How we learn to read might influence the connections we make in our brain, according to a recent Stanford University study published in Brain and Language.

The study trained adults to read words via a new writing system, either through memorizing entire words or by learning how to link letters to the sounds of words. It then found that the neural activity during a later reading test was significantly impacted by learning instructions. Specifically, the left hemisphere of the brains lit up more for words introduced within a "letter-sound," or phonic, instruction approach to beginning reading. Similar effects occurred for both words that were already taught under this approach, and also for new words they had never seen before, as long as they contained the same letter-sound information. According to the study authors, this left-brain processing is more often seen among skilled readers. And they feel that their results may provide insights about how a teacher’s approach, like the decision to employ phonics-based activities, may impact changes in the brains of beginning readers.

Recruiting 16 students, the authors spent two days to train them how to read words printed in a newly made-up alphabet. Comprised of simple half-loops and slashes, the new word symbols were taught by presenting each along with a spoken English word. The researchers wanted to know how just changing one thing — the way the instructor introduced the learning task — might impact not just how well words were learned, but what brain circuits were activated with different approaches to learning. So, for half the words, the instructor introduced the task as one that needed the students to focus their mind on small letter- like parts within each new word symbol and link them in their mind’s ear with the elementary speech sounds — also known as phonemes — in each corresponding spoken English word. For the other half of the symbols, students were simply asked to associate each whole word symbol with the corresponding spoken English word.

They were then given a reading task and hooked up to a machine that recorded their brain’s electrical activity — a electroencephalogram (EEG). This allowed the researchers to look at very fast brain responses to the newly learned words. How fast? Faster than the blink of an eye, explained study co-author Dr. Bruce McCandliss to Medical Daily. Within this brief moment, the students’ brains lit up as they saw each newly learned word. The authors were amazed to find that the pattern of brain activity depended on how the instructor had previously set up the learning task. Students showed greater activity in their left hemispheres for words learned within letter-sound instruction, but greater right hemisphere activity was present for words learned under whole word memorization instruction. The authors concluded that since letter-sound instruction forced students to piece together aspects of what they had learned, it required different areas of the brain to be used than would memorization. "And these left hemisphere brain regions are crucial to children on the path from pre-reader to skilled-reader," McCandliss said.

Though the study had several limitations, as does all research, McCandliss believes their results, coupled with his previous findings, display a clear pattern of how our brains respond to different reading instruction techniques. "In the earlier 2010 version of this study, it was remarkable to us that even though the adults in the study were fully literate and well versed in language, a simple instruction given to them just before learning trials began could have such a profound effect on brain activity so rapidly," he said. "Given that these subtle instructional biases can even influence highly skilled adult readers learning to read a new writing system, it becomes even more important to understand their impact in children, at the outset of learning their first writing system."

For quite some time, there has been a fierce debate among the education field as to whether a phonics-based approach to early reading is significantly better than other teaching approaches, though the study authors are clear about their stance. "Overall, relative to approaches that promote memorization of the spelling patterns of entire words, sublexical phonics-based strategies yield superior reading acquisition outcomes according to behavioral cognitive psychology meta-analyses and systematic investigations of curriculum effects," they wrote.

Some educators are still a bit wary of these conclusions, however, including Dr. Andrew Davis, a former teacher and research fellow in Durham University’s School of Education. Davis, in a 2013 paper, criticized the rigorous adoption of the Synthetic Phonics (SP) technique in UK primary (grade) schools. "Studies allegedly showing that intensive discrete SP lessons improve reading achievement in comparison with control groups of similar pupils, rarely if ever indicate the exact nature of the lessons concerned," Davis wrote. He further explains that attempting to quantify the influence of any specific teaching style is much unlike performing the clinical trial of a new drug. How teachers respond in real time to the differing needs and abilities of their children during a lesson cannot be simply graphed, and by overwhelming focus on any one method, you risk neglecting students’ capabilities, Davis wrote. Which isn’t to say that he disapproves entirely of teaching phonics.

"This does not mean that children should not be taught conventional letter-sound associations, nor does it imply that teachers should never encourage pupils, for instance, to 'sound out' simple words," he wrote. "It is rather that I seek to oppose the universal imposition of text decoding outside ‘real’ reading contexts."

For their part, the Stanford study authors are cognizant of the need for flexibility in teaching, but they hope their research can highlight potential avenues for better outcomes among early readers. "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," McCandliss elaborated in a statement released by the college. "We can direct attention to a larger grain size or a smaller grain size [of phonemes], and it can have a big impact on how well you learn."

And if nothing else, McCandliss notes that their study is among the first to illuminate the physical changes that different teaching strategies can have our brain, especially when it comes to picking up a new writing system. "It’s been long known that the pathway from beginning reader to highly skilled reader typically involves increasing recruitment of left hemisphere visual regions," he told Medical Daily. "This new finding suggests that part of this effect may be influenced by something as subtle as the way an instructor frames the approach to learning at the outset."

Source: Yoncheva Y, Wise J, McCandliss B. Hemispheric specialization for visual words is shaped by attention to sublexical units during initial learning. Brain and Language. 2015.