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Arkansas State University

Brain Function Affects Reading Acquisition

Teachers who pursue a master’s degree in reading can expect to study the link between literacy and the human brain. As researchers become more familiar with brain function, they are discovering how different areas of the brain contribute to the cognitive activity involved in reading.

Reading and the Human Brain

Each part of the human brain functions differently during the reading process. The back half of the brain, called the “recognition” section, handles pattern recognition. This ability goes far beyond determining simple patterns; it also remembers how to form letters, how they sound and how they form words. As it develops, this part of the brain detects patterns in textual structure, such as the difference between a poem and a play. It can also detect authors’ writing styles and voices. This can explain why a child who loves the first book of the Captain Underpants series will search out other installments.

The front part of the brain is the “strategic” area. It determines how to think, how to search and how to accomplish tasks. This area makes it possible for a person to function mentally and physically. It works with the pattern information provided by the back of the brain to make sense of items, ideas and plans.

The center or core of the brain is the “affective” area. It deals with emotions and decision-making. This area determines the difference between a child who is eager to learn and one who gives up. As children move from one grade level to another, this area significantly influences their reading success. Even if they have the skills to remember patterns and make use of them, unmotivated students are much less likely to engage with more complex texts.

The Cognitive Process of Reading

Researchers refer to the cognitive process of working toward a goal as executive function. The mental exercise, or executive function, of reading consists of six basic elements, all driven by the three sections of the brain.

  1. Activation — Readers must choose to and prepare to read. Whether they select the text at hand themselves or whether someone assigns it to them, the reader must still prepare independently for the activity.
  2. Focus — Once readers begin to read, they must engage with the text and maintain focus.
  3. Effort — A reader’s brain must work hard. It has to self-regulate to truly engage with the text. This regulation helps successful readers know when to take mental breaks as well as when to speed up or slow down.
  4. Working memory — The working memory of an engaged reader must collect and manage patterns. It must make connections between the text and prior knowledge. It must carry information from one paragraph or chapter to the next.
  5. Emotion — Emotions play a significant role in reading. Texts may or may not be appealing, and they may remind us of both positive and negative events. Further, the material may simply be interesting or boring. Whatever the case, good readers are aware of their emotions.
  6. Action — The brain functions not only as a filing cabinet of information but also as the reading monitor. As the brain detects wavering from the text or the inability to comprehend or make connections, it must determine what strategy to use to get back on task.

Reading Progress

The three activity regions of the brain (recognition, strategy and affect), must all work together to improve literacy skills. Each element of executive function must work simultaneously with other elements to decipher text. When any of these cognitive functions break down or fail to participate, students experience gaps in progress. Prolonged failure of any particular element may result in reading disorders that require intentional and strategic intervention. Understanding these systems and how they support reading development is crucial for reading teachers.

According to Dr. LaToshia Woods, assistant professor of reading at Arkansas State University, students in the master’s degree in reading program will “focus on factors informed by educational neuroscience and affective factors that influence one’s maximal ability to learn to read. This would include considerations for brain function and how instructional considerations based on what we know from research about how the brain works can influence how successful students are in reading.” As graduates of the program, reading teachers and specialists can use this understanding of how brain function affects the reading process to guide effective instruction, planning and intervention.

Learn more about the A-State online MSE in Reading program.


UNEVOC Canada & ICELP International Conference: Unlocking the Human Potential to Learn

Southwest Educational Development Laboratory: Cognitive Elements of Reading

Learning Disabilities Association of America: The Reading Brain: Executive Function Hard at Work

Scholastic: Reading and the Brain: Toward a New Definition of a Balanced Approach to Reading

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