How the Brain Learns Words

Reading trouble may start with the brain having trouble processing how the words are taught to the student

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Is there a better way to teach language and reading to students who are struggling? Some teaching methods may be more affective than others for students who have difficulty with reading.

A recent study looked at brain scans while adults were being taught new words. Greater activity was shown with average readers when the words were taught in isolation, not in a full sentence.

"Practice individual vocabulary words with your kids!"

Lead author Laurie Cutting Ph.D., Patricia and Rodes Hart Associate Professor of Special Education, associate professor of psychology, radiology and pediatrics and Vanderbilt Kennedy Center investigator, began a study by analyzing two different teaching methods. One method is called ‘implicit teaching’, which is where teachers teach by using words in a sentence.

The second method is called ‘explicit teaching’, which is where words are taught individually. They used fake words that sort of looked like real words, but weren’t, and taught half implicitly and half explicitly.

Cutting’s team used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to see how exactly the brain processed the words learned both implicitly and explicitly. The researchers were able to see that even though the teaching methods and time spent on each teaching style were equal; the way the brain reacted to implicit and explicit learned words was different.

The brains of top-notch readers didn’t show much difference between the methods. However, the average readers showed far less brain activity when they were learning the words in a sentence with the implicit method.

One thing to note with the study is that the testing was performed on adults, not children. Though there is no evidence to suggest that age would change the results, further studies on children who are having trouble learning to read will be necessary.

Cutting said, “While the benefits of explicit instruction over implicit instruction may seem obvious, it was surprising to find such differences in brain function between groups of a very narrow range of reading skill…such an approach may ultimately be useful for predicting which types of instruction will result in sustained reading growth.”

Understanding how humans learn new words may help researchers figure out the best time to step in and help kids who are having a tough time with reading. It all starts with looking at the neuroscience having to do with the brain’s plasticity and engagement during the learning process.

This study will be published in the journal, Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, Vol.2, Supplement 1, February 2012. The National Institutes of Health Learning Disabilities Research Centers supported research, no conflicts of interest were found.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
April 9, 2012
Last Updated:
April 10, 2012