A Simplified Explanation of the Neuroscience of Literacy
Reading is an advanced, intelligent, human activity that virtually everyone can learn, just as almost anyone can learn how to speak.
Yet, teaching a child, or anyone how to read, is not as easy as teaching a child how to speak. A child learns how to speak naturally, but reading must be taught later in the brain’s development cycle. If you try to teach a child how to read before they learn how to speak, you will surely fail. So when is the best time to teach a child how to read? When they are two years old, three years old, four years old? The answer to this will quickly become apparent as we discuss more about the development of the brain.
There are four pillars of literacy, each of which must be fully understood and properly executed, in order to best convey the skill of “fluent extraction of meaning from a written orthography” to a young child. If you fail to understand or execute one or more, or even all of these pillars, that doesn’t mean your beloved individual son or daughter or student will absolutely become illiterate; it only means that statistically, if you were to teach tens of millions of children how to read (yet failed to understand or execute these pillars correctly), then more than 50% of them would become functionally or completely illiterate, which is exactly the situation that we have in the United States today.
These four golden rules should be considered common knowledge within the public domain for all parents and teachers to embrace and practice. They are the foundation of an educated society and should not be kept secret. In fact, in our opinion, they should be required institutional knowledge for every teacher in every elementary school in America.
The four golden rules of literacy encompass the areas of language, linguistics, neuroscience and pedagogy, and succinctly put, are:
- Verbal language skills are the cake (Language).
- Reading is the icing on the cake (Linguistics).
- The cake has to be fully baked before you ice it (Neuroscience).
- Don’t glob the icing on. Ice the cake in layers (Pedagogy)!
Let’s talk about the cake
The first concept in reading is that the child develops linguistic capability from the time they’re in the womb; they hear and begin to discern sounds, including their parents’ voices, from their surrounding environment. From the moment they’re born, children begin making sounds to complement their ability to hear sounds. From the moment they are born and begin to cry, children are learning how to speak.
Speaking is the uttering and mimicry of things that we hear. Over time, every unimpaired child builds the neural networks (bundles of connected neurons in the brain) necessary to maneuver, neuro-linguistically, in their world, to hear, to understand, to repeat what they hear, and to convey meaning through speech. The two primary language skills, aural and oral, continue to develop throughout the early years.
Linguistically, every word, in every spoken language (with the remote, but theoretically possible exception of some Aboriginal tribes somewhere in the world) has been shown to be capable of being broken into component parts called phonemes. Human spoken language is phoneme based. Tone, and other sounds produced by humans in all cultures, can also play an important role in conveying meaning. But the fundamental building block of spoken language is the phoneme, “the smallest unit of sound.” (For the purpose of this discussion, which is NOT a Ph.D. treatise on linguistics, but rather a practical overview and “how to” guide for fully understanding literacy fundamentals in order to effectively teach reading, we are not going to invoke the term “phone,” which is also used in linguistic academic circles to mean the smallest unit of spoken sound.)
So when children are learning to speak and mimic and repeat, at the same time they are “parsing phonemes,” they’re developing unique neural networks in the brain for each of the sounds that they’re hearing in their mother tongue. That ability to parse the incoming aural data then becomes critical for parsing outgoing verbal data as the child’s oral speech abilities develop; and this, as we’ll see, will play a critical role down the road in mapping symbols to sounds.
So assuming no extant and obvious physiological or neurological issues, which is a matter for a different discussion, each child will master the two primary language skills, aural and oral, effortlessly. With amazing, effortless rapidity, children create unique neural networks for each phoneme and learn to recognize (and by “recognize,” we mean “manipulate;” we do not mean recognize in the meta-cognitive sense, or become aware of these phonemes at a conscious level, which we’ll discuss soon) and speak unique aural patterns, words, strings of phonemes, blended fluently, that convey meaning.
As children begin to understand context and contextual speech, it becomes easier and easier for them to recognize entire bundles of words and to delineate the gaps between words. Clarity of the phonemic data coming in to the brain allows the brain to quickly allocate meaning to sentences as it parses words (an activity primarily engaged in the left hemisphere of the brain), and associates meaning with those words, (more often in the right hemisphere of the brain), while building grammatical, syntactical and contextual structure for the entire sentence throughout both hemispheres.
The faster we parse and the more efficiently we parse, the more efficiently we can decode, and thus comprehend, the incoming aural stream; and over time, the child begins to contribute his/her own oral dialogue into the communication continuum. [If you have ever struggled to speak a foreign language with native speakers, in a foreign country, for example, you have been impacted by your inability to parse words quickly enough to associate meaning with the incoming stream of aural data. It taxes the brain as we fall behind in parsing, processing milliseconds, then, potentially, seconds too slowly, struggling with great effort to catch up to the conversation during short breaks among the speakers. When we fall too far behind, we naturally dismiss large chunks of information and “run” back to the front of the conversation to see if we can piece together the missing data from new context clues. The brain burns massive amounts of glucose in this endeavor; and this is just one of the many reasons we are exceptionally fatigued by the first few days in a foreign land.]
Instinctively, physiologically and without any meta cognition of the process whatsoever, billions of neurons in, e.g. an American English-speaking child’s brain, first connect, then build networks, which then myelinate around the 44 phonemes of the American English language. Myelination is the process of insulating the neural pathways and individual axons and dendrites of a neural pathway for the purpose of creating both permanence of connectivity and greater efficiency for electrochemical potential and impulse propagation throughout that given network.
The child raised in an American English speaking home myelinates neural networks representing the 44 sounds spoken by the American English speaking family that lives in the home. Whereas a child born into a non-English speaking home that identifies with a language that has perhaps 35 phonemes or 40 phonemes, or even 50 phonemes in that native language, that might also include some phonemes that are different from American English phonemes, will not clearly hear and will not effortlessly myelinate the 44 American English phonemes during his/her first few formative years, but rather, will likely miss some of those phonemes altogether at the very crucial developmental age when the part of the brain responsible for phonemes myelinates- which we now know to be approximately 8 months to 18 months of age.
This early myelination process in human neuro-linguistic development creates a speech pathology challenge unique to ESL/ELL students, what we call at the American Youth Literacy Foundation a “language specific speech pathology.” This speech pathology has to be dealt with in the beginning of the reading process so that it can be resolved; because phonemic awareness, aural processing and oral speech production, as we will soon see, is the foundation for ALL future phonetic encoding and decoding of speech, otherwise known as “reading.”
All students, including all ESL/ELL students, have to be made cognizant of the 44 American English phonemes. It is the critical first step. The cake of oral and aural linguistic development must first be baked, and if necessary, re-baked, ideally, BEFORE we begin to teach reading.