Build the Brain for Reading Grades 4–12


Pamela Nevills

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    While nearly all of us read easily and with comprehension, most do not realize that, inherently, reading is an abnormal act. When we are born, there are no hardwired neural tracts for reading: We are not genetically predisposed to read. How then does the brain accomplish such a sophisticated task? This is a paradox whose answer has long eluded the best efforts of scientific and educational researchers. This is now changing.

    Although much remains to be discovered, the advent of brain imaging has begun to unlock the black box of the brain, and a scientific understanding of the reading process is evolving.

    Using some of the most current findings from neuroscience research, Nevills has written a sequel to the book, Building the Reading Brain: PreK–3 (Nevills & Wolfe, 2009). This new publication focuses on older learners and readers, how their reading proficiency develops, how their brains differ from those of young learners, and how their unique needs can best be met. In this volume, Nevills deftly melds theory and practice. Sections of the book labeled Serious Brain Matters are dedicated to assisting the reader in understanding the brain structures and functions that underpin the learning process. These sections provide teachers with the foundational information they need to teach their students about their brains and how they learn. Following each of these technical pieces, Nevills then provides teachers with guidelines on how to explain the information to their students in nontechnical language.

    Further enhancing the practicality of this book are chapters that suggest brain-compatible teaching strategies and resources for all subject areas generally using the standard curriculum materials teachers have on hand. Especially interesting and useful is the discussion of new technology, how it impacts the brains of today's learners, and how teachers can infuse this technology into their classroom instruction.

    It is often stated that in the early years of schooling the focus is on learning to read, and from that point on the focus is on reading to learn. Given that this is probably an accurate statement, we are fortunate to have a book that gives classroom teachers the understanding and tools they need to help all their students enjoy the success that comes from reading to learn.

    PatriciaWolfe, EdD Napa, California


    There are many reasons why a sequel to the popular Building the Reading Brain, PreK–3 (Nevills &Wolfe, 2009) is necessary. Most obvious is the fact that the initial book culminates with third grade. Together, Building the Reading Brain and Build the Brain for Reading provide administrators, teachers, parents, and other professionals a composite look at the development of the brain for reading at each crucial stage. Children learn to read in the early elementary years and spend the remainder of their school years and their adult lives reading to learn.

    Certain features of this book make it ideal for teachers and parents who work with older students and also make it unique. What can you tell your students about … sections provide a steady progression of what students can be told and what they can talk about to understand their own developing brains, encouraging them to become responsive and responsible learners. Students are empowered to partner with their teachers to learn and to know how to use their class and study time efficiently. Another helpful feature is the expanded use of tables and figures. Together with a talented friend, Herbert Higashi, the author was able to broaden information from the text through a variety of pictorial and chart related visuals. Their partnership illustrates the powerful thinking that comes from collaborative projects for adults as it does for children. Teachers can copy figures that provide pictures of the human brain to deepen understanding, or they can use tables to support learning, such as Table 8.2, Instruction for the Complex Nature of Reading Comprehension.

    Is there a need for neuroscientists and educators to become partners? Is there a need for educators to know how their students learn and how they can orchestrate the learning environment to capture students’ involvement and increase learning potential? With the world population advancing in knowledge, skills, and technology at exponential speed, working together is one sure way to obtain a greater understanding of our student population. A system of education that reflects how students learn can offer its students the best education possible to prepare them for a future with unpredictable demands on its future adult society.

    Current, cutting-edge neurology is infused into every aspect of this book. Teachers and neurologists working together have identified a new field of study, neuroeducation. Although we are not completely adept at communicating and understanding how we each approach our work, there are some exciting outgrowths of the initial attempts to work together. Educators must exercise caution when they examine results from studies that use brain neuroimaging for classroom correlations or implications. When the same results are seen over and over again, researchers often conclude that one action causes the other. For example, recent discussion about teenagers and their behavior tends to identify the brain as the sole contributor to adolescents’ good and unacceptable behavior. There is a correlation between how the brain is developing and how teens act; however, it is not proven that the developing brain causes all the behavior. Accordingly, there are neurologists who question the correlation altogether. There is a strong argument that the environment may also have a causal impact on adolescent behavior. This titillating discussion is featured in Chapter 6, Motivation and Ability to Learn Through the Grades: How Different Is an Adolescent's Brain?

    An example of the numerous studies featured in this book is found in Chapter 9. A number of children received music training. At the end of the study, diffusion tensor imaging was used to map the brain's connective white matter. Strengthened connections among areas of the brain for auditory processing and motor skills were observed in the group that had music lessons. Some would take this information to mean music training could improve reading performance, because auditory processing, a major task of successful reading, was observed to have greater white matter connections. That response could be surmised, but it is not proven by a singular study. These results should be replicated for other visual and performing arts lessons. Increased connections in the auditory parts of the brain could be the result of any performing arts venue that has the potential to increase student attention, rehearsal, practice, and performance.

    First and foremost in teachers’ minds is the question, So what do I do about that in my classroom? There is a plethora of practical and easy to use teaching strategies, prompts, projects, and sample ideas for teaching units beginning in Chapter 3. All examples and suggestions feature efficient and effective teaching strategies reflective of neurologists’ reports on the learning brain. Major research findings are abundant. An exhaustive reference section is provided for inquisitive readers to further their knowledge base. This combination of neurology and education helps educators grasp how and why students learn and realize that all students learn in personally unique ways that can be met in the regular classroom. Teaching suggestions are based on a standard curriculum with materials that are available in classrooms everywhere. Of crucial importance are the decisions teachers make for what to teach, how much depth or information and concepts to teach, how long to practice, and how to maximize learning through student engagement.

    Four different assessments are available. The opening chapter invites teachers to do a self-assessment of classroom practices. The ideal classroom for a primary student differs greatly from the classroom needs of the upper elementary student. Add the preteen's needs based upon a developing brain, and specifications for the ideal classroom environment changes again. Finally, it is accepted that the adolescent's learning needs are closer to the needs of an adult than to that of a child. So, what are ideal characteristics of a classroom designed for the non-idyllic needs of high school students?

    A student assessment in Chapter 7 helps them to understand overconfidence in what they think they have learned and how they can better develop a deep understanding of the topics they are studying. Research indicates that most students tend to think they know more than they actually do, which creates a problem for students when they take an exam. Neuroscience has an explanation for this situation and a solution for students to practice. Another assessment for students is found in the final chapter. The questionnaire looks at how students respond when they are exposed to ideal, brain-compatible teaching environments versus when the environment is not ideal. Students provide answers in focus groups at school or individually at home. The responses help all teachers understand how their teaching styles affect the learning attitudes of their students. Actual responses from students in the upper elementary and middle school grades are given for teachers to identify student comments that could represent the teaching environments they provide for their students. Teachers can also help students understand critical thinking, and lead them through an assessment of their skills in Chapter 7.

    Teachers of all subject areas will find new and innovative teaching ideas. While initial chapters bring the brain into focus, subsequent chapters cover how the ability to read develops. As students become dependent on reading for learning, the impact reading has on each subject becomes clear. The last two chapters address all the content areas. Chapter 9 relates information from neurology to each subject area while the final chapter gives practical neurology-based classroom strategies and resources.

    We are reaching and teaching the technogeneration. So, it is fitting that brain development is matched with teaching strategies that make innovative use of media and technology. Researchers are beginning to provide reports of technology's impact on youth. What is happening to the brains of students who are growing up in a world infused with technology? How can technology become a part of classrooms in a variety of ways and for a variety of subjects? And, to what extent is the use of technology compatible with how the human brain learns? These and a host of other questions are addressed as the fields of neurology, education, and technology are infused in Chapters 7, 9, and 10.


    Corwin gratefully acknowledges the contributions of the following reviewers:

    Diane Barone

    Professor, Literacy

    University of Nevada

    Reno, NV

    Dr. Heather Driscoll

    Founder, Revolutionary Classrooms

    New Castle, NH

    Deborah C. Henry

    Medical Physician/ Doctor of Neurology

    Loma Linda Medical Center

    Loma Linda, CA

    Rosalind LaRocque, PhD

    Professional Development for Educators

    American Federation of Teachers

    Washington, DC

    Darron Laughland

    Special Education/English Teacher

    Kennett High School

    Conway, NH

    Karen J. Lehman, EdD

    Assistant Professor, Special Education

    New Mexico Highlands University

    Farmington, NM

    About the Author

    Primarily an educator, Pamela Nevills held various positions and leadership roles in education. She began as a teacher in grades one through eight and has managed and supervised programs for preschool through high school youth. Her expertise as a staff developer began with a county-level program; later, she managed a curriculum and instruction office. Additional activities include state-level leadership for teacher professional development and student-to-work programs, support for a mathematics research project spanning four states, and two-time participation on a state reading/language arts instructional materials selection panel. Pamela's other positions include supervision for student and intern teachers for the University of California, Riverside, a lecturer for multiple subjects’ methodology classes, and she is coauthor with Dr. Patricia Wolfe of the book Building the Reading Brain. She is published through the state of California, the Journal of Staff Development, and she contributes to organizational newsletters. Of additional and very current interest is her new work emanating from neuroscience with a focus on mathematics.

    As an instructor of children and adults, Dr. Nevills studies neurology, mind imaging, and research for education and neurology. By combining information about how the brain functions with learning, she provides insights for teachers to understand memory systems, to engage learners, to maintain attention and concentration, to access the best brain systems to help children become competent readers, and to organize learning for automatic and in depth recall. As a consultant and speaker, she has reached participants both nationally and internationally.

    Pamela's website can be found at She can be reached at 1619 Tecalote Drive, Fallbrook, CA 92028; phone (760) 723–8116; e-mail address:

    Corwin: A SAGE Company

    The Corwin logo—a raven striding across an open book—represents the union of courage and learning. Corwin is committed to improving education for all learners by publishing books and other professional development resources for those serving the field of PreK-12 education. By providing practical, hands-on materials, Corwin continues to carry out the promise of its motto: “Helping Educators Do Their Work Better.”

  • Glossary

    • adult learning theory. A description of effective means for adults to learn, which include input and choice for learning, meaningful application, and active engagement.
    • amygdala. A structure in the limbic system that reacts to the emotional context of sensory input.
    • angular gyrus. A brain structure located at the junction of the occipital, parietal, and temporal lobes. It is here that the letters of written words are translated into the sounds of spoken language.
    • approximate number system (ANS). An imprecise number system operating from the parietal lobes. It develops naturally during childhood and allows youngsters to learn number concepts in preparation for formal mathematics taught in school.
    • arachnoid layer. A middle protective membrane between the skull of the brain and the cerebral cortex. Arachnoid is Greek for its resemblance to a spider's web.
    • astrocytes. A specialized type of glial cell in the brain that administers to neurons by cleaning up debris formed of dead or ineffective neurons.
    • automaticity. A brain response to a person's need to conduct a procedural activity to allow the activity to happen without conscious thought.
    • axon. A single appendage with multiple terminals that responds to an electrical charge from its neuron to spew chemicals into a gap for uptake by dendrites from other neurons.
    • basal ganglia. Subcortical nuclei located under the motor cortex that modulate stimuli, regulate actions for movement, and also control the flow of information into working memory. Groups of nuclei are called ganglion.
    • bilingual. Being able to speak two languages with competence.
    • brain. The cerebrum, consisting of the cerebral cortex or forebrain, the brainstem and the surrounding limbic system or midbrain, and the cerebellum or hindbrain.
    • brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). A protein that acts to increase interaction in the synapses between neurons. Researchers report that every time muscles work, a bicep or quad contracts, it sends out chemicals including the IGF-1 protein, as a brain derived neurotropic factor.
    • canonical neurons. A specific type of neuron that activates parts of the observer's brain by observing an object.
    • central nervous system (CNS). Structural parts of the brain with central and peripheral parts. The peripheral nervous system (PNS) is the branching spinal and cranial nerves that take messages from the brain to the rest of the body while the CNS is the brain and the spinal cord.
    • cerebral cortex. The deeply folded outer layer of the cerebral hemispheres that is responsible for perception, awareness of emotion, planning, executive function, and conscious thought. Also called the neocortex.
    • corpus callosum. A large bundle of myelinated fibers (axons) that connects the left and right hemispheres of the brain.
    • cranium. A bony structure that encases and protects the brain from abrasions and jarring. It is also called the skull.
    • declarative memory. Explicit memory to allow storage of information in an organized manner so it can be subsequently recalled by speaking or writing.
    • dendrites. Extensions from the cell body of a neuron that seek messages from other neurons by receiving chemical substance (neurotransmitters) from an axon.
    • dopamine. One of the better known neurotransmitters that influences brain reactions for cognition, attention, motivation, and pleasure. Because it contributes to euphoric feelings, it can influence addiction.
    • dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. An area that is composed of the dorsal (top) part and lateral (side) area and can further be identified as the site of the basal ganglia.
    • dura mater. An outer layer of membranes that protects the brain and is located between the cranium and the soft tissues of the brain. Dura mater is Latin for hard mother.
    • epigenetics. The study of changes in DNA located within a neuron's nucleus. Manipulation by scientists or natural changes in the nucleus during learning do not permanently alter the genetic construction determined by heredity.
    • excitatory postsynaptic potential (EPSP). A stellar activation process among neurons that becomes the essence of what happens when learning occurs.
    • forebrain. The largest part of the brain, which consists of the cerebral hemispheres for conscious thought, the lower part with the limbic system initially processes sensory information and responses to emotional aspects of input from the environment.
    • frontal lobes. The left and right hemisphere areas above the eyes, and covering the area back to the ears, of the neo-cortex. This area is responsible for problem solving, future planning, dealing with abstraction, and other issues that require the highest level of thinking. It is often referred to as the chief executive of the thinking brain.
    • ganglion. A congregation of neurons joined to do the same or a related job. For word form areas, the neurons may relate to meaning of a word or phrase (the plural form, which is often used to name parts of the brain, is ganglia).
    • genetic material. Genes and chromosomes that exist in cell bodies to direct the activities and connections of the cells.
    • glucose. This simple form of sugar works with oxygen to provide energy to neurons, so they can fire and communicate with each other. It is supplied to brain cells through the blood stream.
    • Golgi stain. A process developed by Camillo Golgi for dyeing approximately 10% of the neurons in a small area. By staining some neurons, neuroscientists can identify and compare neurons.
    • gray matter. Substance in the brain that is more gray in color. In the living brain, the gray portion is mainly the cell bodies and dendrites of neurons. While brains of the deceased are mainly gray in color, living brains are also white (myelin-coated axons) and pink (caused by blood and food supply to the cells).
    • gyrus. Convoluted folds rising above the surface of the cerebral cortex (plural form is gyri).
    • hemispheres. Two halves of the brain, a left and a right. Structures in one side are duplicated in the other side. For example, there is a right and a left hemisphere frontal cortex. The two hemispheres are divided by a ridge and connected by a thick band of fibers, the corpus callosum.
    • hindbrain. The bottom part of the brain that connects with the spinal cord and regulates unconscious processes, such as breathing.
    • hippocampus. Small left and right hemisphere structures located in the innermost area of the brain responsible for the survival but also involved with working memory. New potential learning activates the hippocampus until the learning is dropped from memory or moved to another area of the brain for permanent recall.
    • histones. Small, basic proteins most commonly found in association with the DNA of genetic makeup.
    • hypothalamus. Key brain nuclei located above the hippocampus to regulate body functions in response to emotional sensory input.
    • IGF-1 protein. A chemical found in the synapse between neurons that is stimulated by muscular activity. This protein improves the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), improving speed and effectiveness of neural transmissions.
    • inhibitory neurons. Nerve cells that screen out most of the unimportant signals from the sensory systems when they reach the thalamus.
    • inhibitory postsynaptic potential (IPSP). A weak response among neurons may shut down neuron action, and there is no improvement or permanence of the neuron firing pathway.
    • learning cycle. A four-step process to describe how learners are initiated to new information, concepts, or skills and how they reflect, use, and consolidate something new into their way of doing.
    • learning potentiation. The ability to remember information or a process as a result of rehearsal, practice, or repetitions that cause masses of neurons to become unstable and fire with intensive action and speed.
    • limbic system. A primitive part of the brain, which contains structures that respond to emotional input and can respond chemically to those responses at an unconscious level.
    • long term memory. A system in the human brain to allow identification of the location, access, and recall of significant learning and events.
    • long term potentiation (LTP). The chemical possibility that information or actions will be remembered. The potential chemical is further identified as the function of the protein PKM-zeta.
    • medulla. A structure in the primitive part of the brain, the limbic system, that helps with the automatic processing of normal body functions.
    • microstructures. Neuron and glial cells functioning at the electrical and chemical level during connections among brain systems, which are foundational to learning.
    • midbrain. Structures in the interior part of the brain, often considered the mammalian brain, that respond to input from the environment that could be a danger or opportunity. Included in this area are the thalamus, amygdala, hippocampus, and hypothalamus.
    • mind. The directed actions and behaviors that result from the working of the physical structure, the brain. Human actions and reactions are a result of the brain's functions—but apart from it.
    • mirror neurons. A specific type of neuron present in the hippocampus that allows a person to activate brain areas while watching another person, as if the observer is performing the action.
    • monolingual. Being able to speak one language with competence.
    • motor cortex. This may be called the motor strip—the motor cortex sends messages to other parts of the body for movements that result from conscious thought.
    • myelination. A maturation process in structures and areas of the human brain where one type of glial cell wraps itself around axons and results in speedy transmission of neuron connections.
    • nerve fibers. Appendages from neurons that allow these cells to connect and communicate to make neural networks for memory and remembering.
    • neurons. Nerve cells, microstructures in the brain that contain a nucleus, a single axon, and large numbers of dendrites to interact and connect with each other and form neural networks.
    • neuroanatomy. A study of the structures of the central nervous system (the brain and the spinal cord) and the peripheral nervous system (the nerves in the cranium and spinal cord), which carries information throughout the body.
    • neuroeducation. A new field of study combining the work of neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and education.
    • neurogenesis. The birth of new neurons in the brain. Neuroscientists have observed neuron generation in the hippocampus.
    • neuroimaging. Scientists use a variety of devices to look at the brain and gather information about it. The reports generated include graphs, images of tissue, identification of different areas of activation, or brain images showing a running sequence of how the brain acts during different thinking tasks. There are many different ways we can get information about the brain, its structures, systems, and functions through scanning and imaging.
    • neurophysiology. A study of the ways the brain's structures work together as a complex unit. This particular type of study examines brain activity when a specific task needs to be processed and for learning to occur.
    • neuroplasticity. The human brain's potential to build cognitive networks during childhood and beyond for lifetime learning potential.
    • neurotransmitters. Protein molecules that allow movement of information among the neurons. Molecules are released into the synaptic gap from a neuron when it becomes unbalanced. They are collected by a receptor on another neuron to allow molecular information to move from one neuron to the next.
    • nondeclarative memory. Memory consisting of habits and skills that have been practiced to the point that they can be performed automatically without conscious thought (procedural) or with a prompt (priming).
    • norepinephrine. A neurotransmitter that signals the sympathetic nervous system to improve alertness, attention, and mood.
    • occipital lobes. Areas of the brain located at the back of the cerebrum to receive and associate visual input with stored memory for visages.
    • oligodendrocytes. Glia cells in the brain that wrap around a neuron's axon to form a myelin sheath. When an axon has been myelinated by these cells, the speed of signals transmitted between neurons is enhanced.
    • omega-3 fatty acids. These proteins are brain chemicals. They come from foods containing these acids. When the proteins spill into the synapse, neurotransmitters are positively impacted, and there is more long term learning potentiation. Additionally, glial cells, which are fatty acids that coat a neuron's axon, may be positively impacted by intake of foods with omega-3 fatty acids.
    • oral language system. A system located in the parietal, occipital, and temporal lobes to receive auditory input and interpret it for spoken language and other communication sounds.
    • OTX 2 protein. This substance is sent when the visual processing system has completed its development. The retina of the eye sends the protein to other parts of the brain as a signal that visual input is coming that needs to be interpreted and stored.
    • parietal lobes. Areas of the cerebrum located in the cerebral cortex toward the back and in front of the occipital lobes. Their function involves language interpretation and sensing the status of the human body.
    • phoneme. The smallest sound of speech that corresponds to a particular letter or letters of an alphabetic writing system.
    • pia mater. A soft layer of membranes between the skull and the tissues of the brain. It is the third and last layer and is a Latin term meaning soft mother.
    • pineal gland. An endocrine gland located under the back end of the corpus callosum, which spews melatoninto respond to and adjust the circadian rhythm of the human body.
    • PKM-zeta protein. A protein that has been identified as the potential chemical for long term potentiation, LTP, for memory.
    • pons. Structures of the hindbrain that function to respond automatically to the needs of the body from input from the environment.
    • prefrontal lobes. These structures located at the foremost part of the cerebral cortex for executive function are considered to be the most recently evolved part of the brain.
    • reading system. A pathway of neural connections in the brain adapted from the oral language system to accommodate the process of reading.
    • sensory cortex. These areas in the somatosensory area of the brain function to receive and identify a combination of parietal (touch), occipital (sight), and temporal (hearing) input.
    • sensory memory. A system that is identified by name but is unidentifiable in location in the brain. The operation of this system occurs at various places in the brain depending upon the sense that receives input. Most input is ignored and is not remembered.
    • serotonin. A neurotransmitter to regulate the signals at the brain stem and to police activities at every junction within the emotional center of the brain. It squelches overactive or out of control responses in many of the brain's systems.
    • somatosensory cortex. An area of the brain located in the foremost part of the parietal lobes to interpret sensory input. See Sensory Cortex.
    • sulcus. Shallow valleys located between gyri in the cerebral cortex (plural is sulci).
    • synapse. An infinitesimally small space between neurons where chemical neurotransmitters are exchanged to stimulate more neurons to become electrically charged.
    • technology. Any tool, invention, process, or method that allows people to progress a knowledge base beyond what individuals are able to do on their own. For the purposes of this book, the term technology equates to computers, media, handheld devices, and telecommunication applications.
    • temporal lobes. Areas of the cerebral cortex located above the ears to receive auditory input and interact with the parietal and occipital lobes for interpretation of sensory input.
    • thalamus. A central area of the midbrain to receive and filter input from the sensory cortex for danger prior to sending it back to the cerebral cortex for interpretation.
    • vermis. The curvy, winding, lacey area existing between the two hemispheres and occupying the zone adjacent to the cerebellum.
    • vestibular system. A sense that perceives body movement and location in time and space in reference to gravity and motion. It helps to maintain coordinated and smooth movement.
    • visual system. A pathway used by the cerebral cortex to receive images and associate them with memory of stored shapes for interpretation and identification.
    • white matter. Substance consisting of myelinated axons located below the exposed outer layer of the cerebral cortex.
    • working memory. A system of the learning process that holds and actively concentrates on a limited amount of information as it attempts to stimulate enough neuron activity to link it to what is already known.

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