The reading brain

On average, children take two to three years to learn to decode English. It is the most difficult alphabetic writing system in the world to master. In Finland, where there are no exceptions, each letter always stands for the same sound and children take only a few months to learn to decode. Like a muscle, the brain grows with practice. Brem (2010) showed that the visual word form area in the human brain begins to appear in the brain scans of non-readers after as little as five hours of training in decoding.  A number of brain regions are involved in reading and comprehension. Among them are the temporal lobe, which is responsible for phonological awareness and for decoding and discriminating sounds; Broca’s area in the frontal lobe, which governs speech production and language comprehension; and the angular and supramarginal gyrus, which link different parts of the brain so that letter shapes can be put together to form words. The visual stimulation of reading exercises the occipital lobe. This helps with the imagination, which will also help with creativity. The occipital lobe also has a big impact on making decisions. The parietal lobe is the part of the brain that turns letters into words, and words into thoughts.

Keller and Just in 2009 uncovered evidence that intensive instruction to improve reading skills in young children causes the brain to physically rewire itself, creating new white matter that improves communication within the brain. The researchers report that brain imaging of children between the ages of 8 and 10 showed that the quality of white matter — the brain tissue that carries signals between areas of grey matter, where information is processed — improved substantially after the children received 100 hours of remedial training. After the training, imaging indicated that the capability of the white matter to transmit signals efficiently had increased, and testing showed the children could read better.

Read the article here.

brain image


Brem, S., Bach, S., Kucian, K., Kujala, J., Guttorm, T., Martin, E., et al. (2010). Brain sensitivity to print emerges when children learn letter–speech sound correspondences. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 107(17), 7939-7944.


Some suggestions for further reading: Stanilas Dehaene’s Reading in the Brain: The New Science of How We Read is an excellent and very accessible  book on the neuroscience of reading. Dehaene, S. (2010). Reading in the brain: The new science of how we read. New York: Penguin Books.

Martha Burns has very interesting blogs on brain development and reading.

I also recommend Reading Mastery: Where Pedagogy Meets the Science of Reading - Scientific Learning (

Scientific American