This week, I’d like to begin the discussion on reading and writing as language entities. There are differing theories behind learning to read and write, which I will begin to explore below. In the coming weeks, I will continue to explain the processing systems behind all modalities of language (speaking, listening, reading, and writing) using my language tree illustration, and teach strategies for addressing these skills systematically!
Reading and writing are not considered to be “add water and stir” language skills. Theorists believe that reading and writing are the result of a process called brain plasticity, in which these new skills are acquired by utilizing areas of the brain specified for other language tasks. Thus research does not support the theories that just exposing kids to reading will be enough to teach reading, or that kids will read when they are “developmentally ready” without any explicit teaching. However, it is true that exposing kids to a literacy-rich environment will aid in their learning about text, and that reading aloud to your children will significantly improve their vocabulary and grammar development.
Young learners learn to use their sound, word, grammar and visual systems. The left hemisphere develops new and efficient reading areas—areas that are able to consolidate those underlying speaking and listening skills. The more efficient their underlying language systems are, the more efficiently children learn to read and write. Conversely, weaknesses in any of the underlying language systems result in reading and writing struggles. If your child is struggling, waiting does not solve the issue. The underlying weaknesses will need to be addressed in order for children to progress to their maximum potential.
The “reading is plasticity” theory is a relatively new concept, confirmed through the use of Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) studies conducted over the last few decades. Neurocognitive scientists are now able to have children engage in various language activities, and then observe blood flow to regions within the brain. Thanks to these recent studies, we now know that young learners need time to coordinate their foundational language system, and to develop and consolidate the reading regions of the brain that manage all reading and writing tasks.
Researchers know that children with strong reading and writing skills develop and access these reading regions, while children with weak reading skills do not. Studies performed comparing children with dyslexia and typically developing readers indicate that dyslexic children have less processing capacity in these regions, and that the language regions do not network efficiently. Researchers are also identifying which strategies of teaching result in better development of the reading/writing brain centers in children.