Dehaene - How the brain learns to read?


This is a continuation of my previous post found here

Peter Blenkinsop, kept insisting that I listen to Prof. Stanislas Dehaene video and educate him on how a child learns to read.

Why Peter, who calls himself a consultant, wants me to explain it to him is beyond me but I shall try and describe what I have understood from the video. 

Peter asked me to listen to minute 14.30 of the video above which says:


Reading requires specializing the visual system for the shapes of the letters, and connecting them to speech sounds.

Teaching letter-sound correspondences is therefore essential.

Brain research converges with educational research: Teaching letter-sound correspondences is the fastest way to acquire reading and comprehension.

Once these correspondences are learned, self-teaching can occur: children decipher words, recognize them auditorily, and access their meaning. This develops a second direct route from vision to meaning.

Note: Observe the diagram at minute 15.15 to 15.30 in the video above.

Here is my understanding of the video:

It appears to me to show changes in the brain after being able to read. It shows the changes but does not explain how a child learns to read.

This debate on Twitter came about because I had said that no one knows how a child learns to read.

I agree that teaching letter-sound correspondences is the fastest way to acquiring reading (decoding). However, I don’t believe that is the only way. This would be common knowledge as millions did learn to read during the whole word/language period.

Dehaene appears to be saying to connect the letters to speech sounds and not to the phonemes which we cannot hear when words are spoken. The diagram at minute 15.30 appears to be conveying the same message.

This video is about how education changes the brain (minute 1.41) and not about how a child learns to read.

For now, I would like to think aloud on the message above.

Dehaene says that whole word learning is a myth. He says there is no such thing as learning words globally.

At minute 12.54: We have an illusion of whole word reading. The brain still processes every single letter and does not look at the whole shape. So, whole word reading is a myth.

I don’t encourage learning using the whole word system but I have a few questions.

My questions are:

i.                     How did the deaf and mute learn to read words back in the 1840’s when pictures/ images were accompanied with words? For example, a picture of a dog with the word ‘dog’ below it. Let us remember these are deaf and mute people which means they cannot hear any sound of words let alone phonemes.The deaf and mute first learned to read this way.

ii.                   How do the kids with Auditory Processing Disorder learn to read?

Here is part of a discussion from 2 days ago, with a person with APD:

Hi Luqman, Basically when I was sent a research paper about 20 years ago, it contained for me a great deal of new words which are the terminology used by those carrying out the research to explain to their colleagues and others the issues they are investigating.

It took me over 3 months to work out what the various new words related to, and I was able to recognise them visually, when I saw them in the text of other research papers after that. I had to find a description of the meaning of each word online which uses everyday language which I have been using for most of my life.


iii.                 All my more than 70 dyslexic students were able to read the 220 Dolch words by rote memory. They were taught to memorise the Dolch words by sounding out the letter names (not the sounds represented by letters). They were told to say – w-i-t-h ‘with’ 5 times and move to the next word. Within a short period, they were all able to spell all the 220 Dolch words with ease. Here is an example of a dyslexic kid who, on his 8th lesson, read a list of Dolch words he had learnt to lesson 7.

iv.                 How do children who have been taught the sounds of consonants with extraneous sounds learn how to read after struggling and figuring out or making sense of /kuh/ /ah/ /tuh/ is cat.  How does self-teaching occur for these kids? You may listen to the two university students from Perth recorded in 2019. LINK.

Based on my observations above and having taught dyslexic kids I would say that no one has really discovered how kids learn to read.

I believe the mind is powerful and is able to connect the words/ letters read to the spoken words it hears.

Thank goodness for kids being able to read using patterns and analogies.