How To Read Using The Brain Correctly
How The Brain Processes Reading And Why We Must Understand It
copyright 1997 by Cliff Ponder
and other institutions around the word are engaged in ongoing projects
that continually expand our understanding of the workings of the human brain.
The following brief summary of how the brain processes reading is
based on research from these projects and other research, and fits quite
well the observations that this author has made over the years. Our
knowledge is constantly expanding as a result of that research, so some
of the premises stated herein may have to be somewhat modified in
succeeding years as new findings come to light.
But the conclusions stated herein regarding the reading instruction
method developed by Academic Associates are irrefutable, and will remain
relevant even as future research provides additional insight into why
the method works so well.
Different Brains, Different Styles
Male and female brains, while similar in may
aspects, often function differently when processing the same or similar
tasks. This is a result of physiological differences in the neural
architecture of the brain, over which neither male nor female has any
control. Sophisticated methods of determining which parts of the brain
are involved in various tasks indicate that several fundamental
differences exist between the typical male and female brain. These
differences are graphically illustrated by magnetic resonance images
taken during various activities.
demonstrate that different segments of the brain are often activated in
males and females, even when both are exposed to identical external
stimuli. We will consider here only those differences that affect the
process of reading.
Brain activation patterns
show that males process reading in a relatively small area in the left
hemisphere of the brain, while females typically process reading in
significantly larger areas in both hemispheres.
We also know that females are typically better able to infer, that is,
to draw conclusions from intuitive, inferential stimuli or incomplete
data, than are males. Males do not generally possess the ability to
draw conclusions from inference or extrapolation as well as females.
They require a directed, factual approach in order to be able to arrive
For a somewhat facetious hypothetical example, if one tells a male the trash can
is overflowing, he may acknowledge that it is indeed overflowing. If
one desires the male to empty the trash, however, he must be directly
requested to empty it. A female, on the other hand, is like to infer
that she is being asked to empty the trash can, and is more likely to empty it.
Understanding the differences in male-female reactions to stimuli is useful in developing a hypothesis for teaching reading to members of both sexes.
Intuitive Verses Factual
Because females are better able to infer, they are better at isolating the individual
sounds that make up words, and at associating those sounds with the
letters in the words - they infer that the sounds of the letters
constitute the basis for words, even if they have never been exposed to
that information. They can apply the sounds made by letter combinations
in one word to the same letter combinations in other words, and thus
are better able to read new words without any prior introduction to
The male, on the other hand, is generally
less able to draw abstract conclusions, and is thus unable to infer
that letters are symbols that stand for sounds. If a faulty teaching
method requires him to infer that certain patterns of letters make the
same sound in one word as in another, he cannot usually do so, so he
will be unable to decode and identify new words. He must be
systematically and consistently taught to transfer the sounds of letters
and combinations of letters to new words. He must be taught every
possible sound of each letter and combination of letters, plus
dependable rules which govern the sounds those letters made. Until he
learns this, he will have difficulty reading.
Whole-Word Verses Phonics Instruction
There are two basic methods of reading instruction:
the whole-word method [also called the sight-reading or total immersion
method], and the phonics method.
whole-word method attempts to teach reading by exposing students to
words as self-contained entities, without regard for their component
letters, sounds and blends. Each new word is approached as if it were a
photograph, or better yet, a
snapshot. The method requires repeated exposure to words, which, it is
believed, will cause students to eventually recognize and memorize them.
Although this may be attempted by a variety of means - flash cards,
reading orally to students, extensive memorization of lists of words,
etc. - the desired result is the same: students are expected to
memorize words as though they were snapshots.
The same research that pinpoints those areas of the brain involved in
reading also show us that words and objects such as snapshots are
processed in entirely different ways and in different parts, and in
males, even in different hemispheres, of the brain. Because males
constitute the majority of poor readers, let us first examine why they
are so much more prone to reading difficulties than females.
When a male is taught to read by the whole-word method, he first
recognizes words within the right hemisphere of his brain, where they
have been stored in memory as a whole entity - much like a snapshot.
The right hemisphere, however, is not capable of processing language, so
details of the snapshot must be compared to the snapshots stored in his
memory bank, identified, and then sent to the left hemisphere, which
translates it into language and arranges it in context. It is then sent
back to the right side again, this time for storage relative to the
context in which it appeared in the text. I call this process of
transferring and sorting information between two hemispheres of the
The brain uses about 20 to
25 percent of the body’s total supply of oxygen. Apparently a
tremendous amount of energy is used when the brain is engaged in
vigorous mental activity. The extra energy required by the task of
shuttling may be the cause of the physical fatigue or drowsiness durning
reading that most sight-readers report - a phenomenon largely absent
from those who read by phonics.
We have also
learned something about the functioning of the various parts of the
brain by observing those who have lost portions of their brains through
accident or surgery.
When a male loses the
entire right hemisphere of his brain, he may retain most of his language
facilities, because they reside in the left hemisphere, but he may
retain little or no memory of people, places or events. He may not even
recognize close family members or familiar places. He cannot perform
If he loses the left side,
however, he will still recognize familiar people and places, but will
not be able to speak, read or otherwise process language. Fortunately,
the brain is a wonderful organ, and the undamaged side can eventually be
trained to take over the duties of the missing side, providing the person
is sufficiently young and resilient. The process may take years, but
there are hundreds, and possibly thousands of people who function well
with only one brain hemisphere.
Now notice how much more efficient the brain processes words when reading is accomplished by phonics.
When a male who has learned to read by phonics reads, words enter the
left side of the brain as language, not snapshots, where his language
processors are. They are quickly identified there, then shifted to the
right side for storage in the memory bank. A smooth, one-way flow of
information into the brain is thus established.
This process is somewhat analogous to the way computers process text.
You can process text in your computer’s graphics program, but it’s more
efficient to do it in a word processing program.
The whole-word method that is the mainstay of nearly all reading
programs tries to process reading in the graphics part of the brain. It
can sometimes be done, but it’s infinitely more difficult and less
The whole-word method was destined
from the start to make nonreaders or, at its very best, poor readers, of
the majority of males. Few today would deny that it has had that
effect. Visit nearly any special education class in the country and
you’ll find that males outnumber females by a large margin. And what’s
the overwhelming reason they’re there? They can’t read.
One could speculate that the flood of so-called phonics courses on the
market in recent years should improve the reading skills of those who
are taught by them, and this is indeed the case, at least to some
degree. But most phonics courses teach only the bare basics of phonics,
and leave out large, essential elements. Try baking a cake without the
sugar and baking powder, and you will have an idea of how students are
handicapped when they try to read without understanding all the
necessary components of reading.
But when males
are instructed from the beginning in a comprehensive phonics course,
they learn to read as well and as fast as females. There is no
difference between the sexes.
experience difficulties when taught sight-reading, but the way their
brains process language apparently helps to minimize the damage for many
of them. As mentioned earlier, the typical female brain processes
language in both hemispheres. Nevertheless, when females read by the
whole-word method, the same shuttling that occurs between hemispheres in
male brains occurs in females, except that the shuttling often occurs
within the same hemisphere instead of on opposite sides. For reason not
yet fully understood, females are typically able to adapt to the
shuttling process significantly more efficiently than males.
Learning to process written words by phonics largely eliminates
shuttling and leads to the establishment of a smooth, one-way flow of
data into the brain. This probably explains why both sexes show
dramatic improvement in comprehension levels when they learn to read by
phonics. The final lesson in the Academic Associates Reading Course
teaches a simple but immensely effective method of reading for
comprehension which will help both phonics-readers and sight-readers.
However, significant gains in comprehension occur automatically as a
result of learning to read by a comprehensive phonics program. Perhaps
that is because the brain doesn’t have to expend its energies in
constantly shuttling, and so is freed to efficiently process language.
Regardless of how well sight-readers may read, their skills improve
when they learn to process words phonetically. We have seen straight-A
students raise their reading grade-levels several years by taking a
comprehensive course in reading by phonics.
Although many reading programs have been devised, with
sophisticated-sounding names that promise to teach reading without
learning the sounds and rules that govern them, the only method that
works consistently is a comprehensive, systematic approach to phonics.
We have enrolled many students who already knew a great deal about
phonics but still couldn’t read well. Some had endured years of
instruction in a variety of almost useless phonics programs. In every
case, they have become proficient readers when taught by the Academic
Associates Reading Course. Some phonics programs make learning to read
so complex and tedious that even very bright students are discouraged. I
have examined many of these programs in depth, and none bring all the
facets of reading together into a comprehensive whole.
The Five Components Of Reading
Reading has five major components, and all five
must function efficiently in order for effective reading to take place.
The five components of reading are:
1. Decode [read] the word.
2. Understand what is read [including vocabulary].
3. Evaluate what is read.
4. Retain relevant information.
5. Read with fluency.
Reading may break down at any of these five steps. When it does, the
entire process is derailed. Students may read flawlessly but retain
almost nothing from what was read. A typical student comment is, “I
don’t know what it said; I wasn’t listening as I read it." This is a
frequent occurrence, and probably indicates that the brain is so busy
trying to recognize individual words that it has no time to figure out
what they said as a whole. Comprehension can’t occur because the brain
is distracted. The reading process has broken down at component #2,
that of understanding what is read.
type of comprehension malfunction is exhibited, teachers may almost
always assume correctly that the reader has been taught to read by the
whole-word method, and not by phonics. It’s obvious that one who can
pronounce the words, but doesn’t comprehend what he or she is reading is
not a good reader, but failure in any of the five components of reading
handicaps the reader. The Academic Associates Reading Course addresses
all of these essential components.
It is vital
for teachers to understand how the brain processes reading because they
need to understand how to reprogram it to process reading in a logical,
smooth and consistent manner.
Students are often
encouraged to guess at new words, or try to figure them out by
comparing them to surrounding text or pictures, but this method is
totally inappropriate. Students should be taught to never guess at a
word, Teachers must insist that new words are sounded out from left to
right, letter by letter. This is an essential part of reprogramming the
brain to process reading efficiently.
successfully taught people of all ranks and most professions, including
children, teachers, physicians, dentists, nurses, businesspeople,
engineers, rocket scientists [yes, really], airline pilots, corporation
presidents, and many others. They all need to sound out new words in
order to reprogram their brains to process reading efficiently.
As the brain is stimulated by challenging new tasks, certain of its
areas will actually begin to increase in size physically. These areas
will continue to grow as they are stimulated again and again, until they
are measurably larger than before. New neurons [brain cells] actually
form, along with new dendrites [the tiny “wires" that connect the
neurons], which reach out to make entirely new connections within the
brain as it is stimulated by mental activity, including reading.
In time, as the brain continues to process words phonetically, reading
begins to function almost automatically. As this occurs, speed and
comprehension will increase until it may appear to the observer that the
reader is sight reading. But he is not. The brain is processing
information by phonics so fast that it is virtually undetectable to the
observer that the student is reading by phonics.
The student who spends a great deal of time reading by phonics will
eventually develop a large memory bank of written words which he
instantly recognizes, but this does not contribute to shuttling, as the
basis for their existence in his memory is his initial and subsequent
sounding out of the words. So recognition occurs within the left
Reaching this state of instant
recognition requires a great deal of patience and persistence on the
part of teacher and student alike. Teachers must never back off from
requiring students to sound out every new word. In time this will pay
off, and reading speed, comprehension and fluency will surge. Students
should also be asked to determine which phonics rules are operating and
which are broken within the new words. The importance of this exercise
cannot be overstated. It is calculated to develop and strengthen the
specific skills readers must know in order to become proficient.
Reprogramming The English Speaking World
English speaking people are generally unaware of
the individual sounds which make up words. They have been taught that
words are whole entities, so they hear a word as a whole, rather than as
a series of connected sounds. They must be taught to listen for
component sounds of words, and not just to hear words as whole entities.
A high school student of mine read the word, “sandwich," as “sam-ich."
She was not even aware of the N, D or W sounds in the word. A teacher
who was working toward certification to teach our course couldn’t hear
the sound of the long I in “slight" until it was sounded out several
Many for whom English is a second
language find it difficult to distinguish between the subtle differences
in some of the sounds of English. The sounds of short A, short E and
short I are especially hard for some of them, as is the sound of L.
Teachers must give abundant practice for these and all the other sounds.
Don’t try to save time by omitting a thorough examination of every new
word. If you do, the results will quickly become evident by a lack of
progress in your students. Teachers must spend all the time necessary
to be sure students can correctly sound out and apply their phonics
rules to every word. This time-consuming exercise sometimes frustrates
older students who don’t fully understand why so much time is taken to
sound out words.
Starting phonics training at
an early ages avoids all the pitfalls of sight-reading by teaching
students to attack words properly from the very beginning. They don’t
have to go through the arduous process of reprogramming their brains
when reading is taught correctly the first time. Parents and teachers
should ensure that their young children begin reading instruction in an
appropriate program when they enter school, and are not allowed to
become confused by the sight-reading methods - or even the so-called
phonics methods - that are often used. If real phonics instruction is
not available in the schools, parents should consider phonics reading
classes for students before they enter a kindergarten or first-grade
reading instruction program. Doing it right the first time is far
preferable to doing it over after the child has experienced failure.
Forbidden Flash Cards
Teachers should never use flash cards in teaching
reading. Flash cards are the ultimate snapshot. Pictures or other
illustrations should never be used in connection with words as a primary
learning tool. Flash cards often have pictures on them, such as an
apple, along with the word “apple." But the evidence is in that any
type of flash card creates a relationship between the size, shape, color
and condition of the card and the word itself.
One teacher who had used flash cards replaced her old worn set with a
new set, and was surprised that some children failed to recognize words
that they had formerly read with ease on the old cards. One child
explained that for one particular word, the old card had a frayed
corner, and he associated the word with that corner. When he could no
longer see the entire card as it had been, the word was no longer
NEVER, NEVER, NEVER allow your
child to be taught with a method that uses flash cards. Flash cards
program the brain to process words in a counterproductive manner, and
detract from the student’s ability to read effectively. They attempt to
teach reading to the part of the brain that is not capable of
processing language. If you are a teacher who has such flash cards in
your possession, throw them away. They are worse than useless; they are
While students may initially
appear to learn to recognize words faster by associating with pictures
or other aids, they are being set up for failure later on. They are
processing reading in the wrong part of the brain, and confusion will
result as the brain frantically shuttles data from one area to another
and back again.
Sight-readers must unlearn all
their old counterproductive sight-reading habits if they are to function
well as readers. Teachers should stress frequently the concept that
appears on one of our Rule Cards: “Always sound out new words. Never
When working with older students, it’s
often helpful to explain the way the brain processes reading in order
for them to understand why they must spend so much time sounding out
words. Most of them appreciate learning how the brain works.
While future studies may offer further insights the basic conclusions, as previously stated, are irrefutable:
1. Males and females who read by phonics are more proficient at reading, comprehension and spelling than are sight-readers.
2. Males constitute about 70-90% of poor readers.
3. Males learn to read as quickly and as well as females when taught by phonics.
4. Both males and females suffer from the effects of sight-reading, the predominant method of reading instruction.
5. Sight-readers experience significantly more fatigue while reading than do phonics-readers.
6. The brain can be taught to bypass areas within itself which have
been damaged, and most students who have learning disabilities can be
taught to read.
There is currently in
progress a worldwide study of the functions of the brain; an
international effort on the part of about 50 universities in nearly
every part of the globe. Watch for the result of this magnificent
undertaking as they are reported from time to time. Already some
astonishing new evidence has been revealed, and much more is sure to
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