How the brain learns to read and why students may struggle

An FETC session presented by Square Panda explored why learning to read can be such a challenge and how educators can help.
By: | January 27, 2021
Getty Images: WeedezignGroup of diversity kid lay down on floor and reading tale book in preschool library,Kindergarten school education concept.

Human brains are inherently wired to learn to speak, but learning to read requires fundamental changes in brain organization. To become proficient readers and comprehend text, students must be able to decode words accurately and also automatically—quickly and without effort.

Vera Blau-McCandliss, vice president of education and research for Square Panda, an early literacy platform featuring games that can be used in conjunction with manipulatives, shared with attendees about the two pathways used to become proficient in reading. The dorsal stream takes words visually, providing indirect access to meaning through phonology. And the ventral stream allows readers to directly access meaning from print.

The shift to direct access for meaning is what causes us to be automatic in word representation.

So from a brain perspective even though we talk about sight words as being irregular, from a brain’s perspective there are only brain words.

Educators must be aware of  when this transition happens and what can be done if it doesn’t happen successfully. Struggling readers often experience a disruption in the shift from this transition.

An explicit and systematic approach is really important for these students, she said. A lot of products are available to help. Research has shown that it’s not so much the program itself that is important, but it’s more about the intensity of those programs.

Introducing a multisensory component can be very helpful, as Square Panda does, she said.

Candice Willmore, director of special education for Warren County School District in Tennessee, then shared her experience with using Square Panda.

At first, the focus was for students with significant disabilities, but other reading teachers began asking if they could also use the program to support beginning readers.

When Covid hit, the district needed a program that could be done virtually—and it has been used during hybrid delivery, in the traditional in-school environment and in a fully virtual environment.