Reading in the Brain by Stanislas Dehaene.

Reviewed by Peter Westwood, published in the Learning Difficulties Australia Bulletin, Nov 2012.

Last week, on a humid afternoon spent productively in my air-conditioned local library, I was fortunate enough to stumble upon a book titled Reading in the brain. This text was written in 2009 by Stanislas Dehaene, director of the Cognitive Neuroimaging Unit in Saclay, France. He is one of the most active researchers in the field of neuroscience, and has been involved for some time in exploring the processing of language and number in the human brain. In discussing what the author terms ‘the hidden logic of our spelling system’, he provides us with much that we did not know about our writing system in English and in other languages.

The writer explores in great detail the origins of reading and writing as cognitive behaviours, and identifies their neurological underpinnings. He seeks to address what he calls the ‘reading paradox’ – namely that our cortex, which evolved over millions of years in a world totally without writing, has had to adapt to recognising words and symbols. How is this possible? And what are the implications of this for the teaching of reading?

Dehaene devotes eight chapters to addressing the associated issues, with each chapter written in a clear and elegant style that even those with minimal knowledge of neuroscience can follow and enjoy. Most importantly, he interprets the neurological perspective in terms of its teaching and learning implications. In this respect he reveals a remarkable grasp of pedagogy, far beyond that found in most neuroscientific texts and journal papers. His plea is for designing and using teaching methods that are truly ‘scientific’ in the sense that they bring together the best research knowledge from psychology, neuroscience and pedagogy.

Members of LDA will be heartened by Dehaene’s categorical statements: “Cognitive psychology directly refutes any notion of teaching via a ‘global’ or ‘whole language’ method” (p. 219) and “We now know that the whole-language approach is inefficient; all children regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds benefit from explicit and early teaching of the correspondences between letters and speech sounds. This is a well-established fact, corroborated by a great many classroom experiments Furthermore, it is coherent with our present understanding of how the reader’s brain works” (p. 326).

He also explains: “It simply is not true that there are hundreds of ways to learn to read […] when it comes to reading we all have roughly the same brain that imposes the same constraints and the same learning sequence” (p. 218). I am sure that this observation will not sit comfortably with the very many Australian primary school teachers who still subscribe fully to the (highly questionable) notion of students’ unique ‘learning styles’ and ‘individual differences’, and who claim that ‘one size
does not fit all’ when it comes to teaching methods. Too often these misguided beliefs seem then to translate into a lack of any systematic instruction during the crucial early years of schooling.

Dehaene has finally convinced me that genuine dyslexia does indeed have a neurological underpinning. In all my years of writing about students with learning difficulties, I have always fought shy of committing entirely to this viewpoint, but this book consolidates the scientific evidence. Dehaene goes on to state that teachers should not feel discouraged and defeated by the knowledge that dyslexia is brain based - he points out that evidence from brain imaging shows that well-targeted, intensive and prolonged intervention can increase the literacy skills of dyslexic students. Their progress is most evident when the intervention includes not only phonological skills and decoding instruction, but also strengthens students' motivation and attention to task. He states that maximising attention and positive emotions can have a very beneficial effect on learning at a neurological level.

I recommend this remarkable book to all teachers of literacy. It adds tremendously to our knowledge base on reading, writing and spelling.

Dehaene, S. (2009). Reading in the brain: The science and
evolution of a human invention. New York: Viking/Penguin.