How do we learn to read? Unlike spoken language, reading is not a skill the brain is hardwired to develop. Learning to read requires the coordinated work of several brain regions that correspond with different cognitive skills.

Some children learn to read easily no matter what instructional method is used in the school they attend. But many others — as many as 65 percent — need explicit, systematic phonics-based instruction that is not offered in all schools. The result is that more than half of our children, by the time they graduate from high school, don’t have the kind of fluid reading skills they need to thrive as adults. Some, though not all of them, have the learning disorder called dyslexia. For these children, how they are taught reading matters a great deal.

Battles over how children should be taught to read have been fought over many decades as new strategies have been developed and adopted, and their results measured. But in the 21st century, educators have an advantage over their predecessors: knowledge of the areas and circuits in the brain that are involved in learning to read.

Neurobiologists have not only identified what’s going on in the brain as a child acquires skill at reading, they have identified differences in that process in children with dyslexia.

Reading and the brain

When learning to read, children must make a concerted effort to recognize printed letters, to associate those letters with sounds and then to master making these connections quickly. The process of connecting sounds with printed letters is called “phonics.” Matthew Cruger, PhD, director of the Learning and Development Center at the Child Mind Institute, explains how they acquire these skills.

“When they are first learning to read, you hear children taking considerable time to sound out words and you can watch them trying to get their lips to articulate the sounds just right,” Dr. Cruger notes.  Articulating the sounds in words one-by-one relies upon an area in the frontal part of the brain for producing speech and sounds. This sounding out process involves concentrated effort and is not automatic, even for kids who pick up reading easily.

Two areas in the back sections of the brain help build these connections between letters and sounds into automatic decoding and recognizing words. One system is for quick processing of sounds and another is for quick visual recognition. They form a connected network that increasingly works automatically as kids get more practice.

Under the best circumstances, children learn to recognize the letters and sounds simultaneously or automatically and without much thought. At that point, these back areas of the brain become specialized for reading, even though they did not evolve naturally to recognize print — highlighting how our brains can be adapted for new learning.

Brain differences in children with dyslexia

In children with dyslexia, these back areas of the brain for automatic decoding and recognizing words are not as developed as they are in other kids, explains Dr. Cruger. So children with dyslexia over-rely on the frontal areas, sounding out each word time and again, even when they have practiced reading that word many, many times. Research in the field has confirmed that the back areas of the brain are working less effectively in kids with dyslexia and reduce their efficacy in decoding.

“Students with dyslexia cannot develop or utilize these areas with ease,” explains Dr. Cruger.

They depend on different brain regions and pathways that require greater mental effort, and, as they learn to sound words out, they take more time in doing so. The good news is that when children with dyslexia get effective instruction, the brain areas and systems they use can change.

“We can measure the impact of remediation strategies in three ways,” explains Dr. Cruger. “We can observe students reading more effectively. We can quantify those improvements with standardized reading tests. And we can see, though neuroimaging, changes in the brain areas and systems that are used for reading.”

What kind of instruction is effective for children with dyslexia and what’s not? It helps to understand how reading instruction has changed over the last five decades.

The ‘whole language’ approach to reading

One method, called the “whole language” approach, used to be very popular and still influences how reading is taught in some schools. Whole language was based on the idea that kids would learn to read “naturally” by exposure to written language that was relevant and motivating to them. Confronted with new words, they would look for clues rather than sounding them out. “They’d use pictures or context to figure out what word made sense rather than using phonics to sound words out,” explains Laura Phillips, PsyD, a clinical neuropsychologist at the Child Mind Institute.

Ken Goodman, who is considered the “father of whole language,” referred to reading as a “psycholinguistic guessing game,” Dr. Phillips adds.

Figuring out unfamiliar words by looking for clues in pictures or context is a strategy typically developing kids may use initially when they’re learning to read, she notes. But eventually they stop using those other strategies when they realize it’s more efficient to look at the letters and use phonics.

The problem is that kids with dyslexia, who don’t have access to that set of phonics skills, will continue to rely on those cueing strategies. Training them to look at the picture or to try to figure out what makes sense in the sentence is drawing their attention away from what they should be focusing on, which is the letters and the sounds, explains Dr. Phillips. “So, you’re maintaining poor reading strategies among kids who really need to constantly be directed to the letters to sound it out.”

Enter balanced literacy

The whole language approach was widely discredited in the 1990s as neuroscientists weighed in, arguing that the “guessing game” approach misunderstands how the brain works in reading, underestimating the importance of sound identification and mapping of the sounds in words.

In 2000, the federal government released a study to determine the most effective ways of teaching kids to read. The study identified five key concepts at the core of every effective reading instruction program: Phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension — coined the Five Pillars of Reading Instruction.

“Balanced literacy” is a curriculum, still widely in use, that was designed to balance all five of these components. But critics of balanced literacy argue that it’s still too close to the whole language approach. Dr. Phillips argues that there is not enough phonics instruction in balanced literacy for many kids to learn to read proficiently, especially kids with dyslexia.

The latest thinking: Systematic phonics instruction

What works best for children learning to read, says Dr. Philips, is systematic phonics instruction, with a lot of repetition. Systematic, she explains, means moving step-by-step through a progression of phonics skills, from learning to recognize the most common and consistent letter-sound patterns to harder and less consistent letter-sound patterns. This method is especially important for children with dyslexia, who need a high dose of it to succeed, but also for the many other children who struggle to learn through other reading programs. (see How to Teach Kids With Dyslexia to Read).

“We don’t want to ignore vocabulary and comprehension,” she explains, “but in those early K-2 years they are best taught separately, such as through oral language activities, so that reading time can really focus on mastering word identification, building up sight-word vocabularies, and promoting fluent reading.” The goal is that by third grade, when emphasis shifts from “learning to read” to “reading to learn,” children have sufficient reading fluency — which requires automatic word recognition, rather than having to consciously decode letter by letter. “This fluency frees up working memory capacity for reading comprehension,” says Dr. Phillips.

There is still a widespread misconception, she notes, that mapping words for automatic retrieval is just a visual memory process — memorizing what the words look like. “A lot of people, including some educators, don’t understand that underlying that ‘memorization’ of words is learning what the component sounds are and “mapping” those sounds onto letters, and eventually strings of letters — a process called orthographic mapping. That requires phonological or sound awareness, which involves a different brain area.”

Another problem with balanced literacy, and with using contextual clues to teach children how to read, is that students who may be very bright — who have great verbal comprehension abilities — but are having trouble with the mechanics of reading are often not noticed. “Because they are able to get by using context,” says Alex Bellantuono, PhD, a clinical neuropsychologist at the Child Mind Institute, “they fly under the radar and they will not be picked up by teachers as having reading issues until there is a skill breakdown. That means not being identified until a much later time where things take longer or are harder to remediate.”

How can we identify kids who are at risk of reading problems?

Now that we have an understanding of the importance of phonics in learning how to read, our experts say, we also know how to identify kids who are at risk for having reading problems, and we have the opportunity to identify them early.

There is strong evidence that awareness of sounds — phonological awareness — even before a child has had any reading instruction, is a good predictor of future reading outcomes. For instance, if a preschool child doesn’t pick up rhyming, which requires recognizing similar sounds, they are at risk of developing dyslexia. Children who show these weaknesses, and who struggle with recognizing the connection between letters and the sounds they make in the earliest grades, need to be evaluated for the condition. Even in first grade, we can begin to identify many children who will be at significant risk of reading delays, says Dr. Cruger. “This means we can identify kids who are headed for risk early on and then start to talk about the pros and cons of different kinds of reading instruction methods.”