A year ago, my daughter could force herself to read, but it seemed like work for her. She’s starting first grade this week, and the difference in her reading has been nothing short of transformative. She can now say that some books are too easy, and is enjoying the way every word around her is opening up the world in a whole new way. While new words still present a challenge, she’s clearly hit a threshold where reading familiar words can’t not be read. This is thanks to the brain processes known words in the same way you always recognize a friend’s face.
When you encounter a new word, your brain employs a number of different brain regions to take it apart and make sense of it. You fall back to phonetics, other memories, etc. until you feel like you’ve learned that word. After that point, you don’t really read, as in decipher, it anymore. Instead, you save time and energy by just recognizing the visual appearance of the letters as a single unit. Kids learning to read are often told that words with non-phonetic spelling just need to be memorized as “sight words,” rather than worry about making sense of their spelling. Once you look at how the brain handles all this, it seems that our brain tries to handle all reading as sight words.
Familiar as a friend’s face
This was tested in some fMRI studies this year at the University of Georgetown. Test subjects were asked to read both real and nonsense words (like “grunt” vs. “trunt”). While nonsense was processed in more than one region of the brain, known words were processed by the Visual Word Form Area (VWFA). This area isn’t part of the brain’s language centers, but is part of the visual cortex. The right hemisphere as an analogous structure, the fusiform face area, but that is for processing and recognizing people’s faces. Recognized words were handled as singular, visual objects vs. parts in a language system.
Learning new lingo
As test subjects became more familiarized with the nonsense words, the fMRI was able to monitor a shift in how they were processed. Once they were “learned” by the participants, the brain started treating them like any other familiar term, leaving processing up to the VWFA alone. This test obviously doesn’t include the larger task of reading comprehension, but it can explain how reading can feel like an automatic, reflexive process with practice. It may also help people with reading disabilities, as work can be done to help them treat more words as sight words, worrying less about the initial process of deciphering the spelling and phonetics.
Source: After Learning New Words, Brain Sees them as Pictures, Georgetown University Medical Center News