Brains and Reading Research

  • 05 January, 2010

I've wanted to write this blog for sometime. I've was so interested in the role of the brain in reading so I studied it in graduate school. One of my first blogs touted the wonderful book, Proust and the Squid (and it is still on my recommended books list in the right hand column). And I worked with Sally Shaywitz, a famous brain/reading researcher, on the National Reading Panel, and we always got on great. My wife even used to do that kind of work.

  Recently, Mark Roth published the article (linked below) about how brains change as they learn to read. Researchers have been finding how learning to read changes the brain.

  So why did I want to write this? Because policymakers and many parents love this kind of research, and the like nothing more than interventions that will somehow "teach the brain." As interested as they are in such research, they rarely ask what does it mean?

  And you know what the answer is? It means nothing--not yet anyway. What brain research on reading has told us so far that will help us teach reading is... nothing. These studies are important, I suspect, and someday if I live long enough I'll probably know how this work mattered, but right now what we know from brain studies that is helping us to design or deliver reading instruction better is nothing.

  Brain research is kind of like going to a fortune teller. If you think about it, people pay fortune tellers to tell them things what they already know about themselves. She might begin by telling you that you are unhappy because of your relationships. "You have a son," or a daughter or a husband and "you're concerned about what they are going through." If what the fortune teller says isn't true, no one would ever go to one, so they figure out true things about their customers, things the customers already know, and they tell it back to you. It's a scam, of course.

  Brain research, so far, is just showing internal correlates for what we already know about someone's reading. If it didn't match, of course, it wouldn't be interesting. Like with the fortune teller, if it doesn't fit you won't submit.

  We get excited because brain researchers can tell us what we already know. Maybe someday, brain research will go beyond that and we'll end up with better reading assessments or even better ways of teaching. I hope they'll keep plugging at it. But so far--as fascinating as brain research may be, it can't help a single child learn to read. So let's keep our attention on what works in teaching kids to read, and let's worry less about how amazing it is that this fortune teller can tell us what we already know.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Connie Friedman Feb 26, 2021 03:01 PM

I'm wondering if anything in this post has changed for you. It seems to me that much of the recent conversation about reading instruction has come out of brain research. Perhaps I'm wrong about that? I do often question the limitations of this research in informing instructional practices. Shouldn't research from many fields impact our work as educators?

What Are your thoughts?

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Brains and Reading Research


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.