The Neuroscience of Reading — reflections for LIBR 263

Proust and Squid, the story and science of the reading brain, by Maryanne Wolf.2008. Harper Collins. 306 with Notes, Index. ISBN 978-0-06-093384-5 paperback. $14.95.(2008 hardback, harper Collins).

I am really enjoying Proust and the Squid. Yesterday, I tried to concentrate on reading as some show like Jerry Springer blared in the doctor’s waiting room. A woman wailed that her son had been wronged, supporting a woman with two children who weren’t his and how she was a “ho.” (It turned out through DNA testing that they were his). The young attendant with a man in a wheelchair tried to go over to the ceiling mounted tv to turn it down but couldn’t. This dichotomy between the language on the “reality talk show” and the level of reading in Wolf’s book was an excellent demonstration of the levels humans can achieve (or not) in written and spoken communication.

It was a frightening statistic that “by five years of age, some children from impoverished-language environments have heard 32 million fewer words spoken to them than the average middle-class child” (according to Todd Risley and Betty Hart’s study of one California community, Wolf:102). My daughter and I still read at bedtime together, sometimes with me reading to her, sometimes side by side. She is 10. Her 5th grade teacher has the children write down 3-4 words a week that they encounter in their reading, look them up in the dictionary and a thesaurus, and use them in a sentence. I did this exercise in my 5th grade class in about 1971 and it greatly expanded my awareness of growing vocabulary. I was already a voracious reader as is my daughter.  In 6th grade two children, John and I, were pulled from class for extensive testing. For long hours, we sat after school answering oral questions such as, “What is ambergris?” “What does it mean to ‘make a silk purse from a sow’s ear?” (I still recall those two specific questions). I knew ambergris’s definition from my vocabulary list. I had encountered it in a Jules Verne book during sustained silent reading in 5th grade. My IQ was announced to be 158 and I was given a scholarship to a rigorous private day school. This was to be followed by a Regents Scholarship to UCSB and a scholarship to Harvard. As a 6th grader, I was pleased that people recognized that I was “smart” but embarrassed that all my friends wrote in my yearbook that I was a “brainiac” and a nice girl who is also “a brain.” At that time, I recall thinking that I was not really all that smart, I just read lots. My dad died when I was 8, but was an aeronautical engineer and taught at Stanford. My mom was a housewife who hadn’t finished college, but was an avid reader. Our home was filled with books, classical music, and foreign faculty members at frequent parties. I can only imagine the far different lives of some of my students.

I come to Wolf’s book having been a Biology and Health Education teacher for over a decade.  I am fascinated by Psychology. My children were part of a longitudinal study on the activities of the brain when playing simple computer games and learning a foreign language. Several times a year they would be equipped with tight-fitting black caps, covered in a “spider” of electrodes to image the brain’s activity. The resulting images are much more colorful than what we see in Wolf’s book. I was surprised to read in her book about the combinations of visual, audial and cognitive areas that light up during reading. I was not surprised that different areas light up for reading Chinese vs. English. I have tried to learn various Asian languages as an adult. By my 50’s my language centers seem hard-wired and it is very difficult to discern the tones and sub tones in spoken Vietnamese, for example. My contention as a teacher has been that we need to start language instruction far earlier in the schools. By middle school, the child’s brain has already lost much of the plasticity necessary for learning other languages.

I was interested to read people’s memories of the first reading experience. I would guess that many people in our class remember that moment or day. That would make an interesting read. Could we set up a wiki for people to record that experience?

I had a simple reading exercise book at home pre-kindergarten and could read cat, mat, the, a. I would “read” to my grandmother by looking at the wall and reciting picture books such as “Night Before Christmas.”  She was former elementary school teacher and made a big deal of my memorization. I would go through a dictionary just reading all the “a” and “the” I could find. In first grade, I sat at the end of a long table with my first copy of Dick and Jane. The first word, centered at the bottom of the first page, was Tom. I stared at it, trying to decipher it. A boy in the class read it. I wondered,  “How did he know that?!” I also recall some children that year laughing at me because I asked the teacher how to spell “of.” The teacher noted on my report card that I liked to write but I spelled phonetically. By high school some of my students were very reluctant readers. We would go around the room in Science at the beginning of the year so that I could discern their reading levels.  Their delivery was halting and other students would snigger.  That was not a positive reinforcement. There is also the issue of decoding and analysis. It would seem that most students are not taught to decode and read scientific literature for comprehension. The more experienced readers pick it up, but the less experienced readers are left farther behind.

 My grandfather helped me to memorize Shakespearean soliloquies. I don’t see  much emphasis on memorization in the schools currently, although my children memorize lots of song lyrics on the radio. Wolf mentioned that it is easier to memorize things with rhyme and rhythm as in “Good Night, Moon.” Maybe that is part of the attraction of rapper songs, that they deal with line after line of rhyming words. I thought it was silly for science lesson plans to include students developing a “DNA rap,” but perhaps besides the tie to popular culture, it does enhance memorization. How many of you know most of the common elements due to Tom Lehrer’s Elements song. I pulled this brief description from the ubiquitous Wikipedia: “The ordering of elements in the lyrics fits the meter of the song, and includes much alliteration, and thus has little or no relation to the ordering in the periodic table. This can be seen for example in the opening and closing lines:

There’s antimony, arsenic, aluminum, selenium,

And hydrogen and oxygen and nitrogen and rhenium,

And argon, krypton, neon, radon, xenon, zinc, and rhodium,

And chlorine, carbon, cobalt, copper, tungsten, tin, and sodium.

These are the only ones of which the news has come to Harvard,

And there may be many others, but they haven’t been discovered.

Lehrer was a Harvard math lecturer, and the final rhyme of “Harvard” and “discovered” is delivered in a parody of a Boston accent—a non-rhotic manner—so that the two words rhyme. Lehrer did not normally speak with that accent.”

Stanilas Dehaene, the cognitive neuroscientist and author of “The Number Sense: how the mind creates mathematics” (Oxford University Press, 1999), studied how culture and education impacts the development of the brain. He has used advanced  imaging techniques to look at brain function. His research shows that the brain is not as plastic or adaptable  an organ as many would suppose. We “recycle” areas originally evolved for other purposes to decipher reading and writing. In Wolf’s book, I wondered why the first chapters were devoted to the probable evolution of alphabets and reading, but with Dehaene’s research, her choice makes more sense. An anecdotal observation: an NGO was trying to teach Nepalese women in remote areas about the benefits of breastfeeding by circulating posters with drawings. Someone realized that without some kind of training, the women could not associate a flat two-dimensional symbolic drawing with the physical act. Our culture trains us to use certain parts of the brain for reading and writing. Montessori schools teach pre-schoolers to begin to write by having them trace the letters on a card that had the letter shape in glued on sand. The physical act of tracing the raised rough letter translates the shape to the brain better than just viewing it, apparently. I was interested in Dehaene’s finding that dyslexic people have high spatial talents. He cited accomplishments by various scientists. I had a friend who had several dyslexic family members. They all excelled in math. Anita said it was because they didn’t have to read as much in that subject, but perhaps it was more this alternative brain wiring that Dehaene discusses.


About KLevenson

I am Teacher Librarian at Piedmont High School in the San Francisco East Bay. I am a part time reference Librarian I for the San Francisco Public Library. I have a Masters in Library and Information Sciences from San Jose State and a Teacher Librarian credential in addition to my teaching credential in Science. My first MA was from Harvard in Archaeology. My students teach me something new every time I am with them!
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