Reading, Eye Movement, and the Brain


Heavy emphasis on phonics instruction is ineffective for many struggling readers.  Don’t take my word for it.  An excellent presentation on the subject comes from Andrew P. Johnson, Ph.D., Professor of Literacy in the Department of Special Education at Minnesota State University, Mankato.

Consider Dr. Johnson’s observations:  “During the act of reading, the visual data taken in by the eyes first move to the thalamus. All three cuing systems are then used to make sense of this data before it moves to the cortex. The cortex is the part of the brain responsible for higher level thinking and memory. However, during the act of reading information does not flow just one way from the page to the thalamus and up to the cortex. Brain imaging research shows that as we process data taken in by the various senses, information also flows from the cortex down to the thalamus. In fact, there is almost 10 times more information flowing down from the cortex to the thalamus than up from the thalamus to the cortex . This means that higher structures of the brain (those involved in thought and reasoning), control or influence the lower structures during the act of processing visual information during reading.

In short, the neurocognitive model posits that information in the head interacts with what is on the page and plays a substantial role in creating meaning with print. This differs significantly from the phonological model of reading which posits that reading is simply sounding out words. According to this model, reading is a bottom-up process. Here information flows one way, from the page (the bottom) through the eyes, to the thalamus, and up to the higher regions of the brain or the cortex during the act of reading (Figure 2). According to this model, each individual letter is perceived then processed in working memory. Each letter is then converted into a sound, the sounds are put together to form words, each word is put into a sentence, and each sentence is then put in the context of a greater idea and comprehended.

One of the many problems with this model is that there are simply too many moving parts to try to assemble in working memory in the microseconds available as words and sentences are read. It is simply not feasible. Instruction based on this model tends to stymy rather than enhance students’ ability to create meaning with print. That is, it focuses on only one cueing system (phonetic), and allows the other two to atrophy.”

Reading Picture

In chapter two of his book, Dr. Johnson writes:  “Your brain tricks you into thinking that you process every word when in fact you do not. Instead your eyeballs fixate on only about 60% of the words you read. With unfamiliar material you fixate on more words; with familiar material you fixate on fewer words. This means your eyes dance right over 40% of the words without stopping. You are doing it right now. It only appears as if you are reading every word because your brain is filling in the blanks … So how do your eyes know which words to skip, fixate or review?  Higher-level cortical processes are actually directing your eyes where to fixate, which words to skip, and the number and types of regressions to make as you are reading.”

10 thoughts on “Reading, Eye Movement, and the Brain

  1. I have been following Andrew’s work for some time – he takes a global view on the reading process. Refreshing to see when most attention out there is about phonetics (important but not the only thing happening when reading takes place!).

    Nice elaboration, Len.

  2. I agree with you Paul, excellent post. Reminds me of some info…In second grade, 43% of the words are phonetically INCORRECT. Thus if you followed the rules, you’re guaranteed a lot of frustration and failure! It’s the top-down aspect that really helps reading become efficient. A slight twist on Andrew’s comments of the brain filling in what isnt’ seen. Perhaps it’s the use of minimal visual cues to anticipate the correct word. That is why often if the meaning isn’t changed with a word that is substituted, the reader may not even notice it.

    • Andrew separates the cues for constructing meaning from print into 3 cues – phonetics, orthography and semantic. I think this fits well with your “sampling the page” Curt. Cheers Paul

  3. It also really fits in with Moustafa’s work that you’ve shared Paul. I’d love to find out more about the 10X more info going from cortex to thalamus(LGN, MGN?), it may simply be info on where to help look and fixate for more efficient visual information processing(anticipation of meaning, etc..)? Len, do you know any refs on this?

    • Moustafa links the process of writing to discovering the internal elements within words. The child’s literacy development is an interweaving between reading and writing. With regards to the top down – intent drives everything. Directing attention involves anticipation of what the result might be and then updated with real time data. The data sampling or cues comes from multiple sources as Andrew discusses. A potential problem with teaching kids to use their fingers to keep place is that we assume that good readers are only sampling information in the same line ahead, when they may well be sampling much more of the page than that. It also directs attention away from other potential cues.

  4. Andrew has a new book out, check out the table of contents, looks like a great read: 10 Essential Instructional Elements For Students With Reading Difficulties: A Brain-Friendly Approach

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