Unit 2: How the Brain Learns to Read

An image of a reading brain from Scholastics.


In this unit, we will be exploring the areas of the brain involved in reading. We will also be learning about how the brain can contribute to reading disabilities and what we can do to support those students!


At the end of this unit:

  • Participants will be able to describe the regions of the brain responsible for reading acquisition.
  • Participants will be able to name the types of processors and their function for word recognition.
  • Participants will be able to understand the areas of brain that contribute to reading disabilities.

Let's Get Started!

Do: You will be filling out a K-W-L chart. In your digital journal, please fill out the first two columns: What do I know about reading and the brain? What do I wonder about reading and the brain?

Lesson 1: The Reading Brain


Read: Click on “Chapter 3: What the Brain Does When it Reads.” Record and take notes in the space provided in your digital journal.

Lecture: What is Happening in the Brain While Read?

Many people believe that learning to read is the same process as learning to speak. These two processes are very different. The human brain is naturally designed to learn how to speak. Humans can naturally communicate with each other and develop language acquisition. This does not apply to reading and writing. Humans are not wired to read. Reading needs to be explicitly taught. The human brain does have the architecture to support reading acquisition.

A diagram of the areas of the brain associated with reading.

The Jobs of the Processing Systems

This is another chart that displays how the processors all work together to produce word recognition.

The human brain is divided into two hemispheres. For most people, language is accessed from the left hemisphere. Within the brain, each lobe has a role in reading acquisition. In Figure 3.3 Areas of the Brain That Support Reading, the Orthographic Processor is located in the Occipital Lobe, which is responsible for visual perception. For example, in a book, a student will come across the word “bat.” By looking at the word “bat,” the student will begin to interpret the meaning. The Phonological Processor is located in the Frontal Lobe, where it is responsible for processing the sounds in the word “bat.” There are three sounds - /b/ - /a/ - /t/. After the student pronounces the word, their Context and Meaning Processor will kick in to understand which meaning of “bat” they are learning about. Is it “bat” like the animal? Or, “bat” like in baseball? In essence, for reading to occur, there are many steps that the brain does. Reading requires the visual system for shapes of letters and connecting them to sound. Once students produce the sound, they will be able to make meaning.


Do: Adults read words automatically. They give the illusion of whole word reading. In actuality, adults are processing each letter as they read. You will be doing an "Eye Movement Exercise." Ask someone to observe your eye movement as you read out loud. In your digital journal, answer the following the questions:

  • What was happening as you read out loud?
  • What did your partner notice?

Read the passage below:

You have just watched the eyes of a person scanning text at a normal rate. The eye seems to be ahead of the voice when we read aloud—and indeed, it is. The precision eye-movement research of scientists such as Rayner and Pollatsek (1989) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology showed in many experiments over 20 years that the reading eye fixates on most content words (especially nouns and verbs) in a rapid series of stops and jumps called fixations and saccades. When fixated, the eye rests for about .25 seconds (250 milliseconds) on a content word and takes in a span of about seven to nine letters to the right of the fixation and three to four letters to the left before it jumps over to the next fixation point. More letters are processed to the right of the fixation if the eye is scanning from left to right. The opposite would be true for reading a language that is scanned from right to left, such as Hebrew or Arabic.

Check for Understanding

Do: Return back to your K-W-L Chart, and complete the column, "What information did I learn?"

Do: Complete the Google Form before moving onto Lesson 2.

Lesson 2: Dyslexia as a Reading Disability


Record and Reflect: Before we explore Dyslexia, it is important to assess what we know about this disability. In your digital journal, record your thoughts by answering the following questions: What ideas do you have about dyslexia? What characteristics do you think a person with dyslexia has?

Lecture: What is Dyslexia?

According to the International Dyslexia Association, Dyslexia is defined as a “cluster of symptoms that results in people having difficulties with specific language skills, particularly reading” (2021). Dyslexia is categorized as a learning disability. It is estimated that 1 in 5 people have dyslexia (DoSomething, n.d.). 75-80 percent of special education students identified as having learning disabilities due to their basic deficits in language and reading (DoSomething, n.d.). Students will have difficulty with word recognition, spelling, and verbal memory. Without the proper training or support to help these students, their life may be affected in various ways.

This is a graph by Wooldridge (2021) to showcase the four reading profiles. The upper left quadrant is where dyslexia students are placed.

How does this fit with the Reading Model?

In Scarborough’s Reading Rope, there are two domains for skilled reading - Word Recognition and Language Comprehension. Word recognition is the “ability to read and understand the words on a page, and language comprehension is the ability to make sense of the language we hear and the language we read” (Wooldridge, 2021). The graph on the right showcases the four reading profiles. A reader skilled in word recognition and language comprehension will be in the upper right quadrant. A reader who is dyslexia has adequate or good language comprehension but has poor decoding skills, which is located in the upper left quadrant.

Reading Circuits and the Brain

These are two types of reading brains. The left brain shows all three areas of the brain working together. A person who is dyslexic may have their phonological area impaired.

There is more than one region in the brain responsible for reading. The lobes of the brain all work together to process word recognition. There are bundles of nerves (white matter highways) that connect the different brain areas and create a reading circuit. For a student with dyslexia, specific circuits are not as solid and under-activated. The students’ phonological processor and orthographic processors are impaired. When a student sees the word “bat,” the orthographic processor's circuit cannot travel correctly to their phonological processor. This causes the student to have difficulty pronouncing the speech sounds of the word "bat." Students may have trouble remembering the sounds. Please view the video below to understand the reading circuits.


Watch: This is a video of a 5th grade student with Dyslexia reading Rosie Revere Engineer. Click on the video.

Record: As you are watching this video, answer these guiding questions in your digital journal:

  • What do you notice about the way the student is reading?
  • Does the student skip over any words?
  • What occurs as the student stumbles upon a tricky word?
  • Was there anything that surprised you?

Check for Understanding

Do: Complete the Google Form before moving onto Unit 3.

Unit Takeaways


  • Humans are hardwired for language acquisition but not reading acquisition.
  • The Orthographic Processor,  Phonological Processor, and Context and Meaning Processor all work together to process the words on a page.
  • As a person gets older, they give out the illusion of whole-word reading. It may seem like that, but everyone processes letter by letter.
  • Dyslexia a common language disability.
  • A person who is Dyslexic will struggle with their phonological skills.
  • A person's reading circuit may not be as strong or activated versus someone who is skilled in reading.

Navigation Links

Sumaiyah Islam's Mini Course

Unit 1: Approaches to Early Childhood Literacy Instruction

Unit 2: How the Brain Learns How to Read

Proceed to: Unit 3: The Foundations of Early Child Literacy

Unit 4: Creating a Lesson Plan


11 facts about dyslexia. DoSomething.org. (n.d.). Retrieved December 4, 2022, from https://www.dosomething.org/us/facts/11-facts-about-dyslexia

Frequently asked questions. International Dyslexia Association. (2021, July 26). Retrieved December 4, 2022, from https://dyslexiaida.org/frequently-asked-questions-2/

Shaywitz, S. E., & Shaywitz, J. (2020). Overcoming dyslexia. Alfred A. Knopf.

Moats, L. C., & Tolman, C. (2009). Chapter 3: What the Brain Does When It Reads. In The challenge of learning to read (pp. 29–38). essay, Sopris West Educational Services.

Wooldridge, L. (2021, August 16). The simple view of reading (svr)-part 1. Orton Gillingham Online Academy. Retrieved December 4, 2022, from https://ortongillinghamonlinetutor.com/the-simple-view-of-reading-svr-part-1/