Reading is considered one of the most difficult learning tasks to master for about 30% of children, especially boys.

First and foremost, reading is a relatively new act for the brain because it was not a prerequisite for our survival. In other words, we spoke before we read, and as such, in the evolutionary scheme of things, reading requires multiple parallel brain areas to function in synchronicity. 

For example, the first encounter your child will have with reading is with his eyes.

That is,information is taken into the brain in the form of letters and words, the information is sent to the occipital lobe, or vision center, then decoded on the left side of the brain or the angular gyros.

The angular gyros divide the word into basic sounds (44 phonemes). This activity stimulates the language centers for auditory processing of the brain or left hemisphere. The sounds are interpreted and sent to the Wernicke (interpretation of words) and Broca’s (speaking) areas for interpretation (mental dictionaries) and then sent to the frontal lobe for meaning.

For instance, take the word dog. Again, the visual word dog is sent to the visual cortex located in the occipital lobe or in the back area of the brain. The word is decoded, (interpreted) located on the left side of the brain in D …O…G   or phonemes and where (left hemisphere – temporal lobe) auditory processing occurs. The auditory processing system sounds out the phonemes in the head or duh . . . awh . . . guh.  Again, the two main areas, Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas supply information about the word to our mental storage areas. The frontal lobe integrates the word into meaning: a furry animal that barks, or dog!    

 Unfortunately with all this brain movement, certain things can go wrong, especially for boys attempting to read. In fact, girls’ brains are actually relishing the learning to read experience because a girl’s brain is wired differently than a boy’s brain.

In other words, the corpus colossum, a center strip that separates the right hemisphere from the left hemisphere, is larger for girls than for boys, thus giving girls a head start of about 9 months over boys. In short, about 50% of children will have no problem learning how to read; another 30 percent will struggle; and the other 20% will succeed but only with extensive practice.

Furthermore, learning to read successfully requires three critical neural systems to work together to help the brain decode abstract symbols into meaningful language (Sousa, 2006). However, if the child’s auditory processing ability is weak (decoding or sounding out letter and/or words), his auditory center will call on the brain’s visual center to represent the letters or words to ensure they are being read correctly.

If difficulties still persist, the frontal lobe will ask for another visual scan or return the child to auditory processing. All these actions occur within a fraction of a second! This process may seem sequential or linear but the process is actually bidirectional or parallel with multiple phonemes processed simultaneously (Sousa, 2006).

Moreover, working memory plays a large part as to whether or not the beginning reader will remember word sounds. This is why struggling readers must be taught using   multiple modalities. Montessori and Waldorf schools recognize that beginning readers need multiple modalities (art centered curriculums) to learn how to read successfully. Also, please see the ADD program (Auditory Discrimination in Depth Program) and the Fast Forward Learning Program for additional reading strategies.

 In addition, there will be several skill areas associated with the brain reading mastery.

The first is phonetic awareness or the ability to understand how our oral language is divided into smaller components (sentences into words, words into syllables and finally into sounds). Children must be able to manipulate to control onsets and rimes, including an access of alliteration, rhyming, syllabication and intonation (Sousa, 2006). Phonemic awareness means the child can distinguish between bat and pat, or bat and bet. Further, the child needs to be able to isolate each sound in order from first to last, as well as be able to segment words into different phonemes (reading part to whole, rather than whole to part).

Another skill area occurs when our 26-letter alphabet asks the child to understand that words are made up of phonemes, which represent letters.

Through practice, our brains can match up a few letters to understand the word or what brain scientists refer to as chunking or pattering. When the child reads the word picture he does not read each letter individually but the entire word. (Four year olds and younger can chunk no more that three with an average of two; between 5 and 14 year olds, the average is 5 and the maximum is 7. Gifted readers have the advantage or the ability to sight read (chunk) and transfers the word into long-term storage and then retrieves the word from memory

(Miller, 1956, Cowan, 2001). Children who have reading difficulties attempt to chunk but the word never makes it into long-term storage, which is why such children need to be taught phonetically or employ other teaching modalities.

 Vocabulary, another essential component, occurs when the child builds a mental dictionary to recognize words.

The bottom line is that children learn and develop vocabulary by listening and speaking to adults. In addition, vocabulary development comes in many forms, such as enriched reading exercises which is why parents need to talk and/or read to their child, making such acts pleasant and relationship oriented. Further, when parents and teachers focus on enrichment, the brain’s hippocampus, seat of emotional relationships is stimulated, which allows the child to not only form a positive relationship with the child’s reading intelligence but also stimulate the child’s higher centers of the brain (frontal lobes), causing greater memory consolidation and comprehension.

 Fluency is the ability to read orally with speed, accuracy, and proper expression (Sousa, 2006).

The child who reads slowly or lacks fluency makes it difficult for him to remember what was read and to connect ideas expressed in the text to his personal experiences (Sousa, 2006), which can affect reading comprehension. For older students  (11 and older) a speed-reading class is very beneficial. Speed-reading actually increases fluency. Children with high fluency read more rapidly, preventing the working memory from being distracted (visual/auditory), then leading to greater reading comprehension.

 The last area is text comprehensionor the ability to understand word meaning through contextual cues such as inferences, or understanding the difference between fact and fiction, etc. Again, parents, teachers can stimulate text comprehension through extensive enrichment activities.   

 There are many problems that can affect your child’s reading ability, particularly when the child’s visual center works faster than the child’s auditory center.

For example, a major problem can occur when the child’s eyes scan words, but the auditory center is too slow to sound out the word. The end result is that the child not only stumbles over the sounds to pronounce the words but since working memory is so temporary, they consistently have problems remembering how to sound-out the phonemes.

One strategy would be to create colored, sandpaper letters. Thus, children could simultaneously touch (kinesthetic) and say the phonemes or alphabet letters as a way to stimulate the brain’s cerebellum or kinesthetic and linguistic intelligences. This method was used successfully by Montessori to produce a more intense working memory experience, which could support greater long-term memory (please see Montessori – sandpaper letters).

 Another problem that can affect a child’s reading skills has to do with phonological delays.

Phonological delays create deficits in working memory because the child cannot remember the sequence of words required to read. In other words, many children who have right brain dominance (high percentage of boys) have difficulties sequencing or breaking words up phonically or thinking part to whole. This is especially true when the child attempts to read the entire word or to sight-read; regardless that there developing brains or working memory cannot retain information. It is for this reason that some children who are right brain and who try to sight-read struggle through the primary years with reading. Again, this is why boys invariably have difficulty with reading.

  Of course, there are the actual rare, but occurring physical disabilities, leading to lack of reading fluency.

Some children may suffer from lesions  (Stein, 1989) in the left side of the brain or temporal lobe, causing difficulty with reading. Word blindness can also occur when the child with normal eyesight lacks the ability to read words caused by congenital defects to the word processing areas.

Other causes of poor reading skills are nonlinguistic causes. For instance, a child may not be able to detect and decipher sounds presented in rapid succession caused by weak auditory processing. Still others lack the habit to hear differences in sound frequency (Wernicke area). The auditory deficits affect the ability to discriminate tone and pitch in speech, which will affect how the child sounds out different phonemes. A child’s lack of ability to detect tones within a noisy background can cause reading difficulties, particularly within the auditory centers of the brain.

  One of the least discussed concerns with reading has to do with motor coordination and the brain’s cerebellum.How the child’s eyes move across a page can play a significant role in reading, writing, spelling etc.

As most kindergarten teachers have discovered, weak printing skills (dysgraphia) can be a red flag for weak or delayed reading skills in a student. Support a child with weak sensory/motor skills by having him use a pencil grip or having him squeeze a ball (10 times per day). Also, large lined paper allows the child to experience freedom to print. Using dot-to-dot lettering allows the child to develop printing mastery by connecting the dots to create letters. The key to sensory/motor strategies is short-term repetition and motivation. Such exercises can be repeated daily but only for 10 to 15 minutes at a time.

The use of cursive writing is another excellent strategy to stimulate the cerebellum to stimulate greater reading ability. Research has shown that when children practice cursive writing on a daily basis, it can stimulate the brain’s two hemispheres of the brain which allows for greater cross-talking, supporting greater reading fluency and comprehension (Sousa, 2006).

Finally, developmental dyslexia can also present significant reading problems. In developmental dyslexia, the child experiences unexpected difficulty in learning to read despite adequate intelligence, supportive environments, and normal sensory ability.

Developmental dyslexia is a spectrum disorder,  (*a range of disabilities) varying from mild to severe. Neuroimaging studies have established that there are significance differences in the way normal and dyslexic brains respond to specific spoken and written language tasks. Furthermore, there is strong evidence that these differences may weaken with appropriate instructional interventions (Shaywitz, 2003).

Reading is an unnatural act for most children and the wise parent or teacher will take the time to research the child’s reading brain in order to help him/her master this essential but very difficult task.

 The solution to a successful reading brain usually begins in school but today’s schools are under stress due to increased class size, shortened school days, mandated curriculums and testing, all of which can affect the teacher’s ability to teach and the child’s ability to learn.

Most particularly teachers’ time with struggling readers can be limited. In addition, even the home environment is lacking, as many parents are ill equipped or lack the expertise and/or time commitments (divorce, work schedule etc.) to provide the needed support for struggling readers.

Again, a reading program called Fast ForWord, developed by Scientific Learning Associates can give support to both teachers and parents to help readers of all ages and levels achieve reading proficiency. The beauty of Fast ForWord is that parents can implement the computerized program at home and teachers can access it in the classroom. Most important, Fast ForWord has improved the students’ reading brains and learning at all grade levels, among all genders, including all social economic levels. The rate of improvement is much greater than those of other programs such as (SRA).

Furthermore, the Fast ForWord program takes a direct approach to the child’s critical reading brain areas as described in this article’s opening pages. For example, Fast ForWord stimulates the brain’s prime reading areas as well as increases the student’s ability to perform basic cognitive functions essential to reading and learning. Moreover, Fast ForWord has increased memory, attention, processing and sequencing skills of students at all grade levels. 

 A major component associated with reading mastery and a strength of the Fast ForWord program is the ability to stimulate the student’s working memory (the ability to chunk phonemes, letters etc. into words etc.) and has improved long term memory or the ability for the student to retrieve information necessary for reading proficiency and comprehension.

  In addition, Fast ForWord recognizes the brain’s plasticity (ability to develop) by exercising the brain’s reading processing centers through intensive adaptive exercises, so actual physical changes can occur in the child’s reading brain, another essential ingredient for successful reading and learning potential.

   Another excellent tool to support teachers and parents associated with the Fast ForWord program is called the Reading Assistant.

This program builds brain fitness through intensive reading practice, using speech verification technology to act as a tutor, providing one-to-one guided oral reading support. A four-year study conducted in the Dallas ISD showed struggling students made significant improvement on their text assessment of knowledge and skills (TAKS) narrowing the achievement gap by 25%. Another study of the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program (LEAP) and the Integrated Louisiana Educational Assessment Program (ILEAP) for Fast ForWord users showed that over a two year period, the number of 4th graders scoring Basic or above in Reading increased from 19% to 81%, and the number scoring Basic or above in math increased from 9% to 71 %!

  Finally, The Fast ForWord program includes The Scientific Learning Progress Tracker that uses an online data analysis and reporting tool that enables educators to monitor individual, classroom, and school or district performance of students. Educators get clear, detailed action oriented information showing student progress over a period of time as related to specific reading and cognitive areas which are necessary components for reading mastery.

For further information contact Dr. David Sortino at davidsortino@comast.net or 707-829-8315. Dr. David Sortino is a FastForWord Provider.

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