A neuroscientific view of the reading process

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Mastering the reading process requires different skills that could be grouped as prerequisites for reading and perceptual and conceptual abilities. The awareness of and the foundation for these skills are embedded during the pre-school years and in the phase of emergent literacy. Subjacent to these skills are concepts that form the basis for emergent reading and reading proficiency. The conclusion we have drawn after a comprehensive literature study is that concept formation during the pre-school years is not only an important and an indispensable facet in the mastery of reading skills, but is also closely connected to the processes of the executive function of the brain as described in neuroscience. Our understanding of acquiring the necessary concepts for mastery of the reading action in line with the neuroscientific approach is reflected in this article. Attention is given to our view of the reading process, the nature of the concepts necessary for mastering the reading process and the role of the neuroscientifically based executive function in forming concepts, as well as in the actual reading.

Reading skills imply decoding or recognising the written word by means of the merging of the sounds – an action requiring not only certain prerequisites, but also an action where a number of perceptual and cognitive skills are used to gain understanding of the concept. Acquiring these skills is based on the mastery of applicable concepts that boils down to a conceptual perception of a unit of knowledge which is used to organise and categorise sensory experience. By deconstructing the reading process we can identify a number of concepts that are fundamental to the reading ability. Some of these are sound consistency, sequence, patterning, segmentation, association, rhythm and scheme-matching. The research question underpinning this research is: What is the role of the executive function within the framework of the neuroscientific approach in the acquisition of concepts and skills subjacent to emergent reading and the reading process? Purposeful behaviour is the result of the executive function of a group of interrelated processes and the mastery thereof enables the individual to control his behaviour, to work purposefully and to manage complex cognitive processes. Characteristics of the executive function are attentiveness, cognitive fluency, inhibition, taking the initiative, metacognition, organising, planning, reaction to feedback, self-modulation, switching as well as active memory. A wide variety of motor actions and cognitive activities are used to arrange different successive actions in achieving a goal.

While considering the role of neuroscience in acquiring reading skills we paid attention to its role in perceptual and cognitive skills. Visual and auditory perceptual skills play a very important role in emergent reading and the reading process. Controlled attention is necessary for the reader to focus visually on certain particulars being read and to ignore unnecessary information. The ability to focus on a word, sentence or passage goes hand in hand with figure-background distinction and the combining and grouping of letters and words in a required order. Comprehension requires that the reader recognises particular forms, letters and words, be it in global unity like sight vocabulary or through synthesis of letters, and in this respect controlled attention, cognitive flexibility, organising, planning and an active memory play a vital role.

In order to comprehend a passage the letters, words and sentences are read in a particular sequence which requires comprehension from the reader of spatial order and the succession of events as well as the ability to apply this metacognitive function. The learner needs to understand that events and the letters in words follow a logical order to portray a particular message leading to understanding.

Concurrent with visual perception are the auditive perceptual skills which play an important role especially in initial reading as well as in the decoding of unknown words by means of analysis and synthesis. The reader is able to recognise particular sounds in a word through auditive perception – a skill which requires memory, recall and schematising. Mastery of the phonological system is based particularly on the visual knowledge of different letters and this is a real challenge for the preschooler. By utilising the working memory sounds, words and sentences are memorised and comprehension can be formed of the section being read. Comprehension is also related to the long-term memory because reading comprehension is based largely on experience and knowledge. Planning as an executive function is important in the acquisition of comprehension. Apart from the importance of memory and recall of experience and knowledge the reader should also be able to schematise. This needs memory and is related to planning, organising, self-regulating and metacognition.

When the learner masters the basic reading activity, there is little difference between perceptual and cognitive processing of the reading matter. Some of the applied skills could be classified as perceptual as well as cognitive. The perceptual skills utilised in the reading process are metacognitive in nature because they fulfil the vital role of the cognitive processing of what is read.

The first and probably the most important aspect of cognitive processing of a reading passage is the integration of the information received through the different sensory modalities. Sounds and letters are integrated to form sentences. While reading, competent readers are able to control attentiveness, to show cognitive flexibility, to inhibit automatic reactions, to plan and organise and to utilise the working memory in processing the passage being read. With readers in the initial reading phase, integration is a slow process because they have not mastered the different processes in the executive function and often still use sounds to comprehend what they read. Learners with reading disorders often experience problems with recalling what they have read, because the active memory is not yet fully exploited.

Conceptualisation of the read passage takes place when readers utilise known words and sentences that are supported by memory. Comprehension is obtained by retrieving experience and knowledge from the long-term memory to gain meaning and understanding of the read passage. Accommodation and/or assimilation of concepts with existing information have an important role in the process of conceptualisation and depend largely on the different aspects of the executive function.

Considering the importance of the executive function in acquiring basic concepts leads to an answer to the research question: What role do the processes of the executive function, within the framework of the neuroscientific approach, play in the acquisition of the concepts that are subjacent to emergent reading and the reading process? It is clear that the acquisition and establishment of the underlying concepts depend on the mastery of the different aspects of the executive function. The teacher therefore has the obligation, in accordance with theories of Piaget and Vygotsky, to support the emergent and beginner reader towards mastery and application of the different aspects of the executive function that are essential in the formation of concepts and the acquisition of prereading skills.

Educators in the foundation phase need to pay attention to the development and establishment of the underlying concepts and the concurrent processes of the executive function. Even young children can be taught to manage their behaviour and to focus their cognitive processes to obtain specific goals, but it requires the development of the executive function of the brain with the emphasis on the following processes: focused attention, cognitive flexibility, inhibition, metacognition, organising, planning, response to feedback, self-regulating, the ability to move from one activity to another and active memory.

By using a neuroscientific perspective in the search for the cause of and solution to the poor reading performance of South African readers, the importance of the mastery of the different aspects of the executive function of the brain and the value thereof was highlighted and emphasised. The question that arises as a result of the neuroscientific view of the reading performance is whether preschool educators focus sufficiently on the different aspects of the executive function of the brain which, according to this interpretation, is underlying to the essential concepts for reading activity.

Key words: concepts; emergent reading; executive function; perceptual skill; pre-reading skills; reading process

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: ’n Neurowetenskaplike beskouing van die leeshandeling

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