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How The Brain Reads and Understands Words

Written By Geoff Nixon . September 28, 2022

The Reading Brain

We consider reading to be a basic skill that can and should be natural.  Many if not most children are able to pick up reading around the age of 6 .But have you ever stopped to consider how our brains adapt to learn to read and understand the written word? In this article, we’re going to take a deep dive into the cognitive research behind how our brains learn to read.

Our brains are not hardwired to read

Before we delve into the research on the mechanics and process of reading, it’s important to understand that reading is a relatively new required skill for humans.  Language in a visual format started with the Ancient Egyptians – hieroglyphics. But the requirement to read really only became a thing for the general population in the last 3-400 years.

There is a strong cultural element as to what reading means to an individual. Words and letters look different; some languages read left to right, while others read right to left.  Some languages are phonetic, others, like English, are less so.

Whatever the language, since reading is not a natural skill like walking or talking, each brain is challenged with figuring out how to read. For many children, this is the first major challenge to their learning progress. That’s  where cognitive science comes in.

Using cognitive science to understand how our brain reads

Cognitive science is the study of how our minds work. It’s a relatively young field, only coming into its own in the 1950s with advances in computing power and theories on how the brain processes information and uses repetition to retain learning. In recent years, cognitive science has been used to better understand a wide range of topics – from decision-making to artificial intelligence.

And in terms of reading, cognitive science can help us understand how our brains learn to read, and what difficulties some people have in learning to read later in life.

The link between reading and cognition is clearer than you think.  When reading, we are able to tap into our word memory semantics, the attached meaning of all of the words we have ever heard.

The brain learns to read by a simple process – recognizing shapes (which we refer to as letters) and associating a sound to it.  It’s how despite this sentence being made up of arbitrary lines and squiggles, you understand exactly what it means.

Our brain develops this skill over a few steps, which we are going to look at in more detail.

Brain maps – How does the brain map text to sounds?

We know that our brains are good at making connections. When we see a word, our brain retrieves the associated sound from our memory and maps it to the word. This process is known as phonemic awareness, and it’s the first step in learning to read.  Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate individual sounds in spoken words.

For example, being able to break the word “spoon” down into its three separate sounds: /s/, /p/, and /oo/.  Phonemic awareness is a key predictor of reading success, and children who are not phonemically aware often struggle to learn to read later in life.

So how does our brain match sounds to words?

Our brains do this by building a memory of the sounds we hear, and then linking those sounds to the words we see.  This process is known as phonological recoding, and it’s how our brains learn to read.

When we see a word, our brain retrieves the associated sound from our memory and maps it to the word. If we see the word “spoon”, our brain will retrieve the three separate sounds (/s/, /p/, and /oo/) and match them to the word.

Phonological recoding is a significant predictor of reading success, and children who are not phonologically aware often have difficulties learning to read as adults.

What difficulties occur with phonological recoding?

There are a few difficulties that can impede someone’s ability to phonologically recode.   The first is if the person has never heard the sound before. For example, if a child has never heard the /sp/ sound, they will have difficulty mapping it to the word “spoon”.

This is a major difficulty that occurs with language processing delays.  And it’s also common with people learning English as a new language, especially Asians whose languages are tonal as opposed to phonemic. Their brain is not trained to decipher two letter consonants.,

How does our brain get meaning from text?

This process is known as semantic processing, and it’s how our brains understand what we read. When we see a word, our brain retrieves the associated meaning from our word memory (from listening) and maps it to the word.

For example, when we see the word “cat”, our brain will retrieve the meaning of the word (a four-legged animal that meows) and match it to the word.

For reading to be automatic and effortless, all of this needs to be fluent.  It’s what makes reading such a challenge. So many things need to work for a child to decode words and derive meaning.  Which is why so many children struggle with reading, and why so many actually never really master reading.

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