Prof Stanislas Dehaene: How the brain learns to read - a MUST watch!

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Prof Stanislas Dehaene: How the brain learns to read - a MUST watch!

Postby Debbie_Hepplewhite » Sat Jun 18, 2016 11:21 am

Sir Jim Rose, IFERI committee member, said (18th June 2016):

This lecture by Dehaene should be essential viewing for all those with a stake in teaching reading. It is amazing that his work has not made headlines earlier in clinching the case for high quality phonics work (SSP) and the acquisition of literacy.

He brings neuroscience from the laboratory to the classroom in spades. I only wish it had been available when we did our Reading Review. ... s-to-read/

For anyone who has not seen this video footage, it is essential reading - not only for those who are in the teaching profession, but also for parents and educational policy shapers.

The lecture, plus questions, is 33 minutes long - and should be a core component of teacher-education.

[SSP: Systematic Synthetic Phonics]

See Sir Jim Rose's independent national review (March 2006): ... -en-01.pdf
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Re: Prof Stanislas Dehaene: How the brain learns to read - a MUST watch!

Postby Debbie_Hepplewhite » Sat Jun 18, 2016 11:38 am

Here is the same video via youtube - in case the link above ever changes - but also to enable people to read the 'comments' in response:

'Whole word' teaching (by global shape) has caused, and causes, much damage to children's reading ability. It is important to note that different English speaking countries will identify different percentages of learners who are described as 'dyslexic'. This is especially the case, for example, in America where dyslexia organisations are prevalent and the percentage of children labelled 'dyslexic' is very high.

Most worrying, is where the children's individual learning difficulties/challenges are given as the reasons for the children's weak reading profiles - thus taking attention away from the content and methodology of the initial teaching of reading. This is an issue which concerns the International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction greatly.

In effect, the type of initial reading instruction can cause or exacerbate reading profiles which many describe as 'dyslexic' - but it is common for teachers, parents and others to blame the 'within child' difficulties'.

This is not to say that children do not have individual and specific learning difficulties, or socio-economic challenges, but it is to say that we simply must be able to put our hands on our hearts to KNOW that the best possible phonics provision is available to all children/learners. And this is not yet the case.

Very simply speaking, 'dyslexia' is difficulty with word-level reading. Professor Stanislas Dehaene's lecture should leave us in no doubt that the focus of learning to read is about recognition of print and the translation (activation) from the print to both pronunciation and meaning - and that this necessitates teachers understanding and teaching explicitly the links between graphemes (letters and letter groups) and phonemes (smallest sounds of speech).

The fundamental questions for teachers, parents and educational policy makers is: How well do universities train student-teachers in phonics, and how well do schools provide phonics teaching?

There is a simple 40 word phonics check available for universal use as it is provided 'free' via the internet with a baseline result from England's schools starting from 2012.

IFERI recommends the universal uptake of this free check so that we can get a broad idea of 'how well' teachers are trained in phonics and how effectively they teach their pupils, see here:
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Re: Prof Stanislas Dehaene: How the brain learns to read - a MUST watch!

Postby Debbie_Hepplewhite » Sat Jun 18, 2016 11:50 am

See the link below for the measured improvement of teachers' effectiveness for teaching phonics in England:

Focus on phonics vindicated by results

From:Department for Education and Nick Gibb MP

First published:24 September 2015 ... by-results

Phonics check results show 120,000 more children on track to become excellent readers.

One hundred and twenty thousand more children are now on track to become excellent readers as a result of the government’s focus on phonics, vindicating reforms to transform the way young people learn to read.

Schools Minister Nick Gibb said the results show the focus on phonics is ensuring more children are becoming “confident, inquisitive and fluent readers”.

The minister said the introduction of the phonics check in 2012 helped to replace “ineffective methods” of teaching that meant children were being “denied the joy of reading”.

Today’s figures show that 3 years on from the introduction of the phonics reading check, 120,000 more children are now on track to become excellent readers.

Phonics is an internationally proven method of teaching reading by giving children the building blocks they need to decode words. The check, given to all pupils in year 1, ensures pupils are making the right progress in learning to read and allows teachers to identify those in danger of falling behind.

Do read the full piece via the link above.

To this day, there are still some vociferous critics of the promotion of Systematic Synthetic Phonics provision in England.

There are still vociferous critics of the implementation of the statutory Year One Phonics Screening Check.

But this should not be the case.

It is no small thing that teachers are increasingly honing their knowledge and skills in teaching reading to include high-quality phonics - and it is only objective large-scale screening and results that give an indication of teaching effectiveness (notably improving year on year) and how important it is to be excellent teachers of phonics alongside developing children's language comprehension and love of literature.

It is no small thing that in 2015 120,000 more children could read new words presented to them than in the previous year's findings.
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Re: Prof Stanislas Dehaene: How the brain learns to read - a MUST watch!

Postby Debbie_Hepplewhite » Mon Jun 20, 2016 9:39 am

Thanks to IFERI committee member, Dr Molly de Lemos, for drawing attention to this excellent piece by Laura Stewart following on from the Dehaene lecture How the Brain Learns to Read.

Molly comments:

Another very useful summary on beginning reading is Laura Stewart’s summary statement on What we Know About Beginning Reading on the NRRF website (see ... superkids/).

This statement refers to the evidence relating to why phonics is important in establishing the neural connections between letters and sounds, and makes it clear why it is important to use decodable text to reinforce effective decoding strategies, in preference to other strategies, such as the use of predictable texts and memorisation of sight words, which encourages the use of ineffective strategies which may put children at risk of reading failure.I think that this is an important message to get across, given the continuing widespread use of sight words and predictable texts as the preferred method of teaching reading in most of our schools. ... superkids/

Laura Stewart's piece is extremely readable and informed by evidence - and another 'must' read to appreciate the importance of explicit teaching of phonics which should include providing learners with 'matched' texts to apply their phonics knowledge and decoding skill rather than predictable texts which bring about poor and potentially damaging reading habits/profiles.

What We Know About Beginning Reading

Laura D. Stewart

Vice President, Professional Development–Superkids


Research consistently shows that strong readers effortlessly recognize words and link words to their meanings in order to comprehend text. Skilled reading happens so quickly and efficiently that it seems as though words are recognized as whole units. But the evidence is clear that readers do attend to the inner structure of words (Adams, 1990; Ehri, 2005), assembling the letters and sounds very quickly—in as little as 150 milliseconds for a word (Shaywitz, 2003). We know that the “immediacy of reading is an illusion based on the extreme automaticity of these word-assembly steps, which operate outside our conscious awareness” (Dahaene, 2009).

Learning to decode words is the critical step in beginning reading because it requires students to process the inner structure of words. Students become familiar with common letter patterns through decoding, gradually increasing the speed with which they recognize words and letter sequences. This leads to automatic and effortless word recognition, which then allows the reader to focus cognitive energy on comprehension rather than word recognition. When the brain is freed up from the confines of decoding, it can focus on the real purpose for reading—comprehension.

The role of instruction

To build the neural connections necessary for decoding, readers need to be taught the relationship between letters and sounds—phonics—explicitly and systematically. A large body of evidence confirms that systematic, explicit phonics is the most critical component of beginning reading instruction (Adams, 1990; McCardle and Chhabra, 2004; Christensen and Bowey, 2005; Ehri et al., 2001; Foorman et al., 1998; Foorman et al., 2001; Moats, 1998; NICHD, 2000; Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998, Rayner et al., 2001).

What does systematic, explicit instruction mean? Systematic instruction is characterized by the use of a method or system. The skills that are needed to acquire the alphabetic principle should not be learned opportunistically. To be effective, instruction must be organized into a logical sequence (Armbruster, et al., 2001). Explicit instruction is clearly, intentionally stated and not merely implied. It is direct instruction that does not make assumptions about the skills and knowledge that children acquire on their own. Explicit phonics instruction teaches the sound/symbol relationships before children meet them in words (Dixon, et al., 1992).

For children to develop the decoding habit, they must receive extensive instruction in phonics with ample opportunities to practice their decoding in connected text. Decoding skills are best practiced with text that matches the letter-sounds as children are learning them. This kind of text is called phonetically controlled, or decodable, text.

The importance of appropriate text in beginning reading

“The types of words which appear in beginning reading texts may well exert a more powerful influence in shaping children’s word identification strategies than the method of reading instruction.” (Juel and Roper-Schneider, 1985)

The text that teachers select impacts the kind of word identification strategies that students will use in their reading. So primary teachers need to think: What are my goals for my beginning readers? How do I develop sustainable strategies for getting the text off the page?

Using uncontrolled text in beginning reading: When beginning readers are given text for which they do not know the phonetic code, they develop an over-reliance on context and pictures. While context and pictures are useful for confirming meaning, they are not designed for initial word recognition. Students who develop context and pictures as their first word recognition strategies are essentially guessing, which puts them at a tremendous risk for reading failure, as they have not developed the decoding accuracy or automaticity necessary for reading success.

Using text based on “sight words”: Students who read from texts that are primarily constructed around high-frequency words will primarily employ a visual strategy for word identification, a strategy that will not sustain a reader very far into the process of reading (Foorman, et al., 2004), as children cannot begin to memorize all the words necessary to read.

Using predictable or pattern texts: Students who read from these texts, common in early “leveled readers,” will memorize patterns, repetitive language, and rhyme, but they are unlikely to acquire strong phonetic decoding skills. Students using patterns will not have developed a sustainable strategy for unlocking text. In fact, studies have shown that students in programs that emphasize these types of text fare poorly when compared to students in programs which employ decodable text (Foorman, et al., 1998).

Using decodable text:

Students who read from decodable text will develop a phonetic decoding strategy based on letter-sound correspondences. This is the best and most reliable strategy to develop in beginning readers, as this matches what brain science tells us about the need to establish a neural connection between sounds and letters (Shaywitz and Shaywitz, 2004). Decodable text allows students to get reliable results when the meet new words and reinforces their mastery of and automatic reliance on decoding. Furthermore, to become proficient readers, children must read great amounts of connected text (Beck & Juel, 1995; Snow, et al.,) but in the beginning are challenged by their struggle to identify words. Decodable text supports beginning readers so that they may have considerable successful practice with connected text. The combination of the accurate and automatic decoding and the practice with connected text will equip readers as they encounter higher levels of text with multi-syllabic and unknown words.

Although decodable text is important, the use of any decodable text alone is not sufficient for students to develop phonetic decoding skills. The text must match the instruction. In review of the research on decodable text, Mesmer (2001) notes that researchers have defined decodability by the presence of two primary features, 1) a proportion of words with phonetically regular relationships between letters and sounds, and 2) a degree of match between the letter/sound relationships represented in text and those that the reader has been taught. This match between instruction and application is critical; decodable text serves as a “ conduit for the application of phonics instruction” (Mesmer, 2001; p. 130).

Research on decodable text and student achievement

In a recent review of the empirical evidence regarding the influence of decodable text on reading performance and growth, Cheatham and Allor (2012) examined seven high-quality peer-reviewed studies (Compton et al, 2004; Hiebert and Fisher, 2007; Hoffman et al., 2001; Mesmer, 2010; Jenkins et al., 2004; Juel and Roper/Schneider, 1985; Mesmer, 2005) and concluded that “decodability is a critical characteristic of early reading text as it increases the likelihood that students will use a decoding strategy and results in immediate benefits, particularly in regard to accuracy” (p. 2241). They further state: “Theoretical research and empirical evidence support the need for students to apply phonics skills in connected text” and “Evidence is very clear that decodable text positively impacts early reading progress” (p. 2242).

In conclusion

The beginning years of learning to read are extraordinary! Children are mastering a complex system of sounds and symbols, and learning to derive meaning from print. The goal of effective primary-grade reading instruction is not only to teach children how to read, but to foster a love of reading in every child. Children who experience early reading success want to read more. This success leads to confident, independent, and engaged readers—readers who are able to tackle the demands of higher-order comprehension of complex text.


Adams, M. J. (1990). Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Armbruster, B.B., Lehr, F., & Osborn, J. M. (2001). Put Reading First: The research building blocks of teaching children to read. Kindergarten through grade 3. Washington DC: National Institute for Literacy.

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Re: Prof Stanislas Dehaene: How the brain learns to read - a MUST watch!

Postby Debbie_Hepplewhite » Mon Jun 20, 2016 9:53 am

I'm also adding to this thread an excellent piece by Anne Cunningham and Keith Stanovich which I recently added to our 'Parent Forum'. This piece is about the importance of sheer quantity of reading practice outside of school experience.

In order for children to want to read widely, they need to be able to read as effortlessly as possible in the first place - and then of course they need to be encouraged to love reading and to love literature for its own sake. This in turn increases a child's, or person's, vocabulary and language comprehension enormously. Read about the massive benefits of reading widely here:

Dick Schutz

Re: Prof Stanislas Dehaene: How the brain learns to read - a MUST watch!

Postby Dick Schutz » Tue Jun 21, 2016 1:55 am

Dehaene clarifies several matters that have been argued in the Reading Wars. For example:
--The definition of reading as "extracting meaning from text" doesn't hold water. The "spoken language meaning system" is in a different location in the brain than the "visual system that processes shapes and objects" and the "speech pronunciation system." Humans in all cultures are born with these three systems. "Reading requires specializing the visual system for the shape of letters and connecting them to the speech sounds."

--The temporal sequence (very fast) is entry to the visual system and then to the speech speech pronunciation system and the meaning system. That is, we read letters, not "sounds"; and letter-sound correspondences, not "alternate spellings."

--"Brain research converges with education research: teaching letter-sound correspondences is the fastest way to acquire reading and comprehension."

--"Once these correspondences are learned, self teaching can occur: children decipher words, recognize them auditorily, and access their meaning. This develops a second, direct route from vision to meaning."
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Re: Prof Stanislas Dehaene: How the brain learns to read - a MUST watch!

Postby Debbie_Hepplewhite » Wed Jun 22, 2016 2:08 pm

This is an excellent 19 minute interview with Dr. Stanislas Dehaene, Peter Wall Distinguished Visiting Professor for the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies.

Dr. Dehaene was a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Peter Wall Institute from April 3 - 16, 2011. He is Professor and Chair of Experimental Cognitive Psychology, Collège de France, Paris, and Director, INSERM-CEA Cognitive Neuroimaging Unit, Orsay, France.

Further, here is an hour long lecture by Dr. Dehaene:

Lecture by Dr. Stanislas Dehaene on "Reading the Brain"

Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies

Published on Apr 30, 2013

Dr. Dehaene was a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Peter Wall Institute and spoke at the Chan Centre on April 7, 2012.

Here is the link to the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies with other fascinating lectures, talks and interviews about various topics:
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Re: Prof Stanislas Dehaene: How the brain learns to read - a MUST watch!

Postby Debbie_Hepplewhite » Wed Nov 16, 2016 7:26 pm

The book:

Reading in the Brain: The New Science of How We Read by Stanislas Dehaene ... 0143118056

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