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How To Read Using The Brain Correctly

How The Brain Processes Reading And Why We Must Understand It
By Academic Associates founder Cliff Ponder
copyright 1997 by Cliff Ponder

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Major universities and other institutions around the world are engaged in ongoing projects that continually expand our understanding of the workings of the human brain. The following brief summary of how the brain processes reading is based on research from these projects and other research, and fits quite well the observations that this author has made over the years. Our knowledge is constantly expanding as a result of that research, so some of the premises stated herein may have to be somewhat modified in succeeding years as new findings come to light.

But the conclusions stated herein regarding the reading instruction method developed by Academic Associates are irrefutable, and will remain relevant even as future research provides additional insight into why the method works so well.

Everyone Can Learn To Read

Different Brains, Different Styles

Male and female brains, while similar in may aspects, often function differently when processing the same or similar tasks. This is a result of physiological differences in the neural architecture of the brain, over which neither male nor female has any control. Sophisticated methods of determining which parts of the brain are involved in various tasks indicate that several fundamental differences exist between the typical male and female brain. These differences are graphically illustrated by magnetic resonance images taken during various activities.

The images demonstrate that different segments of the brain are often activated in males and females, even when both are exposed to identical external stimuli. We will consider here only those differences that affect the process of reading.

Brain activation patterns show that males process reading in a relatively small area in the left hemisphere of the brain, while females typically process reading in significantly larger areas in both hemispheres.

use brain correctly to read

We also know that females are typically better able to infer, that is, to draw conclusions from intuitive, inferential stimuli or incomplete data, than are males. Males do not generally possess the ability to draw conclusions from inference or extrapolation as well as females. They require a directed, factual approach in order to be able to arrive at conclusions. 

For a somewhat facetious hypothetical example, if one tells a male the trash can is overflowing, he may acknowledge that it is indeed overflowing. If one desires the male to empty the trash, however, he must be directly requested to empty it. A female, on the other hand, is like to infer that she is being asked to empty the trash can, and is more likely to empty it.

Understanding the differences in male-female reactions to stimuli is useful in developing a hypothesis for teaching reading to members of both sexes.

Intuitive Vs Factual

Because females are better able to infer, they are better at isolating the individual sounds that makeup words, and at associating those sounds with the letters in the words - they infer that the sounds of the letters constitute the basis for words, even if they have never been exposed to that information. They can apply the sounds made by letter combinations in one word to the same letter combinations in other words, and thus are better able to read new words without any prior introduction to them.

The male, on the other hand, is generally less able to draw abstract conclusions, and is thus unable to infer that letters are symbols that stand for sounds. If a faulty teaching method requires him to infer that certain patterns of letters make the same sound in one word as in another, he cannot usually do so, so he will be unable to decode and identify new words. He must be systematically and consistently taught to transfer the sounds of letters and combinations of letters to new words. He must be taught every possible sound of each letter and combination of letters, plus dependable rules which govern the sounds those letters made. Until he learns this, he will have difficulty reading.

Whole-Word Vs Phonetic Instruction

There are two basic methods of reading instruction: the whole-word method [also called the sight-reading or total immersion method], and the phonics method.

The whole-word method attempts to teach reading by exposing students to words as self-contained entities, without regard for their component letters, sounds and blends. Each new word is approached as if it were a photograph, or better yet, a snapshot. The method requires repeated exposure to words, which, it is believed, will cause students to eventually recognize and memorize them. Although this may be attempted by a variety of means - flash cards, reading orally to students, extensive memorization of lists of words, etc. - the desired result is the same: students are expected to memorize words as though they were snapshots.

The same research that pinpoints those areas of the brain involved in reading also shows us that words and objects, such as snapshots, are processed in entirely different ways and in different parts, and in males, even in different hemispheres, of the brain. Because males constitute the majority of poor readers, let us first examine why they are so much more prone to reading difficulties than females.

When a male is taught to read by the whole-word method, he first recognizes words within the right hemisphere of his brain, where they have been stored in memory as a whole entity - much like a snapshot. The right hemisphere, however, is not capable of processing language, so details of the snapshot must be compared to the snapshots stored in his memory bank, identified, and then sent to the left hemisphere, which translates it into language and arranges it in context. It is then sent back to the right side again, this time for storage relative to the context in which it appeared in the text. I call this process of transferring and sorting information between two hemispheres of the brain “shuttling.”

The brain uses about 20 to 25 percent of the body’s total supply of oxygen. Apparently, a tremendous amount of energy is used when the brain is engaged in vigorous mental activity. The extra energy required by the task of shuttling may be the cause of the physical fatigue or drowsiness during reading that most sight-readers report - a phenomenon largely absent from those who read by phonics.

We have also learned something about the functioning of the various parts of the brain by observing those who have lost portions of their brains through accident or surgery.

When a male loses the entire right hemisphere of his brain, he may retain most of his language facilities, because they reside in the left hemisphere, but he may retain little or no memory of people, places or events. He may not even recognize close family members or familiar places. He cannot perform simple tasks.

If he loses the left side, however, he will still recognize familiar people and places, but will not be able to speak, read or otherwise process language. Fortunately, the brain is a wonderful organ, and the undamaged side can eventually be trained to take over the duties of the missing side, provided the person is sufficiently young and resilient. The process may take years, but there are hundreds and possibly thousands of people who function well with only one brain hemisphere.

Now notice how much more efficiently the brain processes words when reading is accomplished by phonics.

When a male who has learned to read by phonics reads, words enter the left side of the brain as language, not snapshots, where his language processors are. They are quickly identified there, then shifted to the right side for storage in the memory bank. A smooth, one-way flow of information into the brain is thus established.

This process is somewhat analogous to the way computers process text. You can process text in your computer’s graphics program, but it’s more efficient to do it in a word processing program. The whole-word method, which is the mainstay of nearly all reading programs, tries to process reading in the graphics part of the brain. It can sometimes be done, but it’s infinitely more difficult and less efficient.

The whole-word method was destined from the start to make nonreaders or, at its very best, poor readers of the majority of males. Few today would deny that it has had that effect. Visit nearly any special education class in the country, and you’ll find that males outnumber females by a large margin. And what’s the overwhelming reason they’re there? They can’t read.

One could speculate that the flood of so-called phonics courses on the market in recent years should improve the reading skills of those who are taught by them, and this is indeed the case, at least to some degree. But most phonics courses teach only the bare basics of phonics and leave out large, essential elements. Try baking a cake without the sugar and baking powder, and you will have an idea of how students are handicapped when they try to read without understanding all the necessary components of reading.

But when males are instructed from the beginning in a comprehensive phonics course, they learn to read as well and as fast as females. There is no difference between the sexes.

Females also experience difficulties when taught sight-reading, but the way their brains process language apparently helps to minimize the damage for many of them. As mentioned earlier, the typical female brain processes language in both hemispheres. Nevertheless, when females read by the whole-word method, the same shuttling that occurs between hemispheres in male brains occurs in females, except that the shuttling often occurs within the same hemisphere instead of on opposite sides. For reasons not yet fully understood, females are typically able to adapt to the shuttling process significantly more efficiently than males.

Learning to process written words by phonics largely eliminates shuttling and leads to the establishment of a smooth, one-way flow of data into the brain. This probably explains why both sexes show dramatic improvement in comprehension levels when they learn to read by phonics. The final lesson in the Academic Associates Reading Course teaches a simple but immensely effective method of reading for comprehension, which will help both phonics readers and sight-readers. However, significant gains in comprehension occur automatically as a result of learning to read by a comprehensive phonics program. Perhaps that is because the brain doesn’t have to expend its energies in constantly shuttling and so is freed to efficiently process language.

Regardless of how well sight-readers may read, their skills improve when they learn to process words phonetically. We have seen straight-A students raise their reading grade levels several years by taking a comprehensive course in reading by phonics.

Although many reading programs have been devised with sophisticated-sounding names that promise to teach reading without learning the sounds and rules that govern them, the only method that works consistently is a comprehensive, systematic approach to phonics.

We have enrolled many students who already knew a great deal about phonics but still couldn’t read well. Some had endured years of instruction in a variety of almost useless phonics programs. In every case, they have become proficient readers when taught by the Academic Associates Reading Course. Some phonics programs make learning to read so complex and tedious that even very bright students are discouraged. I have examined many of these programs in-depth, and none bring all the facets of reading together into a comprehensive whole.

The Five Components Of Reading

boy in library

Reading has five major components, and all five must function efficiently in order for effective reading to take place. The five components of reading are:

1. Decode [read] the word.
2. Understand what is read [including vocabulary].
3. Evaluate what is read. 
4. Retain relevant information.
5. Read with fluency.

Reading may break down at any of these five steps. When it does, the entire process is derailed. Students may read flawlessly but retain almost nothing from what was read. A typical student comment is, “I don’t know what it said; I wasn’t listening as I read it.” This is a frequent occurrence, and probably indicates that the brain is so busy trying to recognize individual words that it has no time to figure out what they said as a whole. Comprehension can’t occur because the brain is distracted. The reading process has broken down at component #2, that of understanding what is read.

When this type of comprehension malfunction is exhibited, teachers may almost always assume correctly that the reader has been taught to read by the whole-word method, and not by phonics. It’s obvious that one who can pronounce the words, but doesn’t comprehend what he or she is reading is not a good reader, but failure in any of the five components of reading handicaps the reader. The Academic Associates Reading Course addresses all of these essential components.

It is vital for teachers to understand how the brain processes reading because they need to understand how to reprogram it to process reading in a logical, smooth and consistent manner.

Students are often encouraged to guess at new words, or try to figure them out by comparing them to surrounding text or pictures, but this method is totally inappropriate. Students should be taught to never guess at a word, Teachers must insist that new words are sounded out from left to right, letter by letter. This is an essential part of reprogramming the brain to process reading efficiently.

We have successfully taught people of all ranks and most professions, including children, teachers, physicians, dentists, nurses, businesspeople, engineers, rocket scientists [yes, really], airline pilots, corporation presidents, and many others. They all need to sound out new words in order to reprogram their brains to process reading efficiently.

As the brain is stimulated by challenging new tasks, certain of its areas will actually begin to increase in size physically. These areas will continue to grow as they are stimulated again and again, until they are measurably larger than before. New neurons [brain cells] actually form, along with new dendrites [the tiny “wires” that connect the neurons], which reach out to make entirely new connections within the brain as it is stimulated by mental activity, including reading.

In time, as the brain continues to process words phonetically, reading begins to function almost automatically. As this occurs, speed and comprehension will increase until it may appear to the observer that the reader is sight reading. But he is not. The brain is processing information by phonics so fast that it is virtually undetectable to the observer that the student is reading by phonics.

The student who spends a great deal of time reading by phonics will eventually develop a large memory bank of written words which he instantly recognizes, but this does not contribute to shuttling, as the basis for their existence in his memory is his initial and subsequent sounding out of the words. So recognition occurs within the left hemisphere.

Reaching this state of instant recognition requires a great deal of patience and persistence on the part of teacher and student alike. Teachers must never back off from requiring students to sound out every new word. In time this will pay off, and reading speed, comprehension and fluency will surge. Students should also be asked to determine which phonics rules are operating and which are broken within the new words. The importance of this exercise cannot be overstated. It is calculated to develop and strengthen the specific skills readers must know in order to become proficient.

Reprogramming The English Speaking World

English-speaking people are generally unaware of the individual sounds which make up words. They have been taught that words are whole entities, so they hear a word as a whole rather than as a series of connected sounds. They must be taught to listen for component sounds of words and not just to hear words as whole entities. A high school student of mine read the word “sandwich,” as “sam-ich.” She was not even aware of the N, D or W sounds in the word. A teacher who was working toward certification to teach our course couldn’t hear the sound of the long I in “slight” until it was sounded out several times.

Many for whom English is a second language find it difficult to distinguish between the subtle differences in some of the sounds of English. The sounds of short A, short E and short I are especially hard for some of them, as is the sound of L. Teachers must give abundant practice for these and all the other sounds. Don’t try to save time by omitting a thorough examination of every new word. If you do, the results will quickly become evident by a lack of progress in your students. Teachers must spend all the time necessary to be sure students can correctly sound out and apply their phonics rules to every word. This time-consuming exercise sometimes frustrates older students who don’t fully understand why so much time is taken to sound out words.

Starting phonics training at an early age avoids all the pitfalls of sight-reading by teaching students to attack words properly from the very beginning. They don’t have to go through the arduous process of reprogramming their brains when reading is taught correctly the first time. Parents and teachers should ensure that their young children begin reading instruction in an appropriate program when they enter school and are not allowed to become confused by the sight-reading methods - or even the so-called phonics methods - that are often used. If real phonics instruction is not available in the schools, parents should consider phonics reading classes for students before they enter a kindergarten or first-grade reading instruction program. Doing it right the first time is far preferable to doing it over after the child has experienced failure.

Forbidden Flash Cards

Teachers should never use flash cards in teaching reading. Flash cards are the ultimate snapshot. Pictures or other illustrations should never be used in connection with words as a primary learning tool. Flash cards often have pictures on them, such as an apple, along with the word “apple.” But the evidence is in that any type of flash card creates a relationship between the size, shape, color and condition of the card and the word itself.

One teacher who had used flash cards replaced her old worn set with a new set, and was surprised that some children failed to recognize words that they had formerly read with ease on the old cards. One child explained that for one particular word, the old card had a frayed corner, and he associated the word with that corner. When he could no longer see the entire card as it had been, the word was no longer recognizable.

NEVER, NEVER, NEVER allow your child to be taught with a method that uses flash cards. Flash cards program the brain to process words in a counterproductive manner and detract from the student’s ability to read effectively. They attempt to teach reading to the part of the brain that is not capable of processing language. If you are a teacher who has such flash cards in your possession, throw them away. They are worse than useless; they are detrimental.

While students may initially appear to learn to recognize words faster by associating them with pictures or other aids, they are being set up for failure later on. They are processing reading in the wrong part of the brain, and confusion will result as the brain frantically shuttles data from one area to another and back again.

Sight-readers must unlearn all their old counterproductive sight-reading habits if they are to function well as readers. Teachers should stress frequently the concept that appears on one of our Rule Cards: “Always sound out new words. Never guess.”

When working with older students, it’s often helpful to explain the way the brain processes reading in order for them to understand why they must spend so much time sounding out words. Most of them appreciate learning how the brain works.

While future studies may offer further insights, the basic conclusions, as previously stated, are irrefutable: 

1. Males and females who read by phonics are more proficient at reading, comprehension and spelling than sight-readers.
2. Males constitute about 70-90% of poor readers.
3. Males learn to read as quickly and as well as females when taught by phonics.
4. Both males and females suffer from the effects of sight-reading, the predominant method of reading instruction.
5. Sight readers experience significantly more fatigue while reading than do phonics readers.
6. The brain can be taught to bypass areas within itself which have been damaged, and most students who have learning disabilities can be taught to read.

There is currently in progress a worldwide study of the functions of the brain, an international effort on the part of about 50 universities in nearly every part of the globe. Watch for the result of this magnificent undertaking as they are reported from time to time. Already some astonishing new evidence has been revealed, and much more is sure to follow.

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