Book ReviewsStanislas Dehaene (2009). Reading in the Brain: The New Science ofHow We Read. New York: Penguin + 388 pp. ISBN: 978-0-14-311805-3
Reviewed by Kimberly Klassen Kansai Gaidai University, Cardiff University
Reading has often been described as a magical feat, a miracle: our eyes seewritten marks on a page and the meaning is instantly made clear in our minds.It is in fact a sophisticated skill, taken for granted by those who can do it well.That the layperson knows little about the capacities or functions of the brain isStanislas Dehaenes starting point in Reading in the Brain. His aim is to providea simple introduction to what the latest research in cognitive psychology hasto tell us about reading processes and, despite the complex nature of hismaterial, he expresses challenging concepts in an accessible way. His targetreaders are parents, educators and politicians anyone who might have a sayor interest in how children are taught to read, and his book will indeed be ofinterest to anyone who wonders at the miracle of reading.
It is generally accepted that reading is a dual-route process: a phonologicalroute (written word to speech via phonemic processing) and a semantic route(processing via the lexicon). This duality is captured by Dehaenes definitionof an expert reader: a well-read man or woman who implicitly knows a largenumber of prefixes, roots, and suffixes and effortlessly associates them withboth pronunciation and meaning (p. 204). Central to Dehaenes discussion ofthe reading process is his neuronal recycling hypothesis: some neurons in thebrain, whose original use was for visual recognition, have been recycled orrepurposed for reading. Dehaene argues that writing was developed only5,400 years ago and in evolutionary terms, this was not enough time for thedevelopment of specialized reading circuits. Thus, he posits that areas of thebrain have been recycled for reading; variability in the brain is possible,although only within the constraints of the brains structure. This hypothesisis in opposition to what he terms the standard social science model, whichviews the brain as a blank slate without limitations, that can adapt to cultureinfinitely. Dehaene returns to his neuronal recycling theory throughout thebook to explain and expand on the empirical evidence we have about theprocess of reading.
A lot of the evidence Dehaene presents is from brain imaging technology,which has allowed scientists to identify the area of the brain that canrecognize word forms: the left lateral occipito-temporal sulcus, which
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Dehaene helpfully refers to as the brains letterbox. This is the same areaused for visual recognition of objects, and is found in other primates as well.Because the area we use for reading is the same as for identifying objects,Dehaene puts forth the possibility that letter shapes were not invented by ourancestors, but rather were drawn from proto-letters: the shapes we see atjunction lines of objects. Referring to psychologist Irving Biedermanshypothesis on human object perception, Dehaene explains how junction lines(for example, where the lines meet on a table) resemble letter shapes such asT, Y, L and F, depending on the angle we view them from. They are essentialto identifying an objects shape. Dehaene provides illustrations of objects likea cup and a stool, highlighting the junction lines, and showing how if theselines are erased, it becomes quite hard to identify the object. Dehaene suggeststhat these proto-letters served as a basis and model for all writing systems,and goes on to discuss many similarities between the seemingly diversewriting systems found in the world. That this same area, the brains letterbox,is activated in readers all over the world, regardless of language or how theylearned to read, seems to support the neuronal recycling theory.
Continuing with this discussion of how our brains have been repurposedfor reading, Dehaene turns his attention to how children learn to read,outlining three stages of acquisition: pictorial, seeing each word as an object;phonological, becoming aware of phonemes; and orthographic, quicklyrecognising words and their meaning. This process is fully developed byadolescence, assuming regular reading has been done. Here, Dehaene alsodiscusses the mirror-stage that many children go through when learning towrite, that is, writing a mirror image of a letter. Dehaene takes the readerthrough various theories to show how our brains store left and right angleimages of any object we see. Thus, children must unlearn this mirror imagewhen it comes to learning letters. For example, when they first learn the letterb, this is also stored in the brain as its mirror image, d. The child eventuallylearns that the mirror image is in fact a different, distinct letter. (This mirror-stage is not to be confused with dyslexia, which Dehaene also discusses atlength). In adults with brain lesion damage, mirror blindness has beenidentified, whereby they have lost the ability to recognize the difference intwo representations of the same object, one left facing, the other right facing.
Of particular interest to parents and teachers will be Dehaenes resoluteconclusion that phonics is the best method for teaching children to read. Hedemonstrates that phonics, the teaching of letter to sound conversion, issupported both by studies of how the brain works and by classroomexperiments. He dispels any notion that the whole-word method shouldreplace or be used in conjunction with phonics, arguing that the whole-wordmethod may in fact inhibit the learning process. Dehaene adds in thisdiscussion that he is in favour of spelling reform. He claims that reading skillsdevelop faster in languages with transparent spelling systems, so that Italianchildren learn to read faster than French children, and an English child willneed one or two extra years to reach the reading level of a French child.
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Dehaene hopes that the next generation, bolstered by spelling norms takenfrom texting and online communication, will push forward with spellingreform in English. Interestingly, he does not discuss the case of spellingreform in Dutch and its effects on the present generation of Dutch readers.The Dutch language underwent several spelling reforms between 1934 and2006. According to Moser (2013), the unfortunate consequence of thesereforms is that Dutch readers have been effectively cut off from theirliterature: it is much harder for a Dutch person to read a book written ahundred years ago than it is for an English person to read Henry James, forexample. Such grave consequences warrant consideration in any discussion ofspelling reform, though one suspects future generations will survive theprocess of learning conventional spellings of English, especially if the resultmeans being able to access literature from earlier times.
Dehaenes authority on the science of reading would seem to be well-founded: he holds the chair of experimental cognitive psychology at theCollge de France; that he was the youngest member of the faculty when hewas appointed at the age of 40, further hints at his abilities (Holt 2008). As aneuroscientist and mathematician, Dehaene approaches the subject of readingprocesses from a unique angle, and one that has potential to offer newinsights to applied linguists. While he identifies parents and educators as histarget readers, Reading in the Brain has been cited as a good overview forgraduate students as well (Rayner et al., 2012). Dehaene integratesinformation from a variety of disciplines, including cognitive psychology,neurology and evolutionary biology, offering valuable synopses to academicreaders. Discipline-specific jargon and experimental approaches mightchallenge the casual reader, but Dehaene is a competent guide, clearlysignposting what areas he will cover, and regularly summarizing each shortsection before moving on. Throughout the book, figures and images illustratefor the reader especially unusual or difficult concepts. Overall, this is afascinating, accessible account of the capabilities of the reading brain.
Holt, J. (2008) Numbers guy. The New Yorker. Retrieved 10 July 2013 from http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/03/03/080303fa_fact_holt
Moser, B. (2013) Back to their desks. The London Review of Books 35.10: 2728.Rayner K., A. Pollatsek, J. Ashby and C. Clifton (2012) Psychology of reading. (2nd edn.).
New York: Psychology Press.
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