Reading Brains Lab
Dartmouth College Department of Education

Reading development

One of the primary goals of early elementary education is the development of basic reading and literacy skills, and yet in 2003 barely one-third of a nationwide sample of fourth graders was reading at or above a proficient level (Donahue, Daane, & Grigg, 2003). Reading is a complex process involving multiple skills and systems that must be coordinated in order to result in fluent reading behaviors (e.g., Adams, 1990). Clearly, many children have difficulty learning how to read and successfully developing and coordinating the various elements involved. It is important to scientifically investigate the skills and systems involved in reading in order to be able to design educational programs and learning environments that target and foster growth in these skills and systems. Learning to read is critical in our current hyper-literate society, and it is crucial to educational progress as mastery of virtually every other school subject (e.g., mathematics, physics, history, civics) depends at least in part on reading skill. Our research focuses on reading and reading-related processes in children and college students with a range of reading abilities in order to investigate the development of the reading brain. Long-term, the research aims to improve learning to read, particularly for struggling readers, through a better understanding of the brain bases of reading; it is motivated by a clear need in the educational community as evidenced by the two-thirds of fourth graders who are not proficient readers.

Reading involves the coordination of multiple systems including:

The orthographic system – orthographic processing involves the visual look of a word or string of letters; you might depend in part on orthography to quickly know that “cat” is a real word while “cta” is not. Research suggests that the ability to automatically orthographically process strings of letters as words might depend on the so-called word form system, which may develop over time with experience with words.

The phonological system – phonological processing involves the sounds of language, called phonemes; you might depend in part on phonological processing to know that “cat” says kuh – ah – tuh. Tasks that tap into phonological processing, such as rhyming games or phoneme manipulation tasks (say “cat” without the kuh), have proven to be some of the strongest correlates and predictors of learning to read. In order to learn how to read, the phonemes that a child knows from spoken language (phonology) must be mapped on to the printed letters on the page (orthography).

The morphological system – morphological processing involves the smallest meaningful units of language, called morphemes; you might depend in part on morphology to know the difference between “cat” and “cats”. That one little letter s carries a lot of meaning in English as a morpheme – especially if you are at the grocery store deciding how much cat food to buy! Noticing morphemes can help you to understand the meanings of words (semantics, see below); for example, knowing that the morpheme psych (from Greek) has to do with the mind, you can figure out that psych-ology is the study of the mind and psycho-path-ology is the study of diseases of the mind.

The semantic system – semantic processing involves the meaning of words; you might depend in part on semantic processing to know that when you read “cat” it means or refers to that warm, furry, purring thing that jumps on your lap and meows. Learning new words and increasing your vocabulary help to develop the semantic system. Some children begin school with large vocabularies based on their experiences with spoken language, while other children, who have had less experience with language, enter school with smaller vocabularies (Hart & Risley, 1995).

The syntactic system – syntactic processing involves the order and arrangement of words in phrases and sentences; you might depend in part on syntactic processing to know the difference between “The cat is on the mat” and “The mat is on the cat,” sentences that have two very different meanings despite sharing all the same words.

Reading involves each of these systems working in concert with the others. One of the goals of learning to read is fluency – quick, effortless, automatic processing with limited use of cognitive resources. When each of the processes contributing to reading becomes automatic, this frees limited cognitive resources to allow for higher-level comprehension and engagement with the text. If any one of the processes is weak or not automatic, this can contribute to poor reading; it follows that teaching reading should ideally address each one of these components of the reading system.

Our research program is designed to study children and adults with a range of reading abilities using a combination of behavioral and brain imaging methods. Because one of the hallmarks of automaticity is quick timing, the ERP method, which has excellent temporal resolution and can reveal neural processing on the order of milliseconds, is particularly well-suited to studying the development of reading and reading-related systems. Our research is conducted within a science of learning framework, with the long-term goal of obtaining and sharing knowledge that can enhance education.


Adams, M. J. (1990). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Donahue, P.L., Daane, M.C., & Grigg, W.S. (2003). The nation’s report card: reading highlights 2003 (NCES 2004-452). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics.

Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.




Research Overview
How we record ERPs Example Experiment