A vital part of early reading acquisition is the ability of the child to understand and utilize the association between the spoken words they are familiar with and the visual written form of the words. Neuroscientists have a fair understanding of how the brain’s circuitry changes once a person learns to read, but until recently they didn’t know that different teaching techniques can affect the brain’s changed circuitry in different ways. It is widely agreed that skilled readers’ brains show active electric brain wave patterns in the left hemisphere. This activity helps the skilled readers identify words quickly, even words they might not have seen before.

Standford University’s Bruce McCandliss and his colleagues Yuliya Yoncheva and Jessica Wise took this knowledge and conducted an experiment hoping to shed some light on a connection between the way a child learns how to read and the brain’s changing circuitry. They worked with 16 English-speaking literate adults, teaching the subjects a made-up script using two different techniques. The subjects were taught some words by being told to memorize the specific string of symbols as a whole- or the equivalent of an entire word. These words could not be broken down into phonetic pieces, meaning they were unable to be sounded out. The researchers referred to this technique as WW, because the grapheme, or symbol, represented a whole word. For other words, the subjects were taught the phonetic value of each part of the word, pairing each part of the word with a spoken English sound. This technique was referred to as GP because a grapheme represented a single phoneme, or distinguishable sound.

Image source: science direct.com









Image source: science direct.com

When tested 24 hours later, subjects’ brains were monitored for electric wave pattern behaviors. When subjects were told to recall words they had learned using the GP technique, their brain showed efficient left hemisphere activity- activity consistent with that found in the brains of skilled readers. They even used the same electric patterns to decode, or sound out, words in the made-up script they had never seen before.  Contrastingly, when the same subjects were told to recall words they had learned using the WW technique, their brain used much less effective activation patterns.

These results uncover new information on how the brain changes when learning how to read. Scientists now not only know that different teaching techniques affect the brain’s circuitry patterns differently, but which techniques can lead to efficient electric patterns consistent in skilled readers. Teaching the phonetic values of letters and pairing them with sounds we are familiar with results in much more efficient brain activation than the strict memorization of whole words. The connection between graphemes and their phonetic pair is a vital part of achieving reading proficiency. Bruce McCandliss and his colleagues hope that this research sheds some light on how best to instruct early reading habits, and will become a model for teaching techniques that will yield the most efficient brain activation in young readers.

If you want to learn more about McCandliss’s study, read the published study here at ScienceDirect’s online journal. Or read The Seattle Time’s coverage on the study here.