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DID YOU KNOW that “How quickly and successfully the brain learns to read”[i] is greatly influenced by the student’s ability to speak.  “It is important to understand what cognitive neuroscience has revealed about how the brain processes the spoken word” (Souza, page 11) when looking to unlock the secret for accelerating literacy with our students, or children.

On this episode you will learn:

✔︎ How the brain learns to read.

✔︎ Why it’s so important that our children/students learn to read by 3rd grade.

✔︎ Strategies that you can use today to accelerate reading with your emergent bilingual students, or struggling readers.

Welcome back to the Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning Podcast for BRAIN FACT FRIDAY and EPISODE #182 on “Accelerating Literacy: Understanding How the Brain Learns to Read”

For those new, or returning guests, welcome! I’m Andrea Samadi, author, and educator from Toronto, Canada, now in Arizona, and like many of you listening, have been fascinated with learning and understanding the science behind high performance strategies that we can use to improve our productivity in our schools, our sports, and workplace environments.

For this week’s Brain Fact Friday, I’m deep in the middle of preparing for a presentation with Assistant Superintendent Greg Wolcott[ii], and his Learning Abilities Summit. If you are an educator, looking for new ideas and strategies for your students, please do visit his Summit page to learn more.[iii]  For a reasonable cost, he offers training for educators that’s available virtually, from people around the country who share their expertise to accelerate learning for your students. I highly recommend following these Summits and offering them to your staff for professional development.

As an educational consultant, I first began making the connection with how the brain impacts learning back in 2014 and began creating presentations around what I was learning years before I had launched this podcast. One project was with an educational publisher who asked me to create a whitepaper on how ELL (English Language Learners or our Emergent Bilingual) students learn to read. This was right in the middle of watching my youngest daughter struggle with learning to read in 1st grade (she’s now in 5th grade struggles much less) but as we begin, I have to say that I have not only taught these strategies to educators, and created training materials with them, but have personally used them with my own daughter as learning to read is not only a challenge for our ELL students, but many English speaking students as well.

Before I offer some of the strategies, I discovered in my research to create this whitepaper to accelerate literacy, I think it’s always important to dig deeper into “the why” behind looking for solutions to the most common challenges our students are facing when learning to read. We know that every child learns at their own pace, but there are important metrics to notice with reading and I did ask Dr. Daniel Ansari, Professor and Canada Research Chair in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience and Learning about these benchmarks when it comes to numeracy and math on our interview #138[iv] this past summer. If you want to review the important metrics he suggests for math, please do revisit his interview by looking at the references in the show notes. But getting back to literacy—I want to share some statistics (and these are US statistics for our international listeners) but you will get the point no matter where you are listening to this podcast. I’m sure it wouldn’t shock you to know the problems that illiteracy is causing in America (and internationally) but if we dig just a bit deeper, did you know that:

  • 2/3 of students who cannot read proficiently by the end of 4th grade will end up in jail or on welfare. Over 70% of America’s inmates cannot read above a 4th grade level.
  • 1 in 4 children in America grow up without learning how to read at all.
  • Students who don’t read proficiently by the 3rd grade are 4 times likelier to drop out of school.
  • Nearly 85% of the juveniles who face trial in the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate, proving that there is a close relationship between illiteracy and crime. More than 60% of all inmates are functionally illiterate.
  • In 2013, Washington, D.C. was ranked the most literate American city for the third year in a row, with Seattle and Minneapolis close behind.
  • Long Beach, CA was ranked the country’s most illiterate city, followed by Mesa, AZ, and Aurora, CO.

It’s eye opening to see these statistics.

These Shocking Statistics that Lead To

  • High Drop-out Rates
  • Low Graduation Rates and College Completion
  • Incarceration
  • Welfare…for our students.

And can contribute to work burnout and other health challenges for teachers (who continue to look for new angles to help students who are struggling–many times without making progress because it’s not about asking our students to read MORE but understanding HOW they are reading) proving that it’s a critical time to look for new ways to accelerate literacy with our students. I can’t forget to mention Howard Berg’s[v] interview on speed reading on tips for improving reading comprehension. Please do look in the show notes for his interview on accelerating literacy.

If you have a struggling reader (if you are a teacher, or parent)


  • Has the student developed a vast vocabulary?
  • Are there grammatical errors in their speech?
  • How do students put their sentences together?

These are all clues to help us to understand additional ways that we can help our students to improve their ability to read. If there are challenges with any one of these questions, there may be a challenge with the student’s ability to read—that begins with their ability to speak.

Think about this for a moment. Think of a struggling reader that you know. What have you noticed about how they speak?

An incredible feature of the human brain is that it “acquires the spoken language fairly quickly and accurately.” (Souza page 12) We are born with the ability to distinguish sounds from written symbols and express ourselves to others. Before we had advanced brain scanning technologies, we found evidence of how the brain produced the spoken language from injured brains. The Broca’s Area (named after French physician Paul Broca) and the Wernicke Area (named after German neurologist Carl Wernicke) are the 2 main areas of the brain that produce the spoken language.

Research in cognitive neuroscience indicates that learning any skill (including reading) requires the following four elements (SLC, 2000)

Practice: For the brain to build and strengthen the neural pathway required for that new skill.

Intensity: Learning a new skill requires focus and concentration.

Cross Training of Skills: By bringing together skills to support reading (such as spoken language fluency and comprehension)

Motivation and Attention: Motivation is the key to learning any new skill.

There must be strategies involved to increase the students’ motivation to read.

Studies do show that the brain’s “ability to acquire the spoken language is best during the first 10 years of life” (Souza, page 15) but this does not mean we cannot learn a new language after age 10. It just means it takes more effort.

However, unlike the spoken language, the brain does not have one area specialized for reading. Reading takes up many parts of the brain working together like a symphony. You can see how the skills needed to link the sounds we produce from the letters of the alphabet, must be learned from direct instruction. Emerging readers can build strong reading skills through repetition and practice to strengthen the neural pathways used as the brain learns to read.

The Reading Brain Involves Many Parts of the Brain Working Together:

  • The temporal lobe (that is responsible for phonological awareness and decoding sounds)
  • The frontal lobe (that looks after speech production, reading fluency, grammar, and comprehension)
  • The angular and supramarginal gyrus that links the different parts of the brain together to execute the action of reading
  • The parietal lobe (turns letters into words, understanding language)
  • The occipital lobe (the visual processing center)

So how can we unlock the reader within each of our students and bring all these parts of the brain together, working in unison?

If you want to learn the details of all 9 brain-aligned strategies, please do click on the link to access this presentation, and many others, through Greg Wolcott’s Learning Abilities Summit[vi] but I will cover the first strategy for this week’s Brain Fact Friday.


Remember that “how quickly and successfully the brain learns to read”[vii] is greatly influenced by the student’s ability to speak.

STRATEGY 1: Building Vocabulary that Skyrockets Students Past Their Obstacles When They Become Stuck.  I learned this strategy from David Sousa’s “How the Brain Learns to Read Series.”[viii]

Learning to read requires “a solid mental lexicon of spoken vocabulary” (Sousa) and although many researchers “differ on the nature of these networks, most agree that the mental lexicon is organized according to meaningful relationships between words.” (Sousa)

“It seems that the brain stores clusters of closely associated words in a tightly packed network so that words within the network can activate each other in minimal time.

Activating words between networks, however, takes longer.” (Sousa) It would take the brain a shorter period of time to connect words in the same categories (vegetables, peas, peppers, artichoke) and consequently longer to access words not connected in the same network as (frog and salad) for example.

Put it into Action: When learning new vocabulary words, be sure to connect words in categories and practice new words in clusters, using maps or webs. During pre-writing, take one word in the middle of a paper and map out as many words and ideas that are connected to this one word to form a sentence.

For ELLs: You would think that exposing ELLS to English and having them interact with native English speakers will result in them learning English. This is a misconception. ELLS must “pay conscious attention to the grammatical, morphological and phonological aspects of the English language.” (Sousa) They need targeted instruction beyond immersion.

For example—interactions between EL and native English speakers in the mainstream classroom do not occur naturally. When they do happen, they are often brief exchanges of conversational English that doesn’t provide the opportunity to develop academic language.”

So, to build NEW academic vocabulary (not just conversational) for our students with our brain in mind, BE SURE TO: Create Meaningful Relationships Between Words and Students’ Mental Lexicon because Vocabulary Words in the Same Category are Easier for the Brain to Access.

This brain-aligned strategy can be used for any student learning to read.

I hope you have found this week’s Brain Fact Friday useful. When sitting with your students, or children, when they are reading, see if you can look at them through a new lens, with their brain in mind. As they are reading words, and they struggle with one, see if you can get them to think of this word in a category of other similar words. Instead of just explaining the meaning behind new words, without any context, offer another word that would go along with the word they are challenged with, (like we saw the example of peas, lettuce and peppers) to place this word in their brain, in a cluster with other similar words, where it can be accessed quickly and easily the next time, they come across it.

Remember this week’s Brain Fact Friday and that “how quickly and successfully the brain learns to read”[ix] is greatly influenced by the student’s ability to speak. With this in mind, I’m sure you would know that the other strategies I discovered to help accelerate literacy, include many ways to have students practice reading out loud with confidence, listening to others reading, giving and receiving feedback and of course ways to organize their writing.

See you next week!


[i] David A Sousa How the Brain Learns to Read Published March 62014 Page 11

[ii] Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning Podcast EPISODE #7 Greg Wolcott on “Building Relationships in Today’s Classrooms”

[iii] Learning Abilities Summit

[iv]Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning Podcast EPISODE #138 with Dr. Daniel Ansari on “The Future of Educational Neuroscience”

[v] Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning Podcast EPISODE #145 with the World’s Fastest Reader, Howard Berg on “Strategies to Improve Reading Comprehension and Recall”

[vi] Learning Abilities Summit

[vii] David A Sousa How the Brain Learns to Read Published March 62014 Page 11

[viii] David A Sousa How the Brain Learns to Read Published March 62014

[ix] David A Sousa How the Brain Learns to Read Published March 62014 Page 11