- New findings from neuroscience provide new insights and perspectives on classroom practices for literacy.
- There is growing theoretical and practical support for more emphasis on the dyslexic person’s strengths.
- Paradoxically, dyslexia may be a gift with a cluster of unique assets.
In a just-released article entitled “The ‘Reading Brain’ is Taught, Not Born” cognitive neuroscientists Rebecca Gotlieb, Laura Rhinehart, and Maryanne Wolf are unambiguous in reporting “…the study of the brain-basis of reading begins with the fact that, unlike oral language, there is no ready-made genetic program for learning to read.” They point out that it’s teachers—sometimes with the help of parents—who are largely responsible for helping students build reading circuitry—a gift to a child for a lifetime. This may not be a new revelation, but Gotlieb, Rhinehart, and Wolf cast the teacher’s role in building the child’s reading, writing, and spelling architecture in a deeper, wider, and weighty context:
“The herculean job of educators is no less than to help the brain develop a skill it could not otherwise [develop], which requires creating an entirely new circuit in the brain.”
“Herculean” because building new reading circuitry is immensely complex and multi-dimensional and according to these neuroscientists, it normally takes over two decades! It requires, they report, something most teachers through no fault of their own have not been well trained or given the tools to do—that is to provide “explicit, systematic, phonics-forward, language-based, multicomponent instruction that supports and connects to the development of the many other cognitive skills that make up fluent reading.” The need for change, they explain, is not just for the first two years of instruction in kindergarten and first grade effectively jumpstarting independent reading and writing for both decoding and encoding with automatic word reading and automatic spelling of brain words, but it is indeed a 20 year process! For example, readers at each grade level build “brain words,” words with meanings and pronunciations that can be recognized automatically without conscious effort and should be taught explicitly at each grade level in elementary school and beyond (Gentry & Ouellette, 2019).
These neuroscientists contend all teachers must be reading teachers from the time the child learns to write and read her or his name continuing beyond post high school education. All teachers should be well versed in how to build reading circuitry in the brain. This is a revolutionary, ambitious, and possibly transformative call for change. For example, if you are a sixth-grade teacher and you aren’t teaching spelling and vocabulary explicitly or a high school teacher who divorces your content from the child’s reality, change is needed.
In their overview of three decades of neuroscience and research in cognition that can inform classroom practices, the neuroscientists report that most teachers remain uninformed. There’s a call to set up instructional environments that enable each developing reader to demonstrate individual strengths and needs. They report lessons from COVID and the effects of school environments in privileged versus unprivileged communities where some kids, especially in unprivileged communities, lost two years of education. There are also lessons from the fact that even though we now know all struggling readers including those with developmental dyslexia need early intervention—and we have known this for 30 years—most diagnoses continue to happen after second grade which is a travesty. Beyond that, currently diagnoses failing to address the student’s strengths and needs too often submit students to inadequate reading instruction and leave them feeling stupid, or labeled as lazy. These strong emotional feelings and the role of affect can in and of itself cripple the individual’s development of reading fluency and self-esteem.
A second unrelated article by neuroscientists highlighted in Psychology Today by Justin Garson (December, 2022) poses an interesting question: Is developmental dyslexia really a deficit or could it be a gift? In “Developmental Dyslexia: Disorder or Specialization in Exploration?” (Frontiers in Psychology, 2022) Helen Taylor and Martin Vestergaard posit that rather than having a deficit disorder, people with developmental dyslexia may in fact have inherited a gift. And it may not be just a gift inherent in the individual, but the dyslexic brain may be a genetic gift built to enhance mankind’s chances of survival on the planet. They explore cognitive realms like discovery, invention, and creativity among dyslexics unexplained by deficits deficient theories and challenge the long-held view that developmental dyslexia is a disorder. Rather, they posit the dyslexic brain as a unique cognitive style evolved over millennia to spread genes for divergent thinking, cognitive exploration, and holistic visual processing—processes that many dyslexics report experiencing as “gifts.” These strengths so say the researchers are unexplained by deficit-centered theories.
Being dyslexic myself with daily deficit experiences such as a slow reading rate, poor spelling, challenges with word retrieval when I’m under the gun, and embarrassing mispronunciations, I revel in the prospect of a theory that puts dyslexic individuals on a pedestal and gives them hope for lifelong impact and fulfillment. “There are indeed differences in the brains of people who have dyslexia” in contrast to the brains of those who do not have dyslexia (Ozernov-Palchik & Gaab, 2016, p.14). Maybe these differences aren’t all bad.
As I have written previously, some experts present evidence that dyslexics are gifted beyond what is found in non-dyslexic individuals and often have special talents such as thinking outside of the box, visualization in three dimensions, and being creative, entrepreneurial, artistic, and athletic (Ehrlichman, 2015; Gentry, 2019).
In a previous post, I wrote, “People with dyslexia make the world a better place.” Does my familial genetic line connect to the likes of George Washington, Ben Franklin, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, and Henry Ford? Or in today’s world to the likes of Cher, Anderson Cooper, Whoopi Goldberg, Richard Branson, and a host of architects, athletes, and entrepreneurs. Taylor and Vestergaard think perhaps it does.
One thing both articles have in common is spotlighting both strengths and weaknesses in dyslexic people. When a fourth-grade teacher works with a fourth grader who is excellent with composition but struggling with spelling—we encounter them a lot—volunteer to be that student’s editor in fourth grade and teach them the habit of getting help before going public with an important piece of writing. Be sure to provide all students integrated word study through explicit spelling and vocabulary study for about 20 minutes per day in weekly grade-by-grade spelling lessons throughout elementary school. And even though you might hold all fourth graders accountable for editing for spelling, teach the child with symptoms of dyslexia the habit of always getting help.
Ehrlichman, M. (January 5, 2015). 5 characteristics of entrepreneurial spirit. Retrieved from
Garson, J. (December, 2022). Dyslexia: Beyond a disorder. Psychology Today. 55(6) 26-27.
Gentry, J. R. & Ouellette, G.P. (2019). Brain words: How the science of reading informs teaching. Portsmouth, NH: Stenhouse Publishers.
Gentry, R. (2019). Recognizing dyslexia may prevent low self-esteem and anxiety. Raising Readers, Writers, and Spellers.
Gotlieb, R., Rhinehar, L., & Wolf, M. (2022) The “reading brain” is taught, not born: Evidence from the evolving neuroscience of reading for teachers and society. The Reading League Journal, 3(3) 11-17.
Ozernov‐Palchik, O., & Gaab, N. (2016). Tackling the ‘dyslexia paradox’: reading brain and behavior for early markers of developmental dyslexia. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science, 7(2), 156-176.
Taylor, Helen & Vestergaard, Martin David (2022). Developmental Dyslexia: Disorder or Specialization in Exploration? Sec. Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology. Frontiers in Psychology .13.