The Brain’s Reading Machine

Article by Vivian Huizenga, M.SC, Educational Psychologist, IICS Learning Support for any further questions at

 How does reading develop? What are the neurological mechanics of reading?

There is a considerable amount of research in the area of understanding how reading works compared to math, which is just beginning to be understood. Up until 20 years ago, there was still a lot of debate as to just how reading works. Now we have some pretty definite proven understanding of reading as well as well founded remedial techniques. Reading has nothing to do with intelligence. Very intelligent children can have significant reading problems, which is very frustrating.


In general, there are three specific areas of the brain that work together to read. In the front, there is 1) a decoder (matches sounds and sound patterns to letters, phonics) on top 2) a visual dictionary (remembers what words look like, sight words) and in the back 3) a fluency center (the ability to put that all together quickly). Most children learn to read no matter who is their teacher or which program is used in the classroom as long as they are exposed to print.


Children with reading difficulties (about one out of every 10) have weaknesses in one, two or all three of these brain areas. The difficulties can be mild to severe and are most often inherited, present from birth. Reading begins to emerge by age five, earlier for some, really blooms by age 6 and then flies by age seven. For those for whom it takes longer, some have developmental lags, which means there are a few children who have mild weaknesses and then they catch up on their own. More often, the late bloomers have some glitch in their reading system.


All students at IICS are screened three times a year in Prep through Grade 3 to monitor reading development closely. Any child with weaknesses is immediately placed in intensive 2-4 times per week remedial reading program that focuses on all three brain areas in order to strengthen any weak wiring in the reading system. If caught before age eight, most weaknesses can be resolved with 50 to 150 hours of intensive remediation depending on severity. For older students, it takes longer. Some parents may wish to add private tutoring to this program in order to speed up the process.  Programs such as Lindamood Bell are available in England, the US and Australia to supplement reading development intensively and are a real boost to a struggling reader.


Dyslexia is the term used for reading weaknesses and disabilities. Untreated reading problems or severe cases undermine students’ ability to show their true intelligence in school. Older students and adults with reading difficulties tend to read slowly, avoid reading, find reading tiring and spell poorly yet have great ideas and can express themselves well orally.


At IICS, learning support personnel and the teachers work closely to ensure the student’s true potential is realized in spite of reading difficulties. Reduced reading loads, books on tape, shortened spelling tests, and attention to confidence is essential for those who struggle. Electronic spelling aids and word processors are also helpful in upper primary and secondary. Software is available such as WYNN that will read text aloud.


A formal diagnosis is often useful for later years when accommodations such as additional time, large print, or oral testing in school or formal exams, such as SAT, GRE LSAT, or MCAT (university, law or medical school entrance exams) may allow the student’s true intelligence to be realized.


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