Currently Browsing: the brain

Making Speech Visible

FINALLY! My book, Making Speech Visible, is done and published!  It has been a major preoccupation for the last year.  I have tried to synthesize my 35 years of reading research into a simple and readable book for parents and educators.

I am 74 this year, and there comes a time when you want to put what you have learned into the hands of others.  So, Making Speech Visible is also biographical. It includes short vignettes about how I got interested in reading research and what people said to me along the way to move me in one direction or another.  I have pursued this one path most of my life—finding and communicating evidence that writing is the best path to reading.


Recommended Reading: Proust and the Squid

Proust and the Squid

Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf (HarperCollins, 2007) is the most well-written and inspiring book about the reading brain that I have ever read.  What a remarkable writer!—a rare thing among scientists.  If you are interested in how the brain works to develop skilled reading, do yourself a favor and read it!

Read an excerpt from the book here.

Here are some quotes from the book that I would like to share with you:

“Reading is one of the single most remarkable inventions in history; the ability to record history is one of its consequences.   Our ancestors’ invention could come about only because of the human brain’s extraordinary ability to make new connections among its existing structures, a process made possible by the brain’s ability to be shaped by experience.  This plasticity at the heart of the brain’s design forms the basis for much of who we are and who we might become.”  Maryanne Wolf, Proust and the Squid, HarperCollins, NY, 2007

“Reading can be learned only because of the brain’s plastic design, and when reading takes place, that individual brain is forever changed, both physiologically and intellectually.” Maryanne Wolf, Proust and the Squid, HarperCollins, NY, 2007

The Learning and the Brain Conference

I just attended and made a presentation at the 25th Learning & the Brain conference in San Francisco—USING BRAIN RESEARCH TO RAISE IQ AND ACHIEVEMENT.  My presentation was in a section titled How Will New Brain Technologies for Cognition and Memory Change Education, Learning and Aging? I talked about how to maximize the efficiency of neural pathways for reading and writing—a topic I have discussed previously in my blog, and am just about ready to publish in my new book Raising Skilled Readers and Writers.  Watch for a release date!

I came away from the conference with some interesting books:

The Curious Incident1. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

a novel by Mark Haddon.

This is a real charmer of a novel about a bright and quirky boy, trying to solve the murder of a dog, who encounters many of the problems that misfits face in our society.  Anyone who has had contact with a child dealing with autism spectrum difficulties will recognize his literal way of thinking and his perplexities as he tries to understand the people around him.  You can’t help but love his honesty and earnestness, as he goes about solving his mystery. (more…)

What To Do About Your Child’s Media Time?

child watching tvIn my last post I wrote about the fact that this generation is spending 7.5 hours/day or 53 hours/week on TV, video games, music, and Internet socializing. The number of hours has increased dramatically since 2004 (then it was 4 hours/day) largely because of mobile devices that can play movies or games or provide the Internet anywhere.

Is this something that parents should be concerned about?  I think so. And it is the responsibility of parents because most of this happens after school. But what can be done? Here are three ideas.  Maybe you have more, and can share them with our readers…

  1. Model for your children.
  2. Have conversations at dinner or before bed where you really pay attention to what they think about some issue.  Tell them what you’ve been thinking, and that you’re going to write it down so you won’t forget it. If they see you writing, if they see you putting thought into some letter to an editor or a politician, or a poem or song, or your diary, and you talk about why it’s important to you, they will follow your lead.  Let them see you pursuing new knowledge yourself. It’s good for the aging brain as well as the developing brain!


Is Your Child Engrossed in Media 53 hours/week?

children engrossed by media

A new study put out by Kaiser Family Services tells us that children are using media like TV, music, and internet social media more than 7.5 hours a day—that comes to an average of 53 hours a week of mostly passive experience! Yes, they text, but what kind of thought goes into texting or tweeting?  Are their brains really processing and analyzing and digesting new information?  Unfortunately, no.


A Story to Explain Brain Research About Reading

A Typical Day in a Brain Research Lab

The machine was familiar to her now, but it was still amazing to think that it could take a picture of her son’s brain while he was reading!  Johnny was lying down inside the machine, and she could hear him answering questions that the doctor was asking.

Ann sat down to wait and thought about all that had happened in the last couple of months. Her son had been having a hard time in second grade.  She knew she had to do something about it when he came home crying, saying that everyone else knew how to read, and he just didn’t get it.

“I’m just stupid”, he had sobbed.  “I’m never going to learn how to read!”

His teacher told her that Johnny was quite bright, but that he did have trouble reading.  She suggested that Ann might look into the reading research project that was going on in the neuroscience department at the nearby university.  At first Ann was skeptical that brain research would be of any help to Johnny, but she noticed that they were also providing special instruction.  Luckily, she came to a decision that would change Johnny’s life.


Storing Reading In the Closets of the Brain

closetThe most common way to introduce children to the alphabet code is to link letters-to-sounds in order to decipher or “decode” words on a page—that is, to read.  Children are shown letters or clusters of letters and are told that those visual squiggles on a page represent sounds or words.  But starting with the visual squiggles is putting the cart before the horse. The brain will organize reading better if we reverse the process and link sounds-to-letters instead!

The brain of a newborn is already listening to sounds and trying to make sense of them. Very young children need to have lots of experience listening to spoken words, watching adults or siblings as they speak, and responding to the speech they hear by using their own voices. As the brain builds its capacity for speaking and understanding speech, it organizes a vast data bank of the sounds of words, the meaning of those words, and the complex motor commands that are required for saying those words.  These elements are so well organized that this information can be accessed instantly.

The left half of the newborn brain, like a closet, comes with two built-in “shelves” for storing these important elements of communication—the ability to receive meaningful words (UNDERSTAND) and the ability to express (SAY) meaningful words. Humans have been talking for so many thousands of years that our brains have evolved to set aside these two locations—the UNDERSTAND shelf and the SAY shelf– for this specific purpose. These shelves automatically start piling up with vocabulary as babies learn new words. The more the better!


Does a “Great Mind” Need Phonics?

Beware of what you may read in your email. The paragraph below is being passed around the internet with the statement that only great minds can read it (55 out of 100 people), and that spelling isn’t important because you can read any word if the letters are all included and the first and last letter are in the correct place.  You will draw a disastrously mistaken conclusion if you infer that children can read this way, or that this has any relevance to learning to read.  Here is the paragraph.  See if you can read it!

i cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid, aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno’t mtaetr in waht oerdr the ltteres in a wrod are, the olny iproamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whotuit a pboerlm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Azanmig huh? yaeh and I awlyas tghuhot slpeling was ipmorantt!


How Words Became Visible

Writing and reading are relative newcomers, answering a growing need to turn spoken communication into some kind of permanent record.  For small tribes of hunters and gatherers, oral traditions and histories served well enough.  But when people began to gather in larger numbers, and grow crops and trade, longer lasting records of spoken words became necessary. Spoken sounds could not be recorded; they drifted away into the air.  What could be devised to stand more permanently for a contract between traders? Pictures and marks on clay worked for a while, but were limited in their usefulness because more and more pictures were needed to record bigger messages. This process was slow and cumbersome–a more efficient system was needed.

One can imagine some Sumerian only a few thousand years ago pondering this problem, saying “Aha!  I only make a limited number of sounds with my mouth when I speak.  I’ll make a different mark to stand for each sound I make when I say a word!”  And the alphabet was born!  It has taken a very short time to progress from marks in clay, to ink on velum, to Gutenberg type on paper, to computer print-outs.


Why Early Instruction Is So Important

Is there really anything new to say on the subject of reading and reading difficulties?  Indeed, there is!  Recent advances in medical imaging technology have made it possible for the first time to look at the brains of both skilled and dysfunctional readers while they are engaged in the act of reading and chart the strikingly different ways in which their brains are working.

CBR001036The most dramatic new discovery is that if dyslexic readers are provided intensive special tutoring and improve their reading skills, one can literally see that the brain changes its pattern of activity to produce a more efficient way of reading. These new insights, based not on theories but on the actual brains of actual readers have led to new ways of thinking about how to introduce children to the alphabet and to reading, and how to prevent reading difficulties.

Reading is a new human skill. Humans have been using some form of language in verbal communication for about two million years, but reading and writing have only been around for a few thousand.  We don’t know what early language sounded like but whatever its form, it’s pretty clear that language, and the capacity of the human brain to organize and express it, changed and evolved over the eons to accommodate more and more complex conversations.  Mothers found ways to tell their children how to keep out of trouble, and fathers found ways to brag about the hunt as the family gathered around the stew pot.


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