By Dr Jane Williams and Bindy Cummings
Neurophysiological research has shown that the cortical regions of the brain play an important role in early reading acquisition. Neural mechanisms of language in preschool-aged children are different from older children and adults. The right hemisphere plays a key role in the language and pre-reading skills of very young children. When children are initially learning to read, they associate words and letters with images. The right temporal cortex uses images or ‘pictures’ to help a child recognise that a word ‘means something’. For example, the word ‘stop’ is often accompanied by a red hexagonal sign, or the letter ‘M’ is large, yellow and on the top of a very tall pole!
Mature reading is performed by a left hemisphere network of frontal, temporo-parietal and occipitotemporal cortical regions responsible for mapping visual information onto auditory and conceptual representations. To be able to read easily, children need to use the sound structure of language to process oral or written information (phonological awareness). fMRI imaging reveals that activity in the left ventral inferior frontal gyrus and ventral-occipital-temporal cortex (left frontal lobe, to the side and back), increases as reading ability improves, as does phonological awareness and phonological naming ability (Turkeltaub, Gareau, Flowers, Zeffiro & Eden, 2003; Ozernov-Palchik et al., 2023). As reading skill improves, there is less and less input from the right hemisphere. Children who have difficulty learning to read have been shown to still have an active right hemisphere, so they continue to rely on ‘images’ (non-lexical or non-letter based) to learn rather than moving to letter-form recognition systems of the left hemisphere.
|What is phonological awareness?
Dr Bruce McCandliss carried out research that connects cognitive neuroscience to education. He studied brain patterns using fMRI imaging. He is widely published and cited. Some of his findings are as follows:
- The expert reader requires just 200 milliseconds to see and understand a word. They use the fusiform gyrus (L fusiform gyrus in particular – this is the area responsible for word recognition – so is essential for reading).
- In first grade, when children are about six years of age, the right brain is still predominantly used for reading, so children are slower to learn than adults who have very specialised left brain automaticity.
- The higher the degree of left lateralisation, the easier the skill of learning to read, as the child can automatically recognise word forms and decode word sounds (word recognition occurs in the left hemisphere of the brain – the left fusiform gyrus).
- Poor readers have poorer developed white matter tracts of the brain (corpus callosum and cingulum). If white matter tracts connecting the left and right frontal lobes are not functioning well, short-term memory is affected. A study of 30 eight-year-old children showed that the development of the ascending fibre pathway at the level of the corpus callosum in the left hemisphere, affects how well children perform in a standardised reading test.
- Children who engaged in a sensory-motor technique for reading (wrote the letters they were learning), had remarkable changes in the left side of the brain, the left fusiform gyrus in particular (this is the area responsible for word recognition, so is essential for reading), whereas those who only said them out loud did not
- Children with dyslexia did not show the same response in the left fusiform gyrus as children without dyslexia.
- There is a strong relationship between being able to attend to sounds of language and being able to learn to read language. Unlike children who find reading ‘easy’, dyslexic children do not have ‘robust cortical associations’ between visual representations of letters and auditory representations of speech sounds.
- Sensory-motor experience leads to changes in visual processing in the developing brain.
|Relevance to GymbaROO-KindyROO
Learning to read in the first years of life is about associating an image, picture or shape with a word – a right brain function. At GymbaROO-KindyROO, this is why we have flashcards and pictures. As cortical function matures in the left hemisphere, the areas in the temporal lobe that enable phonological awareness to develop, take over from the right brain input and children are then able to ‘make sense’ of words through letter recognition. The school readiness reading program makes the change from ‘picture images’ to recognising words and sounds of whole words. Many children in the school readiness program (4 years of age) are not yet neurologically mature enough for decoding (breaking a word up into sounds), so the ‘whole word’ learning technique, associated with games and movement, is applied. The aim of the school readiness reading program is to prepare children for school, so they confidently understand that words have meaning. Once they are fully lateralised and the left hemisphere is dominant, they are ready for the more expert skill of decoding and phonics.
Research seemingly confirms that children with learning challenges are unable to learn in the same way as children who do not have difficulty. Many children with reading challenges are still operating on a ‘right brain level’. Maturing the foundational neural pathways in visual, auditory and sensory-motor systems provides an important basis for the maturation of both the right and the left hemispheres.
McCandliss, B. (2017). Brain mechanisms of early reading skills. YouTube Presentation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T8-f5jMyvf8
Ozernov-Palchik,O., Sury, D., Turesky T.K., Yu, X. & Gaab, N. (2023). Longitudinal changes in brain activation underlying reading fluency, Human Brain Mapping, 44(1), 18-34, DOI: 10.1002/hbm.26048
Schlagger, B.L. & McCandliss, B. (2007). Development of neural systems for reading, Annual Review of Neuroscience, 30, 475-503, DOI: 10.1146/annurev.neuro.28.061604.135645
Turkeltaub, P.E., Gareau, L., Flowers, L., Zeffiro, T.A. & Eden, G.F. (2003). Development of neural mechanisms for reading, Nature Neuroscience, 6(7), 767-773, DOI: 10.1038/nn1065
Zhou, Y., Lei, G., Song, Z., Zhang, Z., Huang, H., Li, H. & Tang, X. (2022). Associations between Brain Microstructure and Phonological Processing Ability in Preschool Children, Children 9(6), 782 https://www.mdpi.com/2227-9067/9/6/782.
Dr Jane Williams (PhD, BMgt, RN(Paeds)) is a Director of GymbaROO and KindyROO. Dr Williams is one of Australia’s leading experts on baby and child development.
Bindy Cummings (B.Ed hons) is a teacher, a GymbaROO early childhood neuro-developmental consultant and the co-creator of GymbaROO’s Active Babies Smart Kids series. She has been writing articles for GymbaROO’s First Steps magazine, digital platforms and media for over ten years.