Strategies for Struggling Readers


This paper is based on the most current information we have about the human brain during the process of reading. Through the advances of fMRI, PET, and EEG brain imaging, neuroscientists have begun to learn about how the brain processes new information, and transfers the new learning from short termto long-term memory. This new information regarding how the brain learns to read can help teachers to create effective, research-based lessons and activities. Traditionally, teachers have learned by trial and error which instructional methods met the needs of their students. Current brain research can be used as a guideline when creating a preliminary brain-based reading instructional framework. Two key ideas from neuroscience pertaining to reading instruction were consistently found in the literature: 1) the brain attends to novelty, movement, intensity and contrast 2) neural connections are built through the repetition of skills. Effective brain-based instruction requires differentinstructional strategies for individuals based on such variables as prior learning, experience, and a select set of cognitive neuroscience principles. This paper outlines some of the most important information we currently posses on how the brain learns and in particular how the brain learns to read. In addition this paper offers brain specific instructional

strategies targeted at teaching the components of reading instruction Key Words: Reading, brain-based research, neuroscience, imaging,cognitive science, reading strategies, struggling readers, teachingring, dyslexia, reading research. Introduction The ability to read well is a prerequisite skill that every student needs to succeed in school and every adult needs to be successful in their everyday life. Dehaene (2009), a

leading cognitive scientist maintains, “Neuroscience today sheds indispensable light on how a reader’s brain works and what makes it more or less receptive to different
teaching methods” (p, 326). The question of how to best teach students to read has been the source of heated debate for over 100 years amongst educators. Unfortunately, not all students learn to read easily, in fact, many struggle to acquire the skills to become fluent readers throughout the course of their years in school. Many students come from home environments that do not support the development of phonemic awareness and pre-reading skills due to constraints of time or lack of parental educational backgrounds. Finally, there are dyslexic students who receive intensive reading instruction in small groups or on a one- to-one basis who continue to struggle with becoming skilled readers.

Regardless of which instructional method is used, most educators agree that learning to read is a multi-step process. Learning to read can be compared to learning to play a musical instrument. We learn to read at increasingly higher levels of skill development or achieve-
ment with training and practice. To decode or sound out words is just a first step in the acquisition of reading proficiency. After obtaining a familiarity with the letter-sound
relationships in reading, students must then learn to use this processat an automatic level, to read with fluency. Sprenger (2013) suggests that “reading is a complete cognitive process that has five essential components built on brain development and experience” (p. 75).

Reading experts have identified the five major categories of skills which are developed and used as children or adults learn to become skilled readers as: 1) phonemicawareness, 2) phonics instruction, 3) vocabulary,  4) fluency, and5)comprehension. Two key ideas from neuroscience pertaining to learning and reading instruction were consistently found: 1) the brain’s need for novelty, and 2) the repetition of skills builds and strengthens neurons,multisensory instruction is effective. Refer to Appendix A for a table of reading strategies supported by our current understanding of neuroscience.

The brain’s need for novelty

The Reticular Activating System(RAS) is a structure of the brain that performs the first screening of all sensory input before it enters the brain is especially responsive to novelty. Understanding that novel or different instructional activities will be allowed through the RAS allowing your students to attend and receive these activities has important implications for teachers. Changes in the classroom, activities and strategies will catch the RAS’s need for novelty. Willis (2008)recommends that teachers use this information about the brain to inform their teaching by incorporating novelty into their daily instructional activities.Neuroscientists believe that concrete vivid images are an important way to convey learning. According to Jensen (2008) the brain has an attentional bias for high contrast and novelty and 90 percent of the brain’s sensory input is from visual sources. (p. 56).What does that mean for reading teachers? Teachers should incorporate project-based assignments, computers, videos, books, cameras, art supplies, visual aids, and posters, and graphic organizers into their reading and literature lessons

The Repetition of Skills Builds and Strengthens Neurons

Learning involves the activation of thousands of neurons, which make connections in order to make networks of neurons. As reading skills are practiced, neurons send dendrites to other neurons, creating denser neural connections and possibly increasing myelination. The repetition of correctly performed skills building dendrites has implications for all the components of reading. Regular practice of skills will improve phonemic awareness skills, phonics skills, vocabulary development, fluency, and comprehension by changing the architecture of your students’ brains. Reading is a relatively recent cultural creation, and the alphabet itself is thirty- eight hundred years old. When viewed through a neuroscience lens, reading is the development of the brain making connections between thousands of neurons through the process of rehearsal. Neuroscientists have identified the regions of the brain devoted to hearing, vision, speech, as well as the recognition of faces and places. Situated betweenthe regions of the brain, which enable us to recognize faces and the portion, which we use to recognize places, is an area, termed the visual word form. Dehaene (2009) proposes that when a student reads a word, activation begins in the occipital or visual processing portion of the brain followed by neural activity in the left occipital temporal region (Brain’s Letter-Box) that extracts the visual word form. Neuroscientists believe that as we learn to read, after numerous times of sounding out a word, the brain stores the word in the visual word form area in the form of a picture.


Sousa (2010) asserts that, “Teachers have taught for centuries without knowing much, if anything,about how the brain works” (p.2). Recent brain research supports an explicit phonetic approach to teaching decoding. Sally Shaywitz, a neuroscientist and professor of pediatrics at Yale UniversitySchool of Medicine, has studied the brain mechanisms involved in the reading process using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology. Shaywitz (1999) explains,

“Although phonics is more important for some children than for others, all children can benefit from being taught directly how to breakup spoken words into small units and how letters represent sounds” (p. 29).For many students, whose home environment supports liter acy the decoding process can be accomplished with even poorly developed phonics programs.For students, whose homes do not support the development of literacy, the method of beginning reading instruction is of critical importance.


Hart and Risley (2003) in their gold standard research study found thatsomewhere between eightysix and ninety-eight percent of children’s recorded vocabularies matched that of their parents. They also found that by the age of three,children living in professional families had a recorded vocabulary size of 1,116 words where as children in working class families’ vocabulary size was 749 words.This difference in the vocabulary of children entering school puts children of working families in a catch-up position as they began to learn to read. However, enriched early childhood programs can help students increase their vocabulary, lessening the existing gap in vocabulary.


Let’s turn our attention to reading fluency and look at some of the brain compatible strategies that improve fluency. According to Willis (2008), “Fluent readerscan decode,
recognize, and comprehend the meaning of text at the same time, so their networks fire effectively and efficiently” (p. 47). Using the gradual release of responsibility model, to promote reading fluency is an accepted methodology among reading experts. In step one of this model, the teacher models reading a passage with fluency. During this time, students hear the correct pronunciation and expression for this passage. In step two, students choral read the passage with the teacher. Step three follows when students choral reading without the teacher. Finally, during step four, students read along independently after practicing the passage.

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