Mapping the Reading Brain

The reading brain

I’ve always been fascinated by neuroscience, the way the brain works and how this is linked to reading. One of my favourite talks and training sessions I give is on the reading brain and the science of reading and some of my earliest research into reading focussed on the brain and the part it plays in successful reading in dyslexic children (this included a piece in the Education Science Journal).

This interest has led me to try and work out exactly what it is that is needed in the reading brain for a reader to be successful. I consider my role in school to be that of a reading specialist. I understand reading, know reading and its intricacies. I know what problems arise in reading, how to teach the weak readers and the signs of reading deficiencies. Just like a Sen-co specialises in their area I specialise in reading. It is therefore from this that I spend a lot of time listening to young people read. I consider this to be one, if the not the, most important part of my role.

Over the years I must have spent hours listening to children read and the knowledge and understanding this has given me has led to putting together this post and these ideas. It is the accumulation of all this and my other experiences with reading that I feel able to put together such an understanding.

For me this has become a guide, just like my hierarchy of reading is a guide for creating readers, of how we can activate the reading brain in the individual and set the conditions for creating a successful reader. Now obviously successful can mean many different things but I think in this instance I am thinking about the highest level of success and so not successful in just being able to read.

It has therefore come from years of research, and many hours spent trying to figure out what differs from the successful reading brain to the unsuccessful one.

There is no beginning of a model such as this as all the parts need to be in existence for the ultimate goal to be achieved. This ultimate goal, for me, is defined by Alan McLean in his journey to excellence as autonomy.

“I keep mentioning Autonomy because it’s gold dust. What is Autonomy? Autonomy is self-determination. How much scope or trust do I have? How much scope do I have for self-determination in my job or in my classroom? And the more self-determination, the more autonomy you have the more motivated you will be. The opposite of Autonomy is anxiety, where you’re overwhelmed, you’re so pressurised or you’re discouraged. ” Alan McLean

Alan hits the nail on the head here when it comes to excelling at something and his theory works just as well in reading as it does in learning. This autonomy is then gained through the application of all the different parts of the reading brain being activated. These parts are made up the ‘stuff’ that makes reading happen and I have been able to break these down into tangible beings so that they can be understood and taken advantage of to allow the student to gain this autonomy in their reading.

Unlike Lancaster’s Hierarchy of Reading ¬†which looks at how you can produce the right environment for reading to excel this model looks more at the individual, or the micro not the macro and how we can engage the individual by knowing what it is that needs to work for a reader to excel.

As good a place as any to start is grit. Grit is more than just the ability to stick at something and to be able to bounce back and be resilient in the face of setbacks. It is also about the active pursuit and determination of goals and achievements and in this model in terms of wanting to read. It includes my favourite area of talking, attitudes and particularly attitudes to reading. As non-cognitive skills go this is so vital to any route of excellence. If you’re just not into it then it’s not going to happen!

Next, it’s worth looking knowledge and what this means in terms of the model. For me a students knowledge and their experiences are key to a students comprehension and understanding of a book or piece of text. If you look more into the science of reading you see the importance knowledge plays in interweaving all the different facets of reading. Daniel T Willingham highlights this in his work and shows us that the ability to comprehend text links to what a person knows and how this knowledge links to retrieving, processing and understanding new things. In the simple view of the brain where we take things into our working memory and those things that remain are the ones that stick to the ‘stuff’ in our long term memory , we see that knowledge is key. The more knowledge, or stuff you have the more Velcro of new knowledge will stick to it.

So this is where experience is vital. The more experiences we have the more knowledge Velcro we have and so the more new knowledge sticks to what already exists. In terms of books and reading this means that in understanding a passage on something like the process of dry cleaning we can immediately understand what is happening and bring explained if we have experienced this before. This is the reason why weak readers, and I use boys as a good example here, choose sport books is because they are already familiar with the terminology and the content of the book so it isn’t such a big step to start reading it. Whereas if they picked up a book that was about something they knew nothing about they would have to make the leap into reading in the first place and to be confused by the content to make them feel an even weaker reader. This leap then is softened if the book’s content is easily accessible. This could also be the reason why non-fiction is heavily read by weaker readers. If you look at their choices they are areas that are already interested in and so become the accessible book to read.

So bringing prior knowledge to a book is therefore really important as it not only aids the process of reading but also enjoyment of reading too. If you feel that you don’t understand the text then you are certainly not going to, or are very unlikely to enjoy it. It also means that when we’re looking to engage a student into reading you need to think about their experiences and what they’re going to be able to access from this perspective.

Activating this knowledge element of reading allows the reader to gain those really important social and reading skills. The ability to feel apathy towards other people or circumstances and also the ability to infer understanding from text. Both of these are a direct result of having knowledge but also activate a certain amount of knowledge at the same time. The reason why they become so important.

The next important part of the successful reading brain is that of curiosity. In all the best readers and those readers the most the most effort in it is because they have this heightened sense of curiosity within their reading.

Within the section we see the constant enquiring nature of the reader , a thirst for more knowledge and understanding through questioning and a deep set interest and wonder in reading. All these small things can easily be seen in the successful reader and the links that are associated with both the knowledge and non-cognitive elements of the successful reading brain make this part of the reading brain the glue that holds it all together.

Just as the ability to have grit around reading is centred on attitude and desire the nature of curiosity keeps this all in line. For a reader to be truly successful they need to access this part of their reading brain and always have this interest and curiosity at the forefront.

The last section of the successful reading brain some would describe as the most important. It is the fundamental skills of reading, the cognitive abilities that include language comprehension, cognition and decoding skills. Some would believe that without these in place then none of the other elements matter or can happen.

I would disagree with this and say that in reality none of these are more important than the other and so without any of them there is no successful reading brain. It is all fair and good being able to decode and comprehend but if you do not have the curiosity of reading, the grit and determination to actively read or the knowledge and apathy of reading then all you are doing is translating squiggles on a page into sounds. For me this is a far distant cry from the actual act of reading which as you can through this model is so much more.

It is my understanding, which has come through much research that to be classified as a successful reader you need to have all these different parts active to meet this classification. If any of these happens to be missing then success cannot be obtained.

So beyond this what does this mean for a school or parent looking to create a successful reader? Well this model highlights all the intricacies of what it takes. It then needs someone to actively pursue the identification and activation of these in the individual child. If you are able to have all these things working then simply you will have a competent, confident and forever imprpving, successful reader.