A Brief Look at Beginning Reading and the Brain
by Chase Young
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As an emergent reader understands alphabetic principle, they move into the beginning reading phase. The alphabetic principal is obtained when readers exhibit letter-sound correspondence. Learning to decode print and understand its meaning is a necessary for reading. Although the phonics vs. whole language dialectic is ongoing, many researchers (i.e. P. David Pearson) agree that a phonics first and fast approach is desirable. This thinking fits nicely with the balanced literacy approach. However, it might be advantageous to look at the beginning reader’s brain through each of the necessary process. The insights might help us better orient ourselves in these debates.

When beginning readers access the phonological and orthographic systems to decode print, they are using the sounds stored in the frontal lobe. Readers access these sounds to help decode print. So, if you believe phonics begins the process of reading, then your first stop is the frontal lobe.

Now, simply barking at print (term stolen from S. J. Samuels) is not reading. The beginning reader must decode and ascribe meaning to the morphemes. The meanings of words are stored in the temporal area of the brain. When a student successfully decodes a word, they must access the temporal lobe to ascribe meaning to it. One might wonder if meaning is ascribed after decoding, or simultaneously. I do not believe there is an argument for before decoding.

Soon beginning readers become more adept as connecting phonemes and grouping them in larger chunks. This process is called blending. Beginning readers can use onsets and rimes to aid in the reading process. With practice, this stage of reader moves into the fluent decoding stage. Readers can rapidly recognize words, and ascribe meaning. Irregular words are recognized by practice through multiple exposures. The occipital lobe is accessed at the word level. Automatic readers can retrieve whole words and their meaning from this area of the brain. This happens as the brain becomes more specialized for reading. Finally, beginning readers acquire a level of automaticity that catapults them into the next stage of reading.
It was my intention to tell a reductionist story of the beginning reading brain, but I obviously slipped into dangerous territory with my mention of the phonics and whole language issue. I suppose dangerous is no longer the word I would use because I see the debate as beneficial. Let’s look at the debate while keeping the brain in mind.

There is a reading pathway. This pathway exists on the left side of the brain and research has revealed aspects of the brain to be coupled with the processes. The frontal lobe is responsible for short term memory while the occipital for long term. I have not read any studies that state long term memories can be stored first. Therefore, I am going to focus first on what happens in the frontal and temporal lobes.

The frontal lobe is responsible for letter-sound correspondence, and the temporal for semantics. There is heart of our debate in terms of neurology. What comes first? Frontal or temporal? Linearly, we would assume the frontal lobe is the first stop towards the occipital with a pit stop in the temporal lobe. However, I typically steer clear of linearity when dealing with complex processes.

You cannot decode without letter-sound correspondence, but you cannot read (understanding is implied) without semantics. However, can you read without letter-sound correspondence? It is possible to recognize a word by sight (or shape even) without the knowledge of alphabetics? Logographic language employs all the time. However, the English language is based in alphabetics, so we cannot lose sight of that in the comparison. I think it is possible, to a small extent, to recognize words based on sight alone, but it will not get you very far. For example, dyslexic readers learn to read with the right side of their brain to compensate for the differing language pathway on the left. Dyslexics tend to memorize full words and are able to read texts, but eventually the need for phonics is necessary. Not many people can memorize every word in the English language. Feel free to Google some referred medical journals and try to read the abstracts without the use of your refined skills of “sounding out” words.

Let’s look at this from a strictly phonics perspective. An overreliance on phonics will not get you where you need to be. For example, try to read the word “one” with a restricted view of phonics and you will pronounce “own.” Then again, irregular words have to be practiced through multiple exposures and committed to long term memory. That topic is beyond the scope of this discussion regarding the frontal and temporal lobes. It can be difficult to discuss the reading process without the entire picture, thus making the debate quite difficult, perhaps even taken out of context.

We know that eventually readers need phonics. We also know it is imperative that readers ascribe meaning. Both of these are necessary for beginning readers to move forward. I guess the real question is not Phonics or Whole Language?, but Which should be taught at what time? This answer would yield which makes a more efficacious reader. To me, looking at the brain, an efficient processor, thoughts should lean towards determining efficiency. 

Compensatory models have been presenting that say a reader needs access to both at the same time. I could not agree more. I think simultaneous use of the visual and semantic cuing systems makes an efficient reader. The question now comes as What are the instructional implications of this knowledge? I think strategies of both should be implemented simultaneously, thus building a reciprocal relationship among the frontal and temporal lobes. The relationship should lead to efficient employment of the occipital region.

An etymological approach to vocabulary and phonics is a great example of simultaneously usage of temporal and frontal lobes. As we look at root words, affixes, and their origins, we use the phonemes to decode the morphemes which are the smallest linguistic units with semantic meaning.

In summary, as a reader learns to decode with the frontal lobe, the reader should also utilize the temporal lobe to ascribe meaning. Finally, the practiced reciprocal relationship becomes less attended as the occipital lobe dominates the reading process.
© 2011 Chase J. Young. All rights reserved.