Article Brain & Literacy Part 1


Our brains were designed to learn speech naturally, but literacy needs to be taught. As we learn things, our brain & literacy skills ‘wire together’ the sounds and the letters. It’s this wiring that helps the brain cells work together, so we can learn.

While we have an in-built ability to speak, we don’t have an in-built ability to read and write. So, to learn reading and writing, the brain has to use parts of the brain designed for something else.



When we’re taught to read using phonics-based literacy courses, our brains are taught to use the parts of the brain that deal with speech. That makes sense, because writing is just speech translated into a visible form.

In English literacy, it’s essential to be able to hear the individual speech sounds in words, because that’s the way English was designed to be read and written. About 20% of children have problems hearing the individual sounds in words and/or linking the a sound to its relevant letter.

Most of these students just need some patient teaching and a bit of extra practice in order to learn this information, because they had that skill previously, when they learned to speak, but the skill has gone a bit rusty from disuse.



About 5% of children have a lot more trouble learning to hear these individual sounds. Some have great trouble linking the sounds to the letters, and a few have a lot of difficulty hearing the sound AND linking the sounds to the letters.

It’s thought that this 5% of children have profound dyslexia, which really just means the student is having trouble with words. Currently, it’s thought these problems are caused by weak brain wiring in the parts of the brain used for these skills.

Most of the difficulties with hearing the sounds arise because we say the individual sounds very quickly – and many of these sounds cannot be spoken slowly! (Try saying the first sound in cat slowly! It can’t be ‘stretched out’ in the same way that the first sound in my can be.

For almost everyone, isolating the individual sounds is a learnable skill, but some students do need specialised help. If you have a student with a major learning problem, have a look at the Resources section, then the Learning Problems section of that page. The Audiblox course might be just what you need.



Sometimes, if the students are having trouble learning to read, the problem is that the students haven’t had enough practice to be able to really learn something properly – e.g. the students aren’t TOTALLY clear about which letter represents which sound, and need more knowledge and practice in order to be able to say the right sound automatically. (Remember to only teach one thing at a time, until students really know that information well. Teaching several things at once often leads to confusion.)

Brains like repetition. Drill helps brains learn something well. Drill can be tedious for the people involved, but if you want a brain to learn something well, you have to help it out by giving it enough practice.

The reason practice helps brains learn is because each time we learn a new fact or action, new wiring is formed in the brain to build that information in. That new wiring is very weak; it only gets stronger as the information is practised – just as a muscle only gets stronger with practise. And the information only becomes permanently built in if it’s practised often enough.



Brains need time, as well as repetition. It’s important to keep in mind that a new fact or action has to be revised over a period of time – repeating a fact 50 times one after the other like a recording, without really paying attention or without giving the brain time to build the necessary wiring – won’t help. The brain learns when something is given attention AND time to build wiring! It appears that most wiring is done during sleep.

Learning is just like lifting weights. A properly trained weight lifter doesn’t over-do things. Instead, he or she does a workout, then gives the muscles time to recover and re-build, before doing another workout.



So, to teach a brain in a brain-friendly way, you need to teach a bite-sized piece of information, and get the student to do a little bit of practice just a few times as soon as you’ve taught it – with the student paying FULL attention. If the student can’t remember the new information, re-teach it. And don’t teach a new letter or sound until the student really knows the previous ones you’ve just taught.

If students are having trouble remembering new material, repeat the information again two or three times about an hour later (with the students paying full attention for just those few seconds). Then, repeat it again later in the day for a few more seconds – with the students paying FULL attention for those few seconds. Then, if there are still problems, repeat the information again two or three times each day for the next few days – and eventually, you’ll find the students have caught on.



Make sure you repeat the information in the same sort of way each time, because that will ensure that the same bit of wiring will be used. As the same bit of wiring is re-used repeatedly, it will become stronger. In time, it will become a ‘super highway’!

If the way you’re teaching isn’t helping your child to link his brain and literacy skills, find a different way to teach that item, then teach the information that way each time instead, to build the wiring.

If you decide you want the students to recall the information in a different way, you need to teach that information again, that different way.

As the wiring gets stronger, the information travels down the wire faster and faster. It’s like comparing how you travel down a dirt road and how you travel down a highway. You travel a lot faster down the stronger, straighter road. It’s the same with a brain super highway.