Sounding out new words appears to spark more efficient reading circuits in the brain than memorizing them.

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Neuroscientists have long known that the brain’s circuitry changes when people learn to read, but they know much less about how teaching specifically influences those changes.

Now Bruce McCandliss at Stanford University and colleagues from New York and Texas have found what they say are the “footprints of instruction” in the electrical brain wave patterns of young adults who were taught words of a made-up language.

The researchers discovered that the way their subjects were taught the new words affected how efficiently their brains conjured them up a day later and whether they could learn new words on their own.

When the subjects recalled the words they had learned by sounding them out, they activated circuity in the brain’s left hemisphere commonly used by skilled readers to identify words in a fraction of a second.

But when the subjects recalled words they had simply memorized, they showed less efficient activation patterns.

McCandliss and his co-authors — Yuliya Yoncheva at New York University and Jessica Wise at the University of Texas at Austin — say it’s one of the first experiments to show the effect of a specific teaching technique on brain development.

“We’re looking at how attention during learning changes the outcome of learning — what brain circuits are reacting when you see this stimulus in the future,” McCandliss said.

In the study, the researchers worked with 16 literate adults, all in their early 20s, and taught them a made-up script of lines, curves and shapes using two different techniques.

For some words, they told the subjects to memorize the string of strange symbols as a whole. Words in that script didn’t correspond with sounds of spoken language and couldn’t be decoded phonetically.

The same people also were taught words written in a script that could be decoded. The researchers drew their attention to the parts of the made-up words and how they corresponded with the sounds of spoken English like the letters of the real alphabet.

The subjects were tested 24 hours later, both on the words they had memorized and the words they had learned phonetically, with the researchers monitoring their brain’s electrical activity.

When the subjects recalled the words they had learned by sounding them out, they used more efficient brain circuitry.

They also used those pathways to teach themselves words that were unfamiliar, but could be decoded – a key step toward becoming an independent reader.

The study was published recently in the journal Brain & Language.