The Reading Brain

The Reading Brain

By: Afon (Mohammad) Khari

"A book is a dream that you hold in your hand."
Neil Gaiman

As language teachers, we stand at the crossroads of language acquisition and cognitive development, guiding our students through the intricate pathways of the reading brain. In this latest issue of our magazine, we embark on a riveting exploration of the neurobiology of reading, unraveling its secrets, and understanding why it is a cornerstone for educators.


To investigate the intricacies of reading, we turn our attention to the “Reading Brain.” Our main video challenges the notion that humans are inherently meant to read. Instead, it unveils the fascinating convergence of speech processing and vision in the journey towards literacy. From the early sophistication of babies’ spoken language and visual systems to the training of the brain to connect the visual and spoken language systems, it paints a vivid picture of the neurobiological pathway that unfolds when we read. Key insights from Dehaene, referring to the passage of the visual stimuli from the occipital lobe to “The Brain’s Letterbox” or Visual Word Form Area (VWFA), shed light on the neural architecture responsible for translating letters into sounds and ultimately meaning. Once a child recognizes the letter-sound correspondences, the anatomy of the brain changes allowing the child to access their meaning. The magic, it seems, lies in the synchronization of letter-sound meaning, with attention, active engagement, error feedback, and consolidation acting as the secret ingredients for successful reading.


In this issue’s podcast, Professor Rosemary Johnston takes us on a journey through these neurological aspects of reading, emphasizing its interconnectedness with brain functions. One striking revelation is the development of the Visual Word Form Area even before a child learns to read, highlighting the innate connections between brain regions that lay the foundation for literacy. Moreover, the physiological influence of reading is showcased through a study from Carnegie Mellon University, indicating that reading about actions activates the same brain regions as real-life experiences. Professor Gregory Berns’ MRI scans further unveil heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, associated with language, suggesting that reading, particularly engaging with narratives such as novels, induces lasting changes in brain connectivity and enhances overall brain function, showcasing the transformative power of literature on the neurological landscape. Practical tips for fostering a supportive reading aloud environment, emphasizing the importance of observation, connection, expression, and wonder are suggested. Also, the multifaceted benefits of reading aloud, extending beyond literacy to cognitive, emotional, and social development, are emphasized.


A blog post from the Language Teacher Toolkit investigates the impact of reading aloud on memory, emphasizing the “production effect1,” producing something immediately with the new information to anchor it in the mind, rather than allowing it to drift away owing to other distractions. Reading aloud does this since it is active, requires some visual processing, and is self-referential i.e., you are referring to yourself or your own voice when you speak the words. The study’s findings reveal a 12% memory performance difference in favor of reading aloud compared to silent reading, underlining the active production of information as a potent enhancer of memory retention.

1The production effect in reading is a phenomenon where actively producing or saying information out loud, rather than just silently reading it, enhances memory and retention. In simpler terms, when you read something and speak or verbalize the information, you are more likely to remember it better compared to just reading it quietly in your mind. This effect suggests that the act of vocalizing or producing the information actively engages your brain and contributes to better memory recall.

Jason Anderson, in his article, challenges the notion that reading aloud is ineffective in language classrooms, advocating for evidence-based strategies like shared reading and paired reading. He urges educators to understand the complexities of language learning contexts globally and emphasizes the positive contributions of reading aloud to literacy development, especially for disadvantaged learners.


Sophie Hardach questions the shift from reading aloud to the prevalent practice of silent reading. Drawing on research supporting the benefits of reading aloud, the article challenges the modern norm and advocates for re-incorporating vocal reading into our routines. The “production effect” theory, as presented by Colin MacLeod, aligns with the idea that reading aloud enhances memory and understanding. A study conducted by the University of Waterloo, affirms that reading information aloud to oneself significantly improves memory retention. This study emphasizes the importance of active engagement in the learning process and the personal nature of speech as a contributor to enhanced memory. Actively engaging with information, specifically through the dual action of speaking and hearing oneself, enhances long-term memory. The research compared various learning methods, such as reading silently, hearing someone else read, listening to a recording of oneself, and reading aloud in real time. Results from 95 participants demonstrated that reading information aloud to oneself produced the most effective memory recall. The findings suggest that the personal and self-referential nature of speech contributes to the memory advantage observed.

Figure 1. This time it’s personal: the memory benefit of hearing oneself by Noah D. Forrin & Colin M. MacLeod


Sarah Mackenzie discusses the impact of reading aloud to children on brain development. Dr. John Hutton’s research, conducted at the Reading and Literacy Center at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, employs MRI to study brain activity, emphasizing the importance of the home literacy environment. The piece highlights the benefits of dialogic reading2, where interactive discussions during reading enhance brain activity related to language skills. In the interview with Andrew Pudewa and Dr. John Hutton, we discover the correlation between exposing children to rich language and the development of strong writing skills. “The Reading House,” a new tool designed to screen early literacy skills, emerges as a valuable resource, revealing a correlation between higher scores and thicker cortex grey matter in brain regions associated with language and visual processing in young children.

2 While both “paired reading” and “dialogic reading” involve interaction during the reading process, “paired reading” often emphasizes a more proficient reader providing support to a less proficient reader. On the other hand, “dialogic reading” focuses on engaging the reader in a dialogue to enhance comprehension and language skills.


Supported by recent research on reading out loud during the revision process, Cindy Nebel advocates for the effectiveness of reading aloud in identifying grammatical and word choice errors. Surprisingly, participants in the study were unaware of their improved performance, underlining the influence of beliefs and the human mind in self-assessment. It emphasizes the importance of trusting data over intuitive feelings, suggesting that reading out loud is beneficial for revising or proofreading.


From the intricate connections in the reading brain to the transformative power of reading aloud, we’ve uncovered the secrets that make reading an indispensable tool for educators in this issue. As language teachers, understanding the neurobiological landscape of reading equips us to guide our students on a journey of cognitive development, opening up endless possibilities as they navigate the realms of language and literature. The pages that follow will delve deeper into the multifaceted theme of “Reading,” offering practical insights and strategies for language teachers eager to unlock the full potential of their students’ minds.

Afon (Mohammad) Khari is a master’s student in Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Amsterdam. He holds a BA in English Literature, an MA in Philosophy of Art, and a CELTA. Afon has been reading and researching on the integration of neuroscience into pedagogy.

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