Study: Phonics, Sight Words Activate Brain Differently


A study from Stanford University has found that teaching young children phonics, or letter-sound relationships, prepares the area of the brain which is best for learning to read more effectively than teaching them whole words to memorize.

This means that teaching children to sound out words like “C-A-T” is a more effective method than teaching them to memorize the same word by its appearance.  In addition, the differences in how they are taught continue to make appearances when children view the same words later on.

The study, co-authored by Stanford Professor Bruce McCandliss of the Graduate School of Education and the Stanford Neuroscience Institute, provides some of the first evidence that using a specific teaching strategy affects brain activity, which could eventually aid in the creation of better interventions for struggling readers.

“This research is exciting because it takes cognitive neuroscience and connects it to questions that have deep meaning and history in educational research,” says Bruce McCandliss, professor in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University and at the Stanford Neuroscience Institute.

While it has long been recognized that a phonics foundation holds importance in reading development, especially for early and struggling readers, the study provides some of the first looks into how the brain is influenced by the various reading methods used by teachers, writes May Wong for Stanford News.

A new written language was created by researchers, which was then taught to participants using both the letter-sound method and as whole-word memorization.  After several words were learned using both learning methods, a reading test was administered while researchers measured the brainwaves of participants. The brain-mapping technique captured responses to the newly-learned words, which in some cases are faster than the blink of an eye.

Words learned through the phonics method created brain movements on the left side, which is related to visual stimulation and language.  Meanwhile, words learned through whole-word memorization created activity on the right side of the brain.

McCandliss added that activity on the left side of the brain is more often seen in skilled readers, and very seldom seen in those who struggle to read, reports John Higgins for The Seattle Times.

That process within the left hemisphere of the brain was quickly activated once again when participants were shown words they had never seen before when they used the letter-sound relationship method to decode the newly acquired words.

“When we looked under the hood, we found that the participants could learn to read under both forms of instruction but the brain activation showed that learning happened in very different ways,” McCandliss said.