How Phonics is Taught Can Affect How Well a Child Learns To Read

New readers who focus on sounding out letters rather than learning whole words tap into that part of the human brain best wired for developing reading skills. The phonics approach to teaching reading has long held sway in early learning; now educational neuroscience can prove that approach. That's the overall finding from research recently published by Stanford University, the Child Study Center at New York University's Langone Medical Center and the Department of Communication Sciences & Disorders at the University of Texas at Austin.

Working with adults, Stanford's Bruce McCandliss, New York U's Yuliya Yoncheva and U Texas' Jessica Wise found that brain circuitry changes when students memorize entire words or link a letter to a specific sound.

For the experimentation, 16 "literate adults" were asked to read two made-up scripts of glyph words containing embedded letters. For one script, learners were asked to link each embedded letter to a sound within the word (known as a "grapheme-phoneme mapping" in learning parlance). For another script entire words had to be memorized. After the training, brainwaves were monitored during a reading test with a technique that could record brain responses to practice words and newly learned words. That brain activity was influenced by how the words were learned.

Response to activity done through sounding out letters called on left-brain activity, where visual and language regions reside and that predominate among people who are skilled at reading. The activity of memorizing words in their entirety tended to show up in the right hemisphere of the brain.

As people in the study tried out new words they'd never practiced before using the grapheme-phoneme focus, they could read new words, and within seconds, the process of figuring out the new words triggered activity in their brains' left hemispheres.

"Ideally, that is the brain circuitry we are hoping to activate in beginner readers," McCandliss said in a prepared statement. "This research is exciting because it takes cognitive neuroscience and connects it to questions that have deep meaning and history in educational research."

While many teachers are now using phonics to teach reading, some may be doing it better than others, said McCandliss.

"If children are struggling, even if they're receiving phonics instruction, perhaps it's because of the way they are being asked to focus their attention on the sounds within spoken words and links between those sounds and the letters within visual words," he explained. As he noted, parts of words and whole words are present during exposure to print. "We can direct attention to a larger grain size or a smaller grain size, and it can have a big impact on how well you learn."

Selective attention can help support later word recognition, the paper reported. "This study thus provides a model example of how different instructional approaches to the same material may impact changes in brain circuitry."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.