How Reading Shapes the Brain

How Reading Shapes the Brain

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The other day I came across a quote that stopped me in my tracks. It read, “Reading is everything, and saying so is more than an inspirational slogan. It’s now a definitive research conclusion.”

Well, as you can imagine, I couldn’t just let that little nugget sit there. I needed to take a deeper dive and learn about the person responsible for those stunning words, because it led me to think that there is more to how reading shapes the brain than I previously knew.

The study which formed the basis of this conclusion was conducted by Christopher McNorgan, PhD. McNorgan is the associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of Buffalo.

McNorgan’s study is entitled “The Connectivity Fingerprints of Highly-Skilled and Disordered Reading Persist Across Cognitive Domains,” and this study validates that the cooperative brain regions responsible for reading are also at work during unrelated activities. Remember the “three Rs”? Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic? McNorgan’s work proves that these three areas of function overlap in ways never previously suspected, let alone experimentally validated—until now.

As with so many important events in science, the discoveries were accidental. “These findings floored me,” said McNorgan. “They elevate the value and importance of literacy by showing how reading proficiency reaches across domains, guiding how we approach other tasks and solve other problems.”

McNorgan had originally sought to discover if dyslexia could be identified solely on the basis of how the brain was wired for reading. So he did fMRI scans of groups of skilled and struggling readers, and identified dyslexia correctly 94% of the time. But he wanted more, an additional data set, so he thought, let’s scan them while they do mental multiplication tasks. And that’s when the surprise happened.

How Reading shapes the brain: The way our brain is wired for reading influences how the brain functions for math. This image is a word cloud containing words related to dyslexia in the shape of a brain.

A Science Daily report on his study summed it up this way:

“Functional connectivity, unlike what the name might imply, is a dynamic description of how the brain is virtually wired from moment to moment. Don’t think in terms of the physical wires used in a network, but instead of how those wires are used throughout the day. When you’re working, your laptop is sending a document to your printer. Later in the day, your laptop might be streaming a movie to your television. How those wires are used depends on whether you’re working or relaxing. Functional connectivity changes according to the immediate task.

“The brain dynamically rewires itself according to the task all the time. Imagine reading a list of restaurant specials while standing only a few steps away from the menu board nailed to the wall. The visual cortex is working whenever you’re looking at something, but because you’re reading, the visual cortex works with, or is wired to, at least for the moment, the auditory cortex.

“Pointing to one of the items on the board, you accidentally knock it from the wall. When you reach out to catch it, your brain wiring changes. You’re no longer reading, but trying to catch a falling object, and your visual cortex now works with the pre-motor cortex to guide your hand.

How Reading shapes the brain: The way our brain is wired for reading influences how the brain functions for math. A stack of books labeled Languages, technology, literature, science, history, and mathematics.

“Different tasks, different wiring; or, as McNorgan explains, different functional networks.

“In the two data sets McNorgan used, participants were engaged in different tasks: language and math. Yet in each case, the connectivity fingerprint was the same, and he was able to identify dyslexia with 94% accuracy whether testing against the reading group or the math group.”

These fascinating conclusions will be the subject of further study. What other domains of brain function are also co-wired to reading ability? In any case, the takeaway is clear: the case for early literacy diagnostics and intervention is even stronger than it was before. McNorgan sums it up this way, “These results show that the way our brain is wired for reading is actually influencing how the brain functions for math,” he said. “That says your reading skill is going to affect how you tackle problems in other domains.”

Thanks for reading about how reading shapes the brain. 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 the book Raising a Child with Dyslexia: What Every Parent Needs to Know by Don M. Winn

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.

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.