Watching the Brain Learn to Read

As kids learn to read, the left side of the brain gradually takes over from the right.

You may be used to reading words on a page from left to right, but your brain apparently learns to read from right to left.

As kids learn to read, the left side of the brain gradually takes over from the right, new research suggests. The finding may help doctors better treat various reading problems.

Different areas of the brain, some on the left and others on the right, specialize in particular tasks.

To study what happens in the brain as people learn to read, neuroscientist Guinevere Eden of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and her colleagues gathered 41 people between the ages of 6 and 22. All were average readers for their age.

The researchers gave participants a task that involved picking out especially tall letters out of strings of real words and nonsense words. As participants looked through the letters, researchers measured blood flow to their brains, using a special imaging technique.

When participants read real words as part of the task, blood rushed to certain areas in the left side of their brains. In the brains of older subjects and better readers, activity in the left-brain areas that match printed letters with sounds was even greater.

At the same time, word-related activity in the right side of the brain decreased as people got better at reading, the brain-imaging data showed.

The new work is helping scientists begin to understand what happens in the brain as people learn to read. Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that the research will make your homework any easier.—E. Sohn

Going Deeper:

Bower, Bruce. 2003. Scripted brains: Learning to read evokes hemispherical trade-off. Science News 163(May 24):324-325. Available at http://www.sciencenews.org/20030524/fob4.asp .

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