Most people take the abilities to read, write, and speak for granted. However, the language processes are quite remarkable, in part because humans are the only beings with the ability to read, write and speak. What is unique about reading in particular, is that it is not a natural ability (D’Arcangelo, 1999; Varney, 2002). Children exposed to speech will learn to speak, but simple exposure to words and books will not produce a child who is able to read. Humans do not have to be taught to speak because speaking is a natural human ability; however, reading has to be expressly and explicitly taught (D’Arcangelo, 1999; Turkeltaub, Gareu, Flowers, Zeffiro, & Eden, 2003; Varney, 2002).
Because the abilities to speak and understand oral language are skills that have been a part of human activity for millions of years, our brains have evolved specific structures to control these capabilities (Varney, 2002). However, the alphabet was only invented approximately 6,000 years ago and Varney (2002) suggests that “nearly every human on earth was illiterate until the 20th century” (p. 3); therefore, not enough time has passed for any physical structures in the brain to have evolved for the sole purpose of reading. Based on this evolutionary principle, Varney (2002) believes that there are no structures in the central nervous system that are specific to reading however, he does suggest that certain brain structures have adapted and have come to play an important role in the human’s ability to read and comprehend print, and other researchers agree.
Several studies show that the brain has specific areas dedicated to comprehension while other areas are dedicated to phonological processing (Leonard, 2001; Turkeltaub et al., 2003). Other research has found a clear difference in brain activity between good and poor readers. It has been found that good and poor readers process print differently (D’Arcangelo, 1999). Some post mortem studies show that dyslexics, for example, have brain abnormalities not seen in non-dyslexics (Leonard, 2001) providing further indication that certain areas of the brain play a role in the reading process.
Rightly so, much emphasis is placed on learning to read; the ability to read successfully is needed for future success in school as well as in life. Brain research has a significant impact in the world of education. Early childhood educators in particular should understand the role the brain plays in the way children learn to read since it has the potential to directly impact the way children learn as well as the way we teach. For example, brain research has found that if a child with certain neurobiological abnormalities is raised in an environment that is not linguistically rich, severe reading and language delays are almost imminent (Leonard, 2001). However, neurobiological damage alone can be overcome with the proper environmental input (Leonard, 2001). Teachers, especially those teaching low income students who are likely to have limited home exposure to rich literacy experiences, should know that most neurobiological disadvantages can be overcome without the need of special education services when parents and teachers work together to provide a literacy rich environment. This requires teachers to implement additional language and literacy activities into the curriculum and to educate parents on what they can do at home to improve language and literacy skills.
Secondly, teachers must understand how brain connections are made. D’Arcangelo (1999) compares the pathways in the brain to circuits; the more these pathways or circuits are used, the more opportunities there are for them to be enhanced. Based on this research, it stands to reason that the more children read or are read to, the more these brain pathways are used and reinforced. Other research has shown that early phonemic awareness is fundamental in becoming a reader (D’Arcangelo, 1999; Sandak, Mencl, Frost, & Pugh, 2004). Therefore early childhood teachers must implement a developmentally appropriate phonics program that exposes children to phonological concepts while providing many opportunities for children to read and engage with literature.
Thirdly, brain research shows us that it is important to detect and identify children with reading impairments as soon as possible and provide the appropriate intervention (Leonard, 2001). Such intervention can have a positive impact on brain activity. One study of eight year olds with severe reading problems showed that brain differences are detectable after attending a phonics remediation program (Sandak et al., 2004). As early childhood and elementary educators it is our responsibility to assess children regularly so that we can intervene and prevent future academic difficulty.
Despite its importance, many students often struggle with reading. Sandak et al. (2004) cite various studies that indicate the reasons children have reading difficulty are visual problems, difficulty processing auditory input, and delayed processing speed. D’Arcangelo (1999) notes that “we often blame children particularly bright children who have trouble reading, for not being motivated enough or for not trying hard enough” (para. 15). Understanding brain research will help teachers be more tolerant of individual differences in children’s ability to read and will remind us of the importance of providing developmentally appropriate intervention instead of pointing a finger at the student. It is important that brain research continue as it will have a great and positive impact on the overall academic success of our students. Research done in the confines of laboratories or other experimental conditions is almost pointless if it doesn’t impact the lives of everyday people in some way.
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