What science is telling us: Do dyslexic brains work differently? What reading instruction works best?

neurobiology of dyslexia

“…their brains are not working more slowly—they are working differently.” ~The Neurobiology of Dyslexia (January 2019)

Neuroscience is painting an interesting picture of the dyslexic brain, and how it processes information differently than non-dyslexic brains. A new report, The Neurobiology of Dyslexia, has brought together the best of neuroscience with the best of reading science to show how effective reading instruction can change the brain.

Spoiler alert: Dyslexic children can learn to read, and become able readers, with the right reading instruction.

The report

The Neurobiology of Dyslexia, co-authored by Devin M. Kearns, Roeland Hancock, Fumiko Hoeft, Kenneth R. Pugh and Stephen J. Frost, published in Teaching Exceptional Children, Vol. 51, No. 3, pp. 175 –188 (Copyright 2018)

Who should read it?

  • Everyone involved in teaching teachers and developing reading curriculum
  • Educators, parents, dyslexics, advocates, literacy groups


This report summarizes current neurobiological research as it relates to dyslexia, reading and reading instruction:

“…Neurobiological research has yielded a clearer picture of the reading brain in both typical readers and individuals with dyslexia, one of the most promising outcomes relates to findings associated with neurocognitive flexibility.” ~The Neurobiology of Dyslexia

So what do scientists see when they look inside the dyslexic brain?

The Neurobiology of Dyslexia: Key findings

Brain scans show differences between young readers with dyslexia and their peers with typical reading skills. I’ve summarized the findings into 3 key points, and pulled out quotes from the report directly:

1. Dyslexics show less activation in some areas of their brain and more activation in other parts of their brain when reading

“Taken together, these data suggest that readers with dyslexia activate different regions and use different pathways when reading as compared with peers with typical reading.”

2. Effective reading intervention (specifically, word-recognition strategies) can change the brain

“That is, researchers have demonstrated that students’ patterns of brain activation can change as a result of reading intervention.”

  • “In an increasing number of studies, researchers have placed students with dyslexia in reading interventions designed to improve their word-reading skills—namely, interventions that focus on building their decoding skills. As a result of these interventions, students read words more accurately and fluently. These studies demonstrated that (internal) neurological change was evident as were changes in (external) reading behaviors.”
  • “…neuroimaging data appear to provide support for using the word-recognition programs upon which many educators have long relied. Although this is obvious, we think that it is important given the continued debate about the value of foundational word-recognition instruction. There are decades of data demonstrating the efficacy of these programs  (Scammacca, Roberts, Vaughn, & Stuebing, 2015; Stuebing et al., 2008).”

3. Brain differences are found even after effective reading instruction

“…when students with dyslexia successfully participate in reading interventions, their patterns of brain activation do not always end up the same as those of students with typical reading achievement. These differences occur even when students with dyslexia participate in phonics-focused, word-reading interventions. This means that a foundational word-reading intervention will help students with dyslexia, but there are still differences in the brain.”

What got me thinking…

1. Science, and the experience of many families (including my own), is giving us clear evidence that structured literacy is the most effective method of reading instruction for dyslexic children. It actually changes the brain!!

Why aren’t schools using evidence to teach reading?

2. Science is showing clear “brain differences” even after dyslexic children get effective reading instruction. For most dyslexic adults, that won’t be a surprise. Dyslexia doesn’t “go away;” we need schools and workplaces to be truly inclusive of divergent thinkers, and it’s vital that we dyslexics learn how to manage our weaknesses and run with our strengths.

Read the report

The neurobiology of dyslexia


Word recognition and dyslexia, from the International Dyslexia Association


    1. lostandfoundbooks

      Hi Angela, that’s a great question but I think the answer is that it’s a personal preference. There are pro’s and con’s to each method. It also depends on the tutor you get–their level of skill and experience. There is a good summary of the OG-inspired methods on the Understood website: https://www.understood.org/en/school-learning/partnering-with-childs-school/instructional-strategies/programs-that-use-an-orton-gillingham-approach

      I hope that helps!


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