The reading brain: how does the brain learn to read?

Exactly how does the brain learn to read? Scientists now have strong evidence that it’s not the ear that recognises the individual sounds that make up whole words. Instead there is a whole language system in the brain that does this.

Different parts of the brain perform different functions, which together allow us to decode words and derive meaning from them.

  • The temporal lobe is responsible for phonological awareness and decoding/discriminating sounds.
  • The frontal lobe handles speech production, reading fluency, grammatical usage, and comprehension, making it possible to understand simple and complex grammar in our native language.
  • The angular and supramarginal gyrus serve as a “reading integrator” a conductor of sorts, linking the different parts of the brain together to execute the action of reading.  These areas of the brain connect the letters c, a, and t to the word cat that we can then read aloud.


But, not all brains are the same. Some children’s brains seem to have a natural efficiency when it comes to reading, while others find it much harder and the skills must be learned with practice.

Brain researchers have made some interesting discoveries about how different individuals learn to read, most importantly that struggling readers’ brains work differently to skilled readers’ brains and that their brains have to work harder.

Scientists are beginning to understand that in children with dyslexia or other reading or learning difficulties the different parts of the brain involved in reading do not work together as they should, but it is possible to make improvements with proper intervention.

Visit the British Dyslexia Association’s website for more information if you have any concerns or questions about dyslexia.

When does the brain start learning to read?

Children learn to ‘read’ from the day they are born. Of course you can’t show a book to a newborn and expect much response, but as soon as you begin to speak to your child you are setting out on a journey towards reading and writing.

Mumsnet has an excellent article on engaging with books with your baby, check it out here.

Learning to read requires so much more than the ability to decode letters, or rather decoding is going to be difficult without some other things happening first.

If reading in its most simple form is connecting sounds to letters, then we must first learn to associate specific sounds with language.

We need exposure to language

Phonological awareness is a skill that allows us to identify parts of language, such as syllables and words.

Children with phonological awareness can tap out the number of syllables in a word, identify rhyming words and recognise words sharing the same initial sound, such as ‘daddy’ and ‘dog’.

Phonological awareness is a broader skill than phonemic awareness, which refers only to the ability to identify the individual sounds (phonemes) in words.

If your child hasn’t started school and you want to help them get ahead with reading, ditch the phonics flash cards and work on their phonological awareness instead. Get them tuning in to language and you will be readying their brain for the phonics learning to come.

Studies by researchers at the University of Washington have revealed that young children benefit most from activities that help develop brain connections that will aid future learning, rather than learning phonics before starting school. Parents and pre-school teachers should play rhyming games, sing songs and share two-way conversations to help a child’s phonological awareness blossom.

Nursery rhymes are an excellent way to stimulate babies’ phonological awareness. And, of course, they should be given opportunities to listen to stories and, as they get older,  talk about what they hear and what they can see in the pictures.

In preparation for learning to write, children can practise their fine motor skills and build their finger strength and dexterity by playing with Play-Doh or clay. These activities will also help children build brain connections for writing.
Next section: What’s the point of reading?
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