The “Unnatural” Process of Reading Points to Why It Can Be So Difficult

What is the Visual Word Form Area of the brain


According to, about 66% of 4th grade readers cannot read proficiently, which often translates into a growing achievement gap for these children. Why is reading such a difficult task to learn and teach? While humans are born with a natural ability for spoken language, reading is much different. In fact, Dr. Vera Blau-McCandliss, Vice President of Education and Research at Square Panda, said that reading is a relatively new and unnatural phenomenon which she described in “Reading and the Brain.”

Reading requires two systems of the brain to connect. First, the brain has to learn the meaning of a letter, and then combine that with spoken language. Bringing these two systems together is key to becoming a skilled reader. In addition, the brain must learn to understand the meaning of written text and develop essential skills such as phonological awareness, working memory, executive control, and more. Most of this requires fundamental changes in brain organization, and there are four key processes to this.

Fine tuning visual brain areas for processing printed letters and words.

The human brain is wired to recognize that a right-side up object is the same object if turned upside down. Therefore, it needs to learn to recognize that the lowercase letter “p” is completely different from the lowercase letter “b.” A Visual Word Form Area (VWFA) develops as this is learned, and research has shown that there is decreased activation in the VWFA in dyslexic individuals.

Brain fine tunes visual areas for print

Developing specialized and fast recognition of phonemes in language areas of the brain.

Once the brain understands letters, it drives another kind of specialization inside the language areas. It can now understand language not only at the level of the word itself, but at the much finer levels of the individual speech sounds. This function is critical for a child to link individual letters with their corresponding individual sounds, as opposed to learning spoken language as larger chunks of words.

Developing brain areas for multisensory integration of print and speech.

Multisensory integration combines two or more senses to form a unified perception. This principle is used when the brain learns how to integrate visual information from print with auditory information from language. Not only do children need to be taught what sound goes with what letter, but practice is imperative so that access to sounds is automatic. Integration of letters and sounds is reduced in people with dyslexia, which research shows is a main cause of reading failure because this function is crucial in order to become fluent in decoding words.

Integrating and temporally coordinating all of this activity with other brain areas that are responsible for functions like attention, motor coordination, articulation, and memory.

A variety of brain networks need to work together and communicate to enable fluent reading. Looking at all these different networks, it’s clear there are many ways these processes can become dysfunctional. It is very important that early reading instruction gets the activation and communication between these networks working correctly in order to build a skilled reader.

Dyslexic individuals struggle with the recognition of sounds, and a lot of difficulties with individual word reading and spelling can be traced back to a disruption in certain parts of that network. While there are many methods of dyslexia intervention, research shows that multisensory methods (for example, having students touch letters while seeing and hearing them) are effective in making the connection of letters and sounds more explicit. “It is really quite an amazing process that, over the course of just a couple of years of intensive instruction, we can basically profoundly reorganize a child’s brain and help them become a skilled reader,” said Dr. Blau-McCandliss.

This broadcast was hosted by and sponsored by Square Panda.

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This article was modified and published by eSchool News.

About the Presenter

Dr. Vera Blau-McCandliss is a cognitive neuroscientist specializing in brain bases of reading challenges and development, and the vice president of education and research at Square Panda. In her academic research she has focused on the multisensory integration of letters and speech sounds in the dyslexic brain. Vera is an Orton-Gillingham certified instructor and has a wealth of knowledge when it comes to curriculum for games and hands-on learning with children. She is currently driving Square Panda’s content development for digital games as well as user experience and product efficacy research.

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