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Literacy and Cognition:. The Role of the Brain in Learning to Read Claire Lenz, Ed.D. Associate Professor St. Joseph’s College Patchogue, New York. The brain’s structure is determined by experience.

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Literacy and cognition

Literacy and Cognition:

The Role of the Brain in Learning to Read

Claire Lenz, Ed.D.

Associate Professor

St. Joseph’s College

Patchogue, New York

The brain s structure is determined by experience

The brain’s structure is determined by experience

  • The number of connections made in the brain depend upon the amount of exposure infants have to language, sounds, sights, smells, and interactions with parents and caregivers. The brain has plasticity.

Literacy and cognition

Changes in the environment and experiences alter the structure of the brain. This is the plasticity of the brain making each learner unique.

Brain research shows that every child has unlimited potential for learning

Brain research shows that every child has unlimited potential for learning.

  • The acts of reading and writing depend upon neural networks working together to extract meaning from sources of information: letters, sounds, spelling patterns, cluster endings, syntax, and semantics.

  • Teachers must identify the ways in which students process information, and then provide differentiated instruction.

Reading and writing develop from language acquisition

Reading and writing develop from language acquisition.

  • The basics of language are hardwired into the human brain before birth. Reading does not come naturally to the human brain.

  • Only face to face conversations, not television facilitate children’s language and vocabulary. The size of the child’s vocabulary correlates with how often the parents talk with the child (Hart & Risley, 1995; Gopnik, Meltzoff, & Kuhl, 1999).

What are the functions of the brain that affect learning to read

What are the functions of the brain that affect learning to read?

Memory- immediate, working, and long term

  • Immediate memory holds information for a few seconds.

  • Working memory can hold information for minutes to days.

  • Long-term storage holds information for years.

    Beginning readers and struggling readers have difficulty understanding long sentences because of the limited capacity of working memory.

Literacy and cognition

Dory in Finding Nemo had a problem with short term and working memory.

Literacy and cognition

Successful reading involves two basic processes: decoding and comprehension generated by three neural systems (visual and auditory processing, and frontal lobe for meaning.


(Alphabetic Principle)

Phonemic Awareness




What do I see? What do I hear?

(Orthography) (Phonology)


What does it mean?


Frontal Lobe

How does the brain read


  • Visual information is processed mainly in the right hemisphere (words and letters).

  • The visual information is transferred to the left hemisphere through the corpus callosum.

  • The visual information is converted into language by the angular gyrus.

  • The Wernicke’s area constructs meaning from the text.

  • The Broca’s area is activated for speech and sounding out words.

Literacy and cognition


& Temporo-parietal

Normal Readers


but NO Temporo-parietal

Dyslexic Readers

Stanford Study-Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Early Edition: 2/25/2003Temple, Gabrielli, et. Al Cornell University Stanford University

Literacy and cognition

Parieto-temporal Lobe

Frontal Lobe

Occipito-temporal Area

(word form)

Broca’s Area

Temporal Lobe

Comparison of the struggling reader and skilled reader

Struggling Reader

The printed word stimulates the visual cortex, which passes the word to the parieto-temporal and Broca’s areas where it is analyzed for phonemes and pronunciation. A visual word form is produced with the meaning of the word. If the word form cannot be found, it is sent back to the visual cortex for more input.

Skilled Reader

The printed word is sent along to the occipito-temporal area where all the information about the word is quickly generated and the child moves on to the next word. As the number of words in the word form area grows, the child becomes a more skillful reader.

Comparison of the Struggling Reader and Skilled Reader

Gender differences

Gender Differences

  • Four times as many boys as girls are diagnosed with dyslexia.However current research indicates that girls are often not diagnosed properly.

  • Girls have a wider corpus callosum which encourages greater use of the right and left brain hemispheres in the reading process.

Indicators of reading problems

Indicators of Reading Problems

  • Kindergarten and First Grade- Poor letter-name fluency, nonsense word fluency, and oral reading fluency.

  • Second Grade- Measures of school performance- Children who do not respond to treatment when the primary cause is not social or economic disadvantages, mental deficiency, or linguistic and cultural diversity.

Can the brains of struggling readers be rewired

Can the brains of struggling readers be rewired?

  • Syracuse University Study- MRI images before and after interventions with dyslexic readers- Second and third grade dyslexic readers received 50 minutes of daily tutoring on activities related to the alphabetic principle. After a year’s intervention MRI images showed the emergence of processing systems on the left side of the brain like good readers (Shaywitz, 2003).

Literacy and cognition

University of Washington MRI Study – After 28 hours of instruction in phoneme and morpheme mapping, the fMRI scans of ten dyslexic children showed neural processing characteristics of typical readers ((Aylward et al., 2003).

The dyslexic reader

The Dyslexic Reader

  • 2.8 million of school-aged children are classified as dyslexic

  • 80% of learning disabled students are struggling or dyslexic readers.

  • Dyslexic readers have less gray matter for processing information and white matter for transferring information in the parietal temporal area of their brains.

Hemisphere symmetry and handedness of dyslexic and non dyslexic readers

Right-Handed non-dyslexic readers have a larger left brain hemisphere.

Dyslexic right-handed readers have symmetrical right and left hemispheres

Right- handed with right hemisphere dominance are at-risk for reading problems.

Right brain symmetry related to poor recognition ofsounds of right-handed children.

Those students with no hand preference from low SES families are at-risk for reading failure. Those from higher SES families are at a lower risk.

Left-Handed with a larger hemisphere on the right are not at-risk.

Left-handed children with left brain dominance are at-risk for reading failure.

Hemisphere Symmetry and Handedness of Dyslexic and Non-Dyslexic Readers

More brain research findings for dyslexics

Poor visual memory for language symbols

Neurons in the auditory and visual system are smaller in dyslexic readers than average and above average readers (magno and parvo cells).

Slower processing takes place across the corpus callosum

More Brain Research Findings for Dyslexics

Computer based attention therapy

Computer- Based Attention Therapy

  • Fast forWord- The program helps students recognize the difference between onset sounds (Scientific Learning Corporation). It synchronizes auditory and visual processing.

    For example …

Literacy and cognition



Literacy and cognition

  • Earobics by Cognitive Concepts, Inc.- This program is a combination of computer technology, multimedia tools, and print materials to support phonological awareness, vocabulary, fluency, phonics, and reading comprehension.

Cross training encouraging the right and left hemispheres to work together

Cross Training – Encouraging the Right and Left Hemispheres to Work Together


  • To fully engage the child’s brain, provide activities that encourage crossing over from one side of the body to the other.

Testing results for second and third grade struggling readers

Testing Results for Second and Third Grade Struggling Readers

  • Tests of auditory and visual memory tests revealed deficits for struggling readers.

  • The mean scores for auditory and visual memory tests for primary students in the study were 3 for auditory memory and 5 forvisual memorywith a satisfactory score being 8-10 for both tests.

Testing for auditory and visual discrimination

Testing for Auditory and Visual Discrimination

  • A mean score of 8 wasdetermined for auditory discrimination with a satisfactory score of 14-16 and a mean score of 10 was found for visual discrimination with a satisfactory score of 16.

Percentages below satisfactory

Phonemic Awareness

Medial consonants- 80%

Consonant digraphs-72%

Vowel digraphs- 77%

Syllabication- 55%

Structural Analysis

Adding endings- 82%

Prefixes and suffixes- 65%

Contractions- 55%

Percentages Below Satisfactory

Literacy and cognition

Word Association

Antonyms- 51%

Synonyms- 62%

Vocabulary- 67%


Weakest area- silent reading- 85%

Comprehension Skills:

Main idea- 57%

Cause and effect- 63%

Details- 70%

Sequencing- 68%

Inference- 90%

Writing Skills:

Holistic Score: 1.8 on a 4-Point Scale

Meaning- 2.4

Development- 2.0

Organization- 1.8

Language- 1.5

Mechanics- 1.2

Integrating brain research into literacy courses

Integrating Brain Research into Literacy Courses

  • Teach strategies for improving memory and retention:

    - Use storytelling

    -Make your introductions to text material

    relevant to students’ perceptions. Check

    their prior knowledge and build upon it.

    -Model constantly: word recognition, vocabulary,

    comprehension strategies

    - Use visuals, suggest mnemonic devices, and

    incorporate a variety of practice formats

    (dry erase boards, show me boards, letter tiles, magnetic letters, computer programs, or simulations).

Literacy and cognition

- Think and talk aloud-Teacher models the steps in cognitive processing. Talk aloud is an excellent memory enhancer.

  • Have students take notes as they read.

  • Encourage rereading of topic sentences in paragraphs to remember information.

  • Use humor

  • Play games such as Concentration, Bingo, Go Fish, and Phonics, Word Recognition, and Vocabulary Rummy.

  • Create flash cards and tachistoscopes for word recognition.

  • Use a variety of graphic organizers to encourage organization and visual memory.

Literacy and cognition

  • Work with parents regarding reviewing vocabulary or new words with their children prior to bedtime to encourage long-term memory.

  • Use closure strategies- What was one new word you learned today? Tell your partner about the main character in the story.

Instruction based upon research findings national reading panel 2000 national research council 1998

Instruction Based Upon Research Findings (National Reading Panel (2000) National Research Council (1998)

  • Decoding

    - Teaching phonemic awareness

    - Phonics instruction

    - Spelling and invented spelling

  • Fluency Instruction

How to overcome reading disabilities

How to Overcome Reading Disabilities

  • Development of Phonemic Awareness



& Blending







Blending & Segmenting

Individual Phonemes

Development of fluency

Development of Fluency

  • Short intense practice periods with guided repeated oral reading with systematic and explicit guidance and feedback from the teacher produces high accuracy and automaticity.

  • Other Strategies: Read aloud, shared reading, neurological impress, tape-assisted reading, partner or paired reading, and readers’ theater.

Literacy and cognition

  • Reading Comprehension

  • Teaching Vocabulary

  • Critical Reading Strategies

  • Working with English Language Learners and Learning Disabled Students

Development of comprehension for struggling readers

Development of Comprehension for Struggling Readers

  • Sentence Level and Paragraph Level Comprehension

  • Reciprocal Teaching (Palinscar and Brown, 1984)- Predicting, Questioning, Clarifying, and Summarizing. It requires the brain to integrate prior knowledge with new learning, make inferences, maintain focus, and use auditory rehearsal to enhance retention of learning.

  • Questioning the Main idea- Students practice asking questions about each paragraph’s main idea.

  • Questioning the Author

  • QAR-Question Answer Read

  • Story Mapping- A visual tool for identification of story elements.

Literacy and cognition

  • The PASS Process- Preview, Ask, Summarize, and Synthesize

  • Collaborative Strategic Reading

    Teacher-Led Activities

    Preview the reading

    Click and clunk- Clicks are parts that make sense;

    clunks are parts or words that don’t. Students

    identify the clunks and strategies are used to build


    Get the gist- Tell in as few words as possible what

    the selection is about.

    Wrap-up- Students review what they have learned.

Literacy and cognition

Student-Led Activities

Students form a cooperative learning group to practice Collaborative Strategic Reading

  • Leader

  • Clunk expert

  • Announcer

  • Encourager

  • Reporter

    Higher order thinking activities build brain connections:

  • Compare and contrast elements

  • Classify information

  • Inductive thinking-drawing conclusions from specific parts

Literacy and cognition

  • Engage in deductive thinking- predictions based on generalizations

  • Design experiments

  • Solve real-world problems

  • Analyze error patterns-

  • Analyze the author’s viewpoint

  • Encourage creative thinking through the visual and performing arts

  • Analyze cause and effect patterns



Teacher preparation programs have the responsibility to instruct their undergraduate and graduate students in the findings of scientific studies on brain research. Their graduates need to know the components of a balanced literacy program as well as the seven levels of brain processing that must be integrated:

  • Phonological- the sound system of language, phonemic awareness, and sound-letter correspondence

  • Graphic- perceiving letters and symbols visually

Literacy and cognition

  • Lexical - recognizing the structure of words, such as prefixes and suffixes

  • Syntactic- rules of grammar and discourse

  • Semantic- meaning and thematic structures

  • Communicative- expressing purpose and intentions

  • Cultural- shared beliefs and knowledge

    For more information, please contact:

    Dr. Claire Lenz

    St. Joseph’s College

    155 West Roe Boulevard

    Patchogue, New York 11772

    (631)-447-2244) email:

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