brain needed to learn to read, which greatly slows the speed at which sounds can be processed.

Several color-coded diagrams mapping different areas of the brain and the abilities they control or affect. Modern imaging techniques have helped us learn more about dyslexia and the reading brain.

How to Nurture the Reading Brain

While more studies still need to be done, just knowing about the importance of supporting your child’s phonological processing is a good place to start. How can that be done?

Read, read, read together. Expose your child to all sorts of books, stories, rhymes, and audiobooks.

  • Don’t be afraid to use big words around your child, or to read books together that will broaden their vocabulary. The more vocabulary words introduced to a child before they start school, the better. See my blog: Use Big Words with Your Kids
  • When working with your child, help them learn the sound of each letter of the alphabet, using repetition to help them connect the visual of lines on the page to the sound the letter makes.
  • Help children learn to break words into syllables as early in life as possible. Songs and poems are great ways to help them learn this skill, even when they are very young.

If you would like more information about dyslexia and the reading brain, here are the source links for the studies mentioned in this blog:

A banner that reads October is Dyslexia Awareness Month. The multiple deficit model of dyslexia means looking for potential multiple contributing factors to dyslexia.

Thanks for reading about Dyslexia and the Reading Brain. October is Dyslexia Awareness Month! For a thorough discussion of dyslexia, you may enjoy the second edition of my award-winning book Raising a Child with Dyslexia: What Every Parent Needs to Know, available in softcover, hardcover, eBook, and audio. In addition to facts on testing and accommodation, my book gives you the tools to provide the social and emotional support children with dyslexia require. The second edition has the same great content as the first edition but now contains a very helpful bibliography and index and an exciting new cover.

Cover of Raising a Child with Dyslexia: What Every Parent Needs to Know by Don M. Winn. Cover shows the silhouetted heads of a parent and child facing each other. Instead the brain area of each silhouette is an outline of a maze. The two mazes are connected by a white line leading to the center of the brain maze of the parent and child.

And to learn more about how every student best learns to read, you may also enjoy Failing Students or Failing Schools? A Parent’s Guide to Reading Instruction and Intervention, by reading specialist and shortlisted World Literacy Award nominee Faith Borkowsky.

Cover of the book Failing Students or Failing Schools? A Parent's Guide to Reading Instruction and Intervention by Faith Borkowsky. Cover depicts a large stack of books and a boy sitting on the floor, hiding his face in his arms with a despondent attitude.

Cardboard Box Adventures picture books are great for shared reading and can help parents establish a strong preliteracy foundation for their children. Check out the CBA Catalog for a full list of award-winning picture books, chapter books, and resources for parents and educators. Visit my Amazon author page for more information.