> Articles >
Redefining Literacy; Learning About Learning to
A Conversation with Sally Shaywitz and Marcia
Download this page in PDF
Unlike speaking, reading is not an
instinctive human ability. New imaging techniques
now allow researchers to see how our neurocircuitry
uses the brain's language system to both speak and
read. Neuroscientist and professor of pediatrics at
Yale University School of Medicine, Sally Shaywitz,
along with her husband, Bennett Shaywitz, is
codirector of the Yale Center for the Study of
Learning and Attention. For 30 years, she has
focused on understanding the brain mechanisms
involved in reading. While developing "The Brain and
Reading" video series, Marcia D'Arcangelo
interviewed Dr. Shaywitz about her life's work. We
hear how advances in brain imaging technology let us
see the brain at work. Because we wonder whether new
discoveries can inform our instructional practice,
learning about how the brain works is of great
interest to educators today. Educators have always
been interested in the brain, but we scientists
haven't had the ability to bring issues relating to
the brain to education. But now, we can actually
look at the working brain and examine what happens
when a child tries to learn. These matters are very
germane to what teachers need to know.
What do we
really know about how the brain learns to read?
We know that whereas speaking is
natural, reading is not. Children do not
automatically read. They have to learn how to do it.
Through tens of thousands of years of evolution, men
and women have developed the abilities to speak, to
hear, and to listen. Every society has some form of
spoken language. Put a baby in a speaking
environment and that child will learn to speak. We
don't have to teach children how to talk. As Stephen
Pinker says, language is instinctive. But reading
isn't. Reading is a recent development. Not every
society reads. There isn't a little reading center
in the brain. Humans haven't evolved that way. The
neurocircuitry isn't set up to allow us to read. But
humans do have the capacity to read. Over time, we
have learned to use our neurocircuitry to read. The
brain system that lends itself to reading is the
language system. To read, a child has to use this
wonderful, enriched, and robust language system to
somehow get meaning from print. To do that, a child
has to somehow transcode that print into language.
saying that in order to read, we have to adapt, or
train, our brain to perform in ways it wasn't
naturally designed to work?
In essence, yes. We acquire the
ability to do many things that we aren't born
knowing how to do. Children have to develop the
awareness that words are made up of sounds. And that
print represents these sounds,or phonemes. For
example, the word bat really has three phonemes, b,
a, and t, so children have to develop this
awareness. And then they have to develop the
understanding that the letters on the page——the b,
the a, and the t——represent these units of sound.
When children reach this level of awareness, they're
ready to learn to read. For some children, it's
easy; for others, it's very difficult.
your group at Yale have used functional magnetic
resonance imaging (fMRI) technology to analyze how
the brain learns to read. Have you discovered why it
is easy for some and difficult for others?
In one study, we examined very
disabled readers and compared them with good
readers. We found a difference in the brain
activation patterns of the two groups when the task
made increasing demands to break up words into their
underlying phonologic structure or sound pattern.
This is very exciting and extraordinarily important.
One, it shows the functional organization of the
brain for reading. Two, it shows what happens when
people have trouble reading. And three, it shows
when the problem occurs. Knowing all of this
supports the view that reading is biologically based
and lends substantial support to the phonologic
hypothesis of how we read and why some people can't
Why is it
important to understand that reading is biologically
We often blame children,
particularly bright children who have trouble
reading, for not being motivated enough or for not
trying hard enough. As if somehow, it's their fault.
But if we have evaluated the children, we know that
they're trying hard, more than anyone can imagine.
But they have nothing to show for it. Before, we
could hypothesize that the child was very bright but
had a real biologic difficulty making him or her
unable to read. Now, we can look at an imaging
pattern and say, "Aha, this is a real problem; this
is as real as a broken arm that you might look at on
Can we look
at brain imaging patterns and tell which children
will have trouble reading?
This technology has been an
extraordinary advance, but I don't want to mislead
people. We can't use it yet to diagnose an
individual. Someone cannot get into the scanner and
say, "Aha, I have an image, and I can have a
diagnosis." But I have no doubt about the potential
for this technology to diagnose people early and
more precisely and then to actually examine the
effects of interventions.
difference, specifically, did you see in the brain
patterns of good and poor readers?
Good readers had a pattern of
activation in the back of the brain, the system that
includes the occipital region, which is activated by
the visual features of the letters; the angular
gyrus where print is transcoded into language; and
Wernicke's region, the area of the brain that
accesses meaning. This posterior area is strongly
activated in good readers, but we saw relative
under- activation in poor readers. As we asked good
readers to do more and more phonologic
processing——to look at single letters and tell
whether they rhyme and then to look at and sound out
words that they had never seen before——we could see
an increase in activation in these areas. But when
poor readers performed these same phonological
tasks, they really didn't increase the activation in
the back of the brain. There was a significant
difference. What made it even more interesting was
that there were differences in the front of the
brain as well. When good readers read, an area in
the front of the brain called the inferior frontal
gyrus, or Broca's area, was activated. When poor
readers read, that area was even more strongly
this pattern of relative underactivation and
overactivation in poor readers tell you?
We've interpreted this to mean that
in going from print, from seeing letters, to
language——which is the task of reading——poor readers
have incredible difficulty. The relative increase in
activation in the front of the brain reflects their
effort. Sometimes when people can't read, they
sub-vocalize. They say the word under their breath.
This may represent additional effort to pronounce
the word accurately. It's incredible that we found
this difference in the angular gyrus, the area that
helps transcode one precept——say, the visual——to
another, the linguistic. This makes sense given what
we know about the cognitive process of reading,
going from print to language. Clearly, we have a lot
to learn, but now all investigators who have worked
hard to understand reading and the brain have a
place to focus future research. We can go to the
next level of trying to understand the neural
mechanisms that lie under reading and reading
words, the brain systems of poor readers process
incoming print information differently from the way
that the systems of good readers do.
Yes, there really is a difference in
brain activation patterns between good and poor
readers. We see the difference when people carry out
phonologically based tasks. And that tells us that
the area of difficulty—— the functional
disruption——in poor readers relates to phonologic
analysis. This suggests that we focus on phonologic
awareness when trying to prevent or remediate the
difficulty in poor reading.
readers master the reading process, do their brain
activation patterns change, or are patterns of
activation similar all their lives?
That's an important question that
our research group at Yale is collaborating with
investigators at Syracuse University (Anita
Blachman) to address. Children who are poor readers
are receiving a highly focused, phonologically based
intervention, and they are imaged both before and
after the intervention. We expect to have the
results of this study within a few years.
results you discovered with brain imaging consistent
with what you find when you study readers
They are. For example, a number of
years ago we studied more than 300 children, most of
whom were poor readers. When we examined these
children on a range of tasks, the one that most
significantly differentiated good readers from poor
readers assessed phonemic awareness. For
example, we asked children to say a word and remove
a phoneme: "Can you say 'Germany' without 'ma'?" To
do that, they have to segment that spoken word and
pull out a part. Children who had difficulty with
this phonologic processing task were also the
poorest readers. One of the strongest predictors of
who will be good readers is their phonemic
awareness. The evidence we have that this is brain
based converges nicely with behavioral information.
the implications of these studies for teaching
Pretty strong evidence supports a
phonologic model of reading. People have to be
aware, clearly, that it's a complex issue. We want
children to be able to read the word on the page.
But we must also remember that we want them to read
the word on the page to get to the meaning and the
richness of the literature and the language. But if
they don't know how to read the individual words,
what can we do? The most comprehensive reading
program explicitly teaches about the sounds of
language. It teaches children that words can be
broken up into these smaller units of language, that
the letters represent these units of
language——phonics. But we also want to teach
children about language and to build their
vocabulary. We want them to have a knowledge base.
We want them to practice reading and to read for
meaning. So we want a balanced program. Although
phonics is more important for some children than for
others, all children can benefit from being taught
directly how to break up spoken words into smaller
units and how letters represent sounds.
mentioned that children must practice reading. What
is it about how the brain functions that makes
Think of brain pathways as circuits.
The more we use them, the more they become
reinforced. It's very important for children to read
often. But if children can't read well, they're not
going to want to read. But if we can give poor
readers a sound foundation so that they know and can
decode a group of words, they will have the
phonologic skills to sound out words they've never
seen before and will be encouraged to read. Once
children know how to decode words, we want them to
become fluent and automatic and be able to see words
and read them without struggling. Only then will
they have the resources left to enjoy what the word
means and to think about the multiple meanings of
what they're reading.
give an example of how being taught directly about
language can be more important for some children
than for others?
We get very concerned about poor
readers who are dyslexic, who have difficulties in
phonology but have strong skills in reasoning,
understanding, and comprehending. Their isolated
skill in phonology is lacking, but all the other
skills and understandings are there. These children
often have wonderful vocabularies. Imagine their
frustration. They see a word in print but can't read
it. Then someone says, "Oh, you don't know that?"
But when they hear the word, they know it very well.
It is important to identify these children as early
as possible and to give them the help they need in
the most intense, direct way possible. Back in 1985,
Becoming a Nation of Readers suggested
that teaching phonics is not a useful practice after
the early grades. Yet we have many children in the
upper grades, including high school, who read
outgrow the need for direct phonics instruction?
We know that brain systems are
plastic, flexible, and responsive, but we have to
give children the right substrate in terms of how we
teach them. Children who have a biologically based
difficulty can learn, but we have to present
instruction in a more direct, more intense way over
a longer duration. We should also clarify that
today's research-based interventions are not our
mother's phonics. Today's programs, for example,
research-based interventions supported by the
National Institute of Child Health and Human
Development (NICHD), are balanced, comprehensive
programs that include phonologic awareness, phonics,
literature, vocabulary, fluency, and
studies revealed any differences between boys' and
girls' ability to learn to read?
We've examined this issue in several
ways. We started the Connecticut Longitudinal Study
in 1983, when we identified a random group of more
than 400 five-year-old boys and girls about to enter
kindergarten. We didn't select these children
because they had reading problems. The only
criterion was that they attended public school in
Connecticut. We're still following over 90 percent
of these children, who are now in their early 20s.
We've tested them in reading and arithmetic every
year. When we compare the boys' and the girls'
reading scores, we don't see differences. That
surprised us because the literature suggests that
boys may have more problems. So, for all the
children in our study, we asked their schools, "Has
this child been identified as having a reading
problem?" We found that four times as many boys as
girls were identified as having a reading problem.
When we examined our data for an explanation, we
found that teachers seemed to be using behavioral
criteria. They saw that Johnny was a little more
fidgety in class, a little more disruptive, so they
selected little boys for further evaluation; little
girls who were just sitting very nicely, very
politely, but not reading, might not be identified.
haven't you found some brain-based gender
differences in the ways that men and women read?
We found something rather
remarkable. We examined brain activation patterns in
men and women as they were sounding out nonsense
words. We gave them two printed nonsense words
and asked, "Do these two words rhyme?" Men activated
an area on the left side of their brain, the
inferior frontal gyrus, or Broca's area. When women
did the same task, they indeed activated the left
inferior frontal gyrus. But they activated the right
as well. Equally interesting was that there was no
difference in how quickly and accurately men and
women could sound out nonsense words. This tells us
that men and women can get the same result by
perhaps using different routes.
different mental challenges involved in learning to
read and reading to learn?
The so-called simple view states
that reading has two major components: identifying
the single word——decoding—— and
comprehending——understanding what we read. We now
are able to examine the process of decoding in terms
of brain organization. Comprehension is a lot more
complicated. Obviously, to comprehend a printed
word, we first have to decode it. But more is
involved. We are studying that now.
of the brain is involved with processing meaning?
We speak of "this area of the brain"
or "that area of the brain," but it's important to
know that the brain is connected and that there are
brain systems. These brain systems are forever
communicating with one another. So even though for
ease of communication we speak of specific areas,
what we really have are networks that are
communicating with one another constantly. Having
said that, I will note that an area of the brain
that particularly has to do with meaning is
Wernicke's area, in the temporal lobe of the brain.
The temporal lobes are located on each side of the
brain just behind the ears. Teachers often find that
some students can read and not understand a word
whereas others can understand everything but have
trouble decoding words.
those problems different?
Some children, particularly as they
get older, reach a high level of accuracy in
identifying words, but still have difficulty
becoming fluent or automatic in their reading.
They're very slow readers. And reading takes a great
deal of energy. But those children or young adults
can understand what they read. It just takes a lot
out of them. It's very much an energy-consuming
process. Other children may read words rapidly but
may not get the meaning. Children with a serious
problem called hyperlexia can decode very well, but
they can't comprehend. It's the inverse of dyslexia.
Dyslexic children have the lower-level phonologic
deficit, but intact higher-order skills that allow
them to comprehend at high levels. Children with
hyperlexia have terrific phonologic skills but can't
comprehend. Hyperlexia is a relatively rare
disorder, and affected children often experience
other difficulties as well. For all we know about
the nature of reading, many misconceptions still
exist about reading difficulties—— dyslexia, for
example. One common misconception about dyslexia is
that people see letters and words backward. That is
unfortunate because I've seen many people for whom
the diagnosis of dyslexia was delayed because they
did not manifest reversal. People with dyslexia have
no problem copying letters and words, and they don't
copy words backward. They may make some reversals in
writing but no more than other children do. They
have difficulty naming things because dyslexia is a
language difficulty, not a problem with visual
perception. These children can copy the word
correctly. For example, they can copy w-a-s for was
and say the letters correctly. But when we ask them
what word they copied, they say, "saw." So it's not
a question of having the visual, perceptual skills
but of what they do with a word on the page.
How do we
bring the print to language?
Again, the brain mechanism of going
from print to language is phonologically based. We
have to transcode the print. We have to appreciate
that the print stands for words that can be broken
into smaller phonologic units and that the grapheme,
the letter or the letter groups, represents these
bits of language. When we look at print, we activate
areas in the back of the brain that have to do with
vision, convert the print to language by using areas
farther forward in the brain that have to do with
transcoding, and then use areas of the brain that
get to the meaning of language. The important thing
to remember is that although for ease of
communication the system is described as linear, in
fact, information is transmitted bidirectionally and
in parallel. Educators are vitally interested in
information that can help them teach reading. Many
middle school and high school teachers, in
particular, haven't been taught how to teach
reading. I find it curious that teachers are often
blamed for their students' poor reading. Of all the
people to whom I lecture, the largest group, the
most committed group, is teachers. They're the ones
who want to know, "What do we know about reading?
What can I take back to my classroom?" We haven't
been able to provide teachers until recently with a
knowledge base of what reading is all about. But
fortunately, we——and when I say "we," I mean the
whole scientific community that studies reading--now
really understand the reading process from both
cognitive and behavioral perspectives and,
increasingly, from neurobiological perspectives.
This evidence supports the fact that reading is part
of language. To read, we have to break up spoken
words into smaller units, understand that letters
represent sounds, have a knowledge base, have a
vocabulary, and have the motivation and enjoyment.
Teachers now have a template, a scientifically based
template, to guide them in how they teach reading.
If they use this approach, they can actually make a
Sally Shaywitz is Professor of
Pediatrics at the Yale Child Study Center and at
Yale University School of Medicine, 333 Cedar St.,
New Haven, CT 06510 (e-mail:
firstname.lastname@example.org). Marcia D'Arcangelo is
a Producer on ASCD's Professional Development team
Contact Us | Donate