How our brain learns to read: from reading mechanics to comprehension


Reading is determined biologically, like speech. It is the result of a complex learning process. The first signs of language could have appeared with Homo Erectus around 1.9 million years ago . Instead, the first writings date back to around 4,000 years before Jesus Christ .

The brain has had almost two million years to develop the neural network specialized in language production and comprehension, but only a few thousand to develop the neural network for reading. Therefore, reading depends on the parallel implementation of different neural networks involved in different cognitive functions. Let’s see how it is carried out.

Two cognitive functions: language and visual system

Two of the cognitive functions that come together in reading are especially important. It is about language and the visual system related to the perception of shapes. Regarding language, at birth our brain is already prepared to process any sound related to human speech. And after a few months of life, it specializes in those sounds that are most common to it. Then a very complex learning process begins.

At 5-6 years old this process culminates with a detailed representation of how the language sounds (phonology), a large vocabulary, a mastery of the main grammatical structures and the way in which they transmit meaning.

At the same time, the visual system specialized in the perception of complex shapes develops, such as letters in their different formats. This makes the period between 5-6 years old a particularly sensitive period for learning to read. It is the key moment for the early detection of reading difficulties.

From identifying letters to reading words and phrases

Reading is a process by which certain signs are attributed a sound and a label (that is, their name: letter “be”, sign “b”, sound /b/). Combined together, they express a meaning. The identification of these signs can be done in isolation, one by one (e.g. /l/, /a/) or in combination with each other (e.g. /la/).

The beginning of reading learning usually begins at age 3 in early childhood education. They are taught to identify letters individually, by sound and by label. Progressively, the process is automated. Thus, identification is made by comparing the spellings with their representation in memory. At the end of early childhood education, many children already have good reading mechanics. They are able to read single words or even short sentences, with a good understanding of what they read.

What processes are involved in reading mechanics?

Initially, each letter that is read represents a single sound. They must match the shape of the written letter with the learned shape, which initially is only one, for example, capitalized . Progressively, the identification process is expanded for different font typologies.

Practice allows reading to progressively become more fluid and accurate. The student manages to identify words as a whole; that is, the entire word ‘hello’, at a glance, without having to decipher it letter by letter: /h/-/o/-/l/-/a/).

When this happens, the brain releases attention, memory and perception resources. And then these resources are directed at reading comprehension, at interpreting and giving meaning to what is read.

All the vocabulary that the child incorporates throughout language development, and how it is used, is the basis of reading comprehension. Thus, while reading words, phrases and texts, this information is linked with the information already stored in the areas of language comprehension (oral) to give meaning to what is read.

From learning to read to reading to learn

The fact that reading learning is such a complex process leads us to think about some way to evaluate whether it is carried out normally or if there is any difficulty. It is a very important fact, since, although the process begins with learning to read, it culminates with reading to learn.

In this sense, early detection is key in identifying the presence of difficulties in this process. Currently, there are tools sensitive enough to detect them in early childhood and primary education classrooms.

For example, the Grapho-Game , Dytective or Neurekalab applications . These scientifically validated applications measure phonological awareness, reading mechanics and comprehension, as well as verbal memory. They classify students based on their reading speed and accuracy, the degree of understanding of what they read, their ability to recognize and manipulate phonemes, and their verbal memory capacity. If it is detected that the learning process is slower than expected, the first measures can be taken to facilitate reading learning.

Author Bios: Sergi Grau Carrión is Professor and researcher of Digital Technologies at the University of Vic – Central University of Catalonia and Josep M Serra Grabulosa is a University Professor, Psychobiology area at the University of Barcelona