Most four- and five-year-olds can sing the alphabet song and print their names, but few can actually read. So, what does it take to push these kids to accomplish this cognitive milestone? A majority of parents and teachers alike think the answer to this question is lots of practice naming letters and sounds out loud. But, reading practice isn’t the whole story or perhaps even the most important part. Practice printing letters turns out to be imperative to reading success. When the body figures out how to write letters, the mind follows suit in terms of being able to recognize them.

Case in point, a few years ago, neuroscientist Karen James found that preschool children who took part in a one-month long reading program where they practiced printing words improved more in their letter recognition than kids who did the same reading program but practiced naming (rather than writing) the words instead. Letter recognition isn’t enhanced as much by reading letters as it is by printing them.

James thinks a fold of tissue near the bottom of the brain that is part of the human visual system, called the fusiform gyrus, might hold the answer to why printing practice is so important for letter recognition and, ultimately, for reading success. In the brains of adults, the fusiform gyrus is involvd in processing letters. For example, brain imaging studies have shown that the left fusiform responds more strongly when people see individual letters as opposed to Chinese characters – at least for English speaking adults. Scientists often assume that this letter specialization has to do with our extensive reading experience. But, James thinks that it is writing experience that really does the trick. This is because, it was only after preschoolers took part in the month-long writing (not reading) program, that their left fusiform really tuned into the letters. In other words, the brain area involved in recognizing letters didn’t seem to come alive until kids learned to produce the letters themselves.

Such connections between body and mind once puzzled scientists. But, now, the link is clear. Even though reading seems like an activity entirely confined to our heads, it’s not. And, if printing practice helps jump start areas of the brain needed for letter identification, it is not hard to imagine all sorts of ways in which motor experience might change the brain and help kids learn.

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James, K. H. (2010) Sensori-motor experience leads to changes in visual processing in the developing brain. Developmental Science, 13, 279–288.

About the Author

Sian Beilock, Ph.D.

Sian Beilock, Ph.D., is a psychology professor at The University of Chicago and an expert on the brain science behind performance failure under pressure.

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