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!

But since reading is a relatively new task in the evolutionary scheme of things, the brain does not have an automatic READ “shelf” for storing reading. It does its best at “putting away” this new information, but sometimes it is not organized well.  Sometimes, if the new information about visual words requires a lot of pattern analysis, or comes in a haphazard or confusing way, or in the wrong order, critical elements of reading can be stored on the wrong shelves, or even across the hall in the pantry.

To continue this metaphor about storage, the left half of the brain, the “closet”, is for storing things about language and the right half of the brain, the “pantry” is for storing other processes like recognizing spatial patterns, contours, configurations, and faces. If words are initially stored as visual patterns, it may become very inefficient to cross the “hall” (the fibers connecting the two halves of the brain) to search for information about their meaning and their pronunciation in the “closet”. These READ words should be located in the closet, right next to “UNDERSTAND” and “SAY”.

It’s like looking for your socks. You have a better chance of finding clean socks quickly in the morning if you pair them and always keep them in the same place. This is a very oversimplified way to think about the brain, which is actually an enormously complex organ, but the metaphor may serve to illustrate what happens when children have difficulty reading—the essential elements of reading are not connected together by efficient neural pathways.

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