In the past few decades, educators have argued fiercely about how to teach reading. One group believes in phonics (“sounding out” words). Another group pushes sight reading, pointing out that adult readers rarely sound out words. While this has been going on, the reading disorder called dyslexia has been increasing in children across the U.S. Bonnie Rothman Morris writes in The New York Times that there are two types of dyslexia, and one kind may be caused by not teaching phonics.

Researchers from Yale used scanning devices to examine the brains of 43 young adults with reading disabilities while they read. One group had a “predominantly genetic type” of dyslexia, with gaps in the neural circuitry that normal readers use to process sound and language. They’d learned to use other parts of their brains to compensate.

The second group had a “more environmentally influenced” type of dyslexia. Researcher Sally Shaywitz says, “The persistently poor readers have a rudimentary system in place, but it’s not connected well.” They used the same parts of the left side of the brain as normal readers, but instead of connecting to other language centers, they activated a portion of the front right side of the brain that’s used primarily for memory.

“Once the brain makes the connections it needs for certain tasks, it tends to stick with them,” says dyslexia expert Gordon Sherman. “But those connections aren’t necessarily the best ones.” Memorization of words can succeed up to a certain point, but “then it fails quite miserably; there’s too much to memorize.”

If our educational system makes it impossible for some kids to read, what kind of hope can there be for our future?

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