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What Elementary Educators Need to Know About the Reading Brain

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

“The Science and Poetry in Learning (and Teaching) to Read” by Maryanne Wolf in Phi Delta Kappan, December 2018/January 2019 (Vol. 100, #4, p. 13-17),; Wolf can be reached at
“A large, fundamental mistake,” says Maryanne Wolf (University of California/Los Angeles) in this Kappan article, “– with many unfortunate consequences for children, teachers, and parents around the world – is the assumption that reading is natural to human beings and that it will simply emerge ‘whole cloth’ like language when the child is ready.” In fact, she says, reading is an “unnatural cultural invention,” barely 6,000 years old. On the clock of human evolution, that’s a second before midnight.
Fortunately, the brain is highly adaptable (neuroplasticity) and has tremendous capacity (there are as many connections in one cubic centimeter of the brain as there are stars in the Milky Way galaxy). That’s why humans have been able to manage reading in addition to everything else we do. Taught well, the brain is able to master the elaborate “circus” of reading, says Wolf, “with three large overlapping rings (representing vision, language, and cognition), connected to two smaller rings (motor and affective functions), all of which are overseen by an ‘executive center’ that handles attention, memory, hypothesis generating, and decision making.” It takes the whole brain to handle all that!
Recent research findings, combined with previous insights, allow schools to immediately assess which of six developmental profiles describes an entering kindergarten student. New assessment batteries make it possible for teachers and parents to understand exactly what each child needs to become a proficient reader:
- Children in two of the profiles have average or above-average skills and will need only good instruction to excel.
- Other children have difficulty with letters and sounds, probably because they’ve had little exposure to the alphabet or the English language; they’ll respond quickly if instruction targets these deficits. (Some children in this group may have visual-based difficulties and need further testing.)
- Three of the profiles include children who will be diagnosed with some form of reading disability or dyslexia.
“There are few discoveries more important to those of us who study dyslexia,” says Wolf, “than to be able to predict it before the child has had to endure ignominious, daily public failures before peers, parents, and teachers… By assessing struggling young readers early on, we can prevent some of the emotional detritus that often characterizes their reading experiences… Nothing in reading acquisition is more important than beginning systematic, targeted intervention as early as possible.”
“Some children, particularly boys, show no obvious areas of weakness in their profile but are simply not yet ready to learn to read,” Wolf continues. “Understanding this group requires more in-depth evaluation (to ensure that there are no underlying weaknesses) and also more-reasonable expectations for our children than is sometimes the case… Some children are pushed to read too hard too soon, before they are developmentally ready… The bottom line is that fears about third-grade state test results should never dictate decisions about when whole kindergarten classes receive instruction for reading.” Many children in Europe are taught to read in their equivalent of first grade, and the evidence is that they learn with fewer problems.
Wolf laments that the phonics/whole language reading war (“the debate that never should have been”) is still raging in some quarters. It’s not either/or, she says; children need systematic instruction on the basics of reading and early, deep immersion in stories, authentic literature, word meanings, and creativity. Recently developed assessments allow teachers to see which rungs on the developmental reading ladder a child between ages 5 and 10 might be missing:
- Phonemes and their connections to letters;
- The meanings and functions of words and morphemes in sentences;
- An immersion in stories that require sophisticated deep-reading processes;
- Learning the meanings and grammatical uses of words in increasingly complex sentences;
- Learning about new letter patterns that reappear and help readers figure out word meanings;
- Making basic functions so practiced and automatic that children can focus their attention on increasingly more sophisticated comprehension;
- Expanding background knowledge;
- Regularly eliciting children’s own thoughts and imagination in speaking and writing.
“All the rungs are important,” says Wolf, “if we are to prepare children to become fluent readers who use both their imagination and their analytical capacities… [F]luent reading involves knowing not only how words work but also how they make us feel. Empathy and perspective taking are part of the complex fabric of feelings and thoughts, whose convergence propels greater understanding… Deep reading is always about connection: connecting what we know to what we read, what we read to what we feel, what we feel to what we think, and how we think to how we live out our lives in a connected world.”

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