Here is a recent study that looks at how people (such as ESL students) learn new words. As an ESL teacher, this is important knowledge to have.
The brain is able to learn words so quickly because it remembers how the whole word ‘looks’, a new study finds.
The researchers found that a small part of our brain is holistically tuned to recognizing words as a whole, rather than as parts or through individual letters.
Dr Maximilian Riesenhuber, a neuroscientist at the Georgetown University Medical Center who led the study, said:
“We are not recognizing words by quickly spelling them out or identifying parts of words, as some researchers have suggested.
Instead, neurons in a small brain area remember how the whole word looks — using what could be called a visual dictionary.”
A part of the brain called the ‘visual word form area’ is vital to how we learn new words.
Close by in the visual cortex is the fusiform gyrus, an area which helps us recognise faces.
Dr Riesenhuber said:
“One area is selective for a whole face, allowing us to quickly recognize people, and the other is selective for a whole word, which helps us read quickly.”
Their brains were scanned before and after the training to look at how it had changed.
The results showed that after learning the visual word form area began to respond to the nonsense words as though they were real words.
Dr Laurie Glezer, the study’s first authors, said:
“This study is the first of its kind to show how neurons change their tuning with learning words, demonstrating the brain’s plasticity.”
Dr Riesenhuber said:
“For people who cannot learn words by phonetically spelling them out — which is the usual method for teaching reading — learning the whole word as a visual object may be a good strategy.
The visual word form area does not care how the word sounds, just how the letters of the word look together.
The fact that this kind of learning only happens in one very small part of the brain is a nice example of selective plasticity in the brain.”
The study is published in The Journal of Neuroscience (Glezer et al., 2015).