In their recent book, Brain Words: How the Science of Reading Informs Teaching, Richard Gentry and Gene Ouellete explain the latest research and theory on lexical representation and its relation to rapid and accurate word reading, a necessary skill to mastering literacy.
In this episode, Dr. Gentry briefly explains brain words and how parents can understand their connection to their children’s reading development.
Read the Transcript
Richard: Essentially, brain words are neural representations of spelling in the brain's reading architecture. We found brain words in the word form area right in the left hemisphere and there are scientists who refer to them as lexical representations and what we've learned is that spelling is at the very core of the reading brain.
Here's how brain words are developed. Initially, in this word form area, there are no brain words and what we've learned through cognitive psychology and neuroscience is that while everyone is born with spoken language circuitry, no one is born with reading circuitry. Reading has to be taught and so brain words are taught generally for kids in kindergarten and first grade and my research ha been in five phases of beginning literacy development, spelling which connects with Linnea Ehri’s work in word reading. They're the same five phases that were developed in two different lines of research and when children come to us as non-readers in kindergarten, there are no brain words but by the end of first grade, we now can see in the word form area of the brain the lexical evidence of the neural connections and the way brain words work is that the brain word or neural representation or when lexical representation maps onto the print on the page and then it's registered into what I call a dictionary in the brain.
So brain words are really a dictionary in the brain and it allows for automatic connection with the person's, the reader's spoken vocabulary and that leads to reading comprehension.
I think teachers really need to embrace the notion of brain words and the important of spelling and share that with parents. However, parents already know that spelling is important. Many parents worry that their children aren't learning to spell, that they no longer have research-based spelling books, for example. I think it's even harder to bring the academic community into the realization that spelling is at the very core of the reading brain because parents already know that.
If your fourth grader can't spell, you know about that as a parent and they begin to ask questions, "Well, what are they doing in spelling in school?", and of course, we're all over the map in terms of what we do with spelling. So, parents are some of our best cheerleaders.
Speaking of parents, let's think about the early phases. What we found is that there are five early phases of spelling and we see it in children's invented spelling which is what Gene's research was all about. Scaffolding the invented spelling and we can show parents the progression in kindergarten, generally in kindergarten and first grade through the five phases and it's right there in front of them to see how kids are growing in literacy and by the end of first grade, parents recognize that kids have 300 or 400 words in that word form area of the brain that they recognize automatically and when they invent a spelling, they do it in logical chunks of phonics patterns and so it's very evidence to parents that what's happening in school is working. Their kids are becoming readers. And interestingly, parents understand that reading and spelling are two sides of the same coin.
If kids are writing in school from the very first of kindergarten and they are inventing spelling and going through developmental phases, by the end of first grade, they are able to read easy chapter books. What we call level I chapter books. Something like Little Bear by Minarik, pictures by Maurice Sendak and they're no longer picture queues but the children have enough brain words to be able to read text like "mother bear", "Oh, dear." "Mother bear is not here and today is my birthday. I think my friends will come but I do not have a birthday cake. Oh, what will I do? I will make birthday soup. All my friends like soup."
So when parents see kids moving into that phase four and they're seeing their kids express meaning in writing and the other side of the coin, they're doing the decoding and reading independently with fluency, then it's kind of a joyful way to monitor progress and show parents exactly where their child is on this pathway to literacy.