Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Barbara Bush: Advocate for literacy and the brain

Former First Lady Barbara Bush, who died on Tuesday, was a strong advocate for reading and literacy. During her time at the White House, Mrs. Bush encouraged reading and writing among Americans. In 1989, she founded the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy. The foundation started a new children’s program, My Home Library,” last year, but campaigned to increase the literacy rate of adults as well. Reading is crucial to learning and educational achievement. Reading profoundly supports brain health, through all stages of life. To honor Mrs. Bush’s legacy, we present the following article, “The Reading Brain: How Your Brain Helps You Read, and Why it Matters.”

Adapted from The Reading Brain: How Your Brain Helps You Read, and Why it Matters
by Martha Burns, Ph.D

If you’re reading this, you’re probably an accomplished reader. In fact, you’ve most likely forgotten by now how much work it took you to learn to read in the first place. And you probably never think about what is happening in your brain when you’re reading that email from your boss or this month’s book club selection.

And yet, there’s nothing that plays a greater role in learning to read than a reading-ready brain.

As complex a task as reading is, thanks to developments in neuroscience and technology we are now able to target key learning centers in the brain and identify the areas and neural pathways the brain employs for reading. We not only understand why strong readers read well and struggling readers struggle, but we are also able to assist every kind of reader on the journey from early language acquisition to reading and comprehension—a journey that happens in the brain.

Read about your brain!

We begin to develop the language skills required for reading right from the first gurgles we make as babies. The sounds we encounter in our immediate environment as infants set language acquisition skills in motion, readying the brain for the structure of language-based communication, including reading.

Every time a baby hears speech, the brain is learning the rules of language that generalize, later, to reading.  Even a simple nursery rhyme can help a baby's brain begin to make sound differentiations and create phonemic awareness, an essential building block for reading readiness. By the time a child is ready to read effectively, the brain has done a lot of work coordinating sounds to language, and is fully prepared to coordinate language to reading, and reading to comprehension.

The reading brain can be likened to the real-time collaborative effort of a symphony orchestra, with various parts of the brain working together, like sections of instruments, to maximize our ability to decode the written text in front of us.
It’s never too early to set a child on the pathway to becoming a strong reader. And it’s never too late to help a struggling reader strengthen his or her brain to read more successfully and with greater enjoyment.

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