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The Brain Science Behind Reading

Why do some of our children have trouble retaining words even after they’ve seen them multiple times?

For parents with reluctant or early readers, many at-home learning attempts look like this: we teach our child a word, have them write it out, they correct themselves, and then 10 minutes later, when presented with the same word, they don’t remember what it was and have trouble sounding it out. For many of us with reluctant or unsure readers at home, we witness this daily. 

Why do our children have trouble reading words that they’ve previously seen?

Many adult readers think of reading as a visual process. We see a word, and our brain then tells us what we see. The brain science of reading tells us a different story. We now understand that reading is an auditory process inside our brains, even though we take in words visually. The process of arranging sounds inside our brains after a visual cue is called Orthographic Mapping. 

Some reluctant readers and early readers have weaker orthographic mapping, where no amount of visual repetition (showing the same word over and over again) will help. What they need is phonemic awareness and phonics instruction. Stated simply, our kids need to hear the word in their brain before they can pronounce it out loud. No amount of imaging can help them do this.

For all reluctant readers, insecure readers, and early readers, the best way to practice orthographic mapping is through playing sound manipulation games. By manipulating sounds out loud, children will be better able to manipulate sounds internally, in their brains, so they can then quickly read any word they come across. 

There is an order that sound manipulation should be taught:

  1. Rhyming
  2. Syllables
  3. First Sound
  4. Last Sound
  5. Medial Sound

First, see if your child can identify rhyming words. Then, see if they can identify syllables. Then, if they can do both those things, you can play the below games with the first, last, and then, finally, the middle sound. 

This does not have to be a boring process! Many of our reluctant and early readers need to learn how to read at home through joyful, affirming activities.

These games should be played when everyone is calm, happy to be together, and eager to learn. Try affirming after each answer, giving your child a high-five, letting them pat themselves on the back, play this with their eyes closed, and other fun and action-oriented steps to ensure your child is having fun while learning.

Sound Manipulation Game:

  • Consonant-vowel-consonant words (words with 3 sounds)
  • Say “Map” 
  • Then say “Now, say map, but replace the mmmmm sound with a t-t-t- sound.” (Do not say “replace the M (letter name, em) with a T (letter name, tee)) This game does not involve letters, only sounds first. So only use the sound /m/ and the sound /t/. 
  • Now, what’s the new word?

You can play a version of this with any real words or nonsense words. The key here is to have your children quickly and easily replace sounds and manipulate sounds across a word. This is the first step to improving reading, and it can be done with your eyes closed.

To see these games in action, check out this youtube link

The most important thing when playing these games is to have it feel fun, light, and connected. All of us learn best when we are relaxed, and often don’t realize we’re learning. 

Are you concerned about your child’s current reading ability? Want to learn more about teaching reading at home? I am happy to hear from you and have a literacy strategy session. Please reach out to me on my website!

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Talia Kovacs Consulting is committed to promoting literacy access for all children, regardless of their background. To promote equitable access to education, information and resources, Talia donates 10% of her student-facing time and 18% of yearly profits to organizations that promote joyful, meaningful literacy experiences in underserved communities. 

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