How the Brains of Bookworms Compare To Those of Bibliophobes

By Ashley P. Taylor | October 10, 2012 12:54 pm

kid reading

We all knew the kid who couldn’t be pried away from her book—and the kid for whom each page was an exquisite torture. Why do people take to reading with such varying amounts of ease? A new study that looked at the differences in the brain development between children with different reading abilities may help answer the question. The researchers monitored subjects over a three-year period and found some interesting correlations between reading ability and neuronal wiring.

Reading depends on connections among several areas of the brain that process visual, auditory, and linguistic information. In particular, two bundles of nerves that connect key language areas in the brain have been shown to be associated with reading skills: the arcuate fasciculus, important for understanding the sound structure of words, and the inferior longitudinal fasciculus (ILF), which is important for seeing words. Researchers already knew that in better readers, these neuron bundles were fatter and better insulated. They wanted to know if the neurons of weaker readers simply started off with skinnier nerve bundles or if their neurons developed differently.

To find out, researchers looked at how the brains of strong and weak readers ages 7 to 12 developed over a three-year period. In particular, the researchers looked at the changes in levels of white matter in the brain. White matter represents the long nerve fibers covered in fatty white material called myelin, that connect different cortical areas of the brain. The myelin insulates the nerves, like the plastic around the cord of an appliance, and the more myelin wraps around the nerves, the better insulated they are and the faster their signals can travel. The researchers also monitored the children’s progress in reading throughout the study.

The children’s relative reading abilities did not change much; the ones who started off weak readers stayed weak compared with the reading whizzes. But the children in the two groups exhibited differences in the arcuate fasciculus and the ILF: In strong readers, these nerve connections started weak, then strengthened; the neuron bundles got more myelinated. In weak readers, they started strong, then were pruned away—the nerves died back.

The researchers think that in the strong readers, myelination and pruning happen at the same time and in response to the same stimuli as children are learning to read. But in poor readers, they think, these processes are happening out of sync. The researchers hope that eventually, better understanding of how the brain develops as children learn to read might allow teachers to tailor reading lessons to the developing brains of their students.

Photo via woodleywonderworks/Flickr


  • Damien

    “The nerves died back” should rephrase that!

  • Julie C.

    When I was a kid, I had poor reading comprehension and a REALLY short attention span. Thusly, I hated reading. I really didn’t start reading for pleasure until high school when I came across books that interested me. And just like anything else, I was terrible at it initially. It took me months to finish (and retain the plot) of a single novel. But in time, with practice, I got better at it. Due to my experiences as a once sluggish reader to a now effortless reader, I am highly critical of the way the writer of this article frames the findings of this study. It pathologizes slower learners with terms like “bibliophobes.” The attitude seems to be that the kids who don’t understand something in the time the teacher has allotted for that particular lesson are deficient. Why are the kids who are quickest to learn the ones who set the precedent? It seems like the lazy approach to teaching.

  • Bernie Kitts

    There are stages at 2, 4 and 6 years when pruning and myelination occur. If the child is stimulated properly at a young age the neuron network will be denser and more active. The result will be more capacity for reading, math, music and language acquisition. The time to teach reading and multiple languages is before these pruning and myelination events occur.

    I taught my oldest son to read starting at about one and a half years old. He also enjoyed learning math. By the time he entered Kindergarden at four years old he was already an accomplished reader.
    He was tested at the end of the term and the Principal told us that we had the option of allowing him to enter 2nd grade the next term. Even though he was quite young for his grade he did fine. When in Middle School he was transported to the local High School for his Math class. He became the captain of his math team in High School and graduated at 16 years old. He earned his Bachelors in Mathematics at 19 and Masters at 23 while working.

    Our Society waits until the brain development slows down to a crawl before we teach the facts. The study above is when the bulk of the brain development has already occurred and much more time and effort is required to accelerate learning. Children love to learn and they are quite able to understand much more than we attempt to teach them.

  • H K Dannelly

    I found this article very interesting because I was a bibliophobe as a child and not by choice. I had so much trouble in school early on because of it. I am now a Professor of Microbiology which would indicate that I have overcome it. However, I think shear perseverance and extreme enthusiasm for my subject got me this far. In the last 5 years, FINALLY, in seems reading is a little easier for me. I’ve even been able to enjoy a few good books. I’m 57 yrs old now. Sure hope we can figure out this problem for others. Nothing better than a good book!

  • Josh

    It should also be noted onto what are the prevailing circumstances, and environment onto how the bibliophobes are nurtured. The brain works physically with the individual persons as well as with the world around it. To act like you’re going to get it all down to just this one part is pretty naive to say the least of things. Hope all the professionals in this field are not so blind sided as the article wants to suggest to say, “Yeah, we got it all down to just these so called certain parts.” The philosophy of science has always left open doors for a certain amount of unknowns that can’t always just be known for anything. You only can give out the best speculations you can, with the best reservations you can, and then to rightly accommodate to, and for.

  • Tim

    I was significantly behind my peers in reading at age 7 and significantly ahead of them at age 10. I had a hard time learning to read but kept at it because I loved stories and eventually became the best in class. I wonder what the scans of a brain of a child like me would show?

  • TheCritic

    Brain development has slowed to a crawl by 7-12 years of age? In boys? Well, this is news science should know about. Currently, they don’t think it stops until past adolescence. Someone should tell science.

    There’s also much to be said about the other things you learn in school about life and the way people are that makes skipping grades kind of a hesitant idea, as I’ve never seen anyone do it well and get all the social skills they could have acquired had they had more time.

  • Bram Floria

    is this not so comPLETELY a ‘use it or lose it’ argument??

  • Jerri Rudloff

    My father worked for a heavy construction company during the depression and World War II. We moved every few months with minimum possessions. My older brother and I had no exposure to books in our constantly changing homes. In kindergarten and first grade [1940/1941] I lagged behind my classmates to my mother’s despair as my brother had already skipped the second grade. We moved [again] and at a different school something “clicked” and the teacher recommended I skip second grade also, but Mother said no. She saw my brother’s difficulty with classmates one to two years older than he. By the third grade Mother had to argue with the librarian to let me check out ten books. The librarian insisted that I couldn’t read them all in the allotted time. She was wrong. Was it a change of school that helped me make sense of all those letters on a page? Did the wiring in my brain change because I read, or did I read because the wiring changed?

  • esse

    practice is the mother of skills.

  • diana bittar

    I was reading at three years old,and always had my head in a book .So much so my mother complained to our G.P.He nearly hit the roof.Woman whatever she reads she is learning some thing.Even now ,I read anything and everything.Even instruction books.?
    When old enough to join the local Library,the librarian had to help me choose books from the adult library when I had gone through everything in the Junior library.
    I just loved to read .Maybe it was an escape from a not so happy childhood,who knows.Just bought a kindle so I can keep reading without the bulk of books especially when travelling.

  • Elizabeth Sullivan

    I AM that kid! 😀

  • mady

    I love to read. In the seventh grade the teacher told me I didn’t have to do book projects because I was reading better then the average 18 year old. Then I can hardly ever find anything in the adult section that Isn’t to over the top for a 14 year old. I even got so tired of looking for a book that I started reading the dictionary. And today I’ve read the dictionary 7 times. And I’m only 14

  • mady

    that is so cool. I love reading and math. I would die for an opportunity like the one your son had.


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