How Reading Works:  Biologic Process of Proficient Reading   &

Exciting Scientific Proof

 We CAN Help Students Learn to Read Proficiently!


New scientific research on neurological processes involved in proficient reading is fascinating.  Scientific advances allow neuroscientists to view images of the brain as it reads and actually map out these neural functioning pathways. Amazingly, researchers can actually see how the brain reads! We are learning much about the distinct neural processes involved with both proficient reading and difficulty reading. Sally Shaywitz describes this information in her book Overcoming Dyslexia A New and Complete Science-Based Program for Reading Problems at Any Level. [1]  I highly recommend this informative book to anyone wanting to learn about the science of reading.  I also recommend reviewing specific research summaries and articles on neural imaging/phonologic processing, dyslexia and phonologic based reading.  A selection of these informative research articles can be found on the Links page of Right Track Reading.


Neuroscientists have learned proficient readers use phonologic pathways: Scientist have mapped out neural functioning pathways involved in proficient reading. Researchers found proficient readers convert print to sound using phonologic processing pathways. In contrast, struggling readers have difficulty turning print to sound and aren’t using phonologic processing pathways. We now have biologic proof the key to proficient reading is phonologic processing. Scientists learned these neural phonologic processing pathways necessary for proficient reading first form in beginning readers. Scientists are learning how ‘fast’ fluent reading develops word by word and is dependent on accurate phonologic processing. While actual neural processing is complex and involves multiple areas of the brain, the bottom line is proficient reading requires phonologic processing of the print.  By converting print to sound the student taps into the brain’s natural systems for efficiently processing spoken language. Phonologic processing is literally the pathway to proficient reading.   To read proficiently, the student must use the brain’s phonologic processing pathways and turn print into sound. 


Dyslexia/Reading Difficulties: Dyslexia is defined as a problem learning to read despite normal abilities and intelligence. In other words, it is when someone who has no specific physical or mental limitations has difficulty reading.  These reading problems have nothing to do with intelligence or ability but rather with how the person processes the print.  Thanks to the scientific advances, we now have neurobiologic evidence of why individuals have difficulty reading. The researchers discovered dyslexic readers use different neural pathways than proficient readers and these improper neural pathways form because the individual does not recognize the sound structure of words and process print phonetically. Dyslexics have problems turning print into sound and consequently do not develop proficient phonologic processing pathways.  This brain imaging shows literally struggling readers are on the “wrong track”.


Research reveals neural processing pathways first form in beginning readers. Therefore, individuals who fail to develop correct phonologic ‘proficient’ reading pathways continue to face serious and persistent difficulties. This helps explain the evidence most students who fall behind in reading skills never catch up. We now know difficulty reading persists because they are not processing the print correctly using proficient phonologic processors. Instead they use less efficient and effective neural processing areas.

Sometimes students ‘get by’ with incorrect processing in the lowest grades (K, 1st). The easy reading material, illustrations, context clues, oral directions and limited depth of content can disguise their difficulty decoding print. For example, if the child looks at the picture or memorizes repetitive text it appears he can ‘read’.  However, students who have not developed necessary phonologic processing rapidly run into problems as vocabulary expands. The incorrect strategies of ‘whole word’ visual memorization, word guessing, context clues and predictable text fail as reading level advances. This is often why ‘reading problems’ often become evident in 2nd or 3rd grade. In reality, the ‘difficulty’ processing print already existed.  To read proficiently, the student must process print phonetically. Students who don’t develop phonologic processing pathways face persistent difficulty reading.  For additional information see the article Students Who Face Difficulties Learning to Read: Information on Reading Problems and Dyslexia.


Effective Reading Programs Can Develop Proficient Reading


Very importantly, research provides neurobiological proof effective instruction using direct-phonological-based reading programs can develop neural pathways for proficient reading in both children and adults.  Effective programs that specifically taught letter-sound correspondence not only noticeably improved reading skills in struggling readers, but actually changed neural activity from incorrect neural pathways to the “correct” pathway that good readers use.  The proven ability of direct systematic phonics based reading instruction to actually develop correct proficient reader phonologic pathways in dyslexic individuals is the most exciting element of the fascinating neurobiologic reading research.

This brain imaging research on dyslexia further validates and supports the existing results based evidence. Valid results based research shows direct systematic phonics programs are the most effective approach for teaching children to read. This brain research shows us why the direct systematic phonics programs work. The neurobiologic details on proficient reading neural pathways provide a wealth of information on how best to design effective reading programs. Remember, reading is not a natural biologic process. To effectively and efficiently perform this artificial task of turning man-made black squiggles into language, the student needs to tap into the existing brain functioning areas naturally designed to efficiently process spoken language. By directly teaching the student to convert print to sound you intentionally develop these proficient processing pathways.

The terrific news is we now know a highly effective direct systematic phonics program of reading instruction can help children and adults develop correct phonologic processing pathways and build proficient reading skills. Scientific evidence clearly shows the specific program of reading instruction has significant effect on rates of reading success. There is a “right way” to teach reading and to ensure the correct ‘good reader’ neural pathways are activated. The brain research reveals why many children fail to learn to read with the popular methods of reading instruction such as ‘whole language’, ‘literature based’ and ‘balanced’ approaches. These well intentioned methods allow and often encourage development of incorrect neural pathways or at best fail to intentionally develop correct pathways.  It is like a railroad tracks leading from a beginning point, if the student accidentally gets on the ‘wrong track’ they most likely will never make it to the proficient reader station, unless direct appropriate intervention occurs. In contrast, an effective phonologic based program helps ensure the student is on the “right track” to reading proficiency. 

Summary: To read proficiently, the student must develop phonologic neural processing pathways. If students fail to convert print to sound and develop phonologic processing pathways they face difficulty learning to read.  Effective complete direct systematic phonics reading programs intentionally help children acquire specific necessary skills and develop these proficient reader neural pathways.  We have proof, both validated results based evidence and findings from the neural imaging studies, direct systematic phonics programs are effective in both helping young children learn to read proficiently and in helping struggling students overcome reading difficulty. We have the tools to help children achieve reading success!

Additional information, articles and resources on teaching children to read proficiently are found on the Free Reading Information page of the Right Track Reading website.


This article was written by Miscese Gagen, a mother with a passion for teaching children to read proficiently by using effective methods. She is also a successful reading tutor and author of the reading instructional programs Right Track Reading Lessons and Back on the Right Track Reading Lessons. The purpose of this article is to empower parents and teachers with information on teaching children how to read. We CAN improve reading proficiency, one student at a time!  More information is located at ~ Copyright 2007 Miscese R. Gagen

[1] Shaywitz, Sally. Overcoming Dyslexia A New and Complete Science-Based Program for Reading Problems at Any Level.  New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2004.