A quick look at neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene's 'essentials' for successful learning

Stanislas Deheane Book How We Learn

I recently finished reading Stanislas Dehaene’s 2020 book “How We Learn: The New Science of Education and the Brain” and thought I'd share some of his learning tips with you.

Dehaene focuses his book around four essential ingredients for learning success which I discuss in more detail in another post.

Although this current book is a fairly hefty read, much more so than Dehaene’s acclaimed work "Reading in the Brain: The New Science of How We Read", I'm just going to summarise his 'checklist' of the conditions that are needed to maximise learning and memory.

The book, and checklist, is not solely about learning in relation to literacy, so I will highlight ways we address these 'essentials' in the Read3 Program to give a little context and practicality to the theory of learning.

Do not underestimate children

Children are born with a rich set of cognitive skills that allows them to connect each word and symbol that they learn to prior knowledge already stored in memory. Dehaene states, “To learn is to succeed in inserting new knowledge into an existing network.”

In Read3 we work to bring meaning to literacy concepts that are quite abstract for young children. For example, our Easy Alphabet links new knowledge about letters and sounds with familiar words and fun stories. Our Sound Train allows children to link the abstract concept of phonological awareness, or 'hearing sounds in words', with little characters in a train that represents all the sounds in a word. When a character says a different sound the word changes, and so does the meaning of the word. The links between sounds, words and word meanings are strengthened in every “HEAR” activity.

Take advantage of the brain’s sensitive periods

From birth, a child’s brain is receptive, especially for language learning. The brain’s neural plasticity extends at least through to adolescence, but the earlier we maximise foundational skills the better.

With this plasticity in mind, Read3 was created to assist young struggling readers aged 5-9 years. However, we are mindful that literacy difficulties can be overlooked until children are older (8+ years) so we deliberately made sure materials were 'not too babyish' for older children to engage with. Of course, the specific strategies incorporated in Read3 work with any age - you just need to modify the way the material is presented. We have speech pathologists using our approach with teenagers and even adults recovering from stroke.  

Enrich the environment

Provide the brain with the right stimulus at an early age. An enriched environment maximises brain growth and prolongs juvenile plasticity.

In a nutshell, this means talk more, read more, do more together. Surround your children with language. Ask questions, tell them stories, sing with them, recite nursery rhymes together, play in the dirt, play in the park, visit the museum, or just chat about what you are doing - you get the picture.   

Forget the idea that all children are different

Learning styles are a myth. We all rely on similar brain circuits for reading and mathematical skills. We all face similar challenges in learning and the individual differences, when they exist, relate to:

  • how much previous knowledge is available to the child
  • whether their motivation has been protected, and
  • how fast they are able to learn

The areas of the brain that are being set up during the process of reading and maths are the same areas in almost all of us. To build the circuitry in those areas, Read3 provides a highly structured, game-based systematic approach that motivates learners and makes allowances for differences in each child’s processing abilities.

Pay attention to attention

Attention is the gateway to learning! Becoming a master at capturing children’s attention and directing it to what matters, is what matters! 

The important message here is that children with genuine attention disorders are shut out of learning at the first hurdle. This is one of the first areas to think about when a child's learning is limited. When there are genuine concerns, a referral to a paediatrician is needed. However, some children appear to have an attention deficit when they are really showing avoidance or a motivational deficit due to the repeated experience of failure. In different contexts and with different materials the attention difficulties disappear.

That’s why Read3 advocates for injecting a bit of fun into the learning process – sessions are propelled through games, cards, colour and characters. Multisensory games, that can be simplified or extended to hold a child's attention, are sometimes the only way to get 'buy in' from reluctant readers with poor executive function.  

Keep children active, curious, engaged and autonomous

Engaging, exploring, and actively generating ideas to test in the outside world allows children to learn effectively. Motivation is essential. A clear goal, and a commitment to reach it, helps children sustain the effort needed for learning.

At Read3, we understand the importance of accessibility and active engagement. We use games and activities that are set to clear performance targets. This helps motivate children (and parents) to practise daily at home without tears.

Make every school day enjoyable

A child’s social brain responds to feeling valued and appreciated, as we all do. Stress should not be part of the learning journey.

For a struggling reader, avoiding stress can be tricky - nothing reduces confidence quicker than 'failure'. Ensuring that the learning support offered within the school day successfully targets the child's specific areas of weakness is vital. Providing opportunity for the joy of success in extra-curricular activities at school or elsewhere is needed to boost morale and help build resilience for those more challenging areas of learning. 

Encourage efforts

Complex learning requires effort and years of practise. Teaching a child to adopt a growth mindset, not a fixed mindset, is important. So, praise, praise, praise the effort!

One of the reasons we encourage parents to start Read3 'back at the beginning' is that even if the material is a little 'too easy' for a child it gives them quick success and establishes a positive mindset to the learning right from the start. More challenging material can be slowly added while that positivity is maintained. The result? When something is not correct, the child is more likely to give it another go instead of sliding under the table or running off!

Help students deepen their thinking

Don’t be content with superficial learning. Discuss ideas together, as deeper processing leaves a deeper trace in the brain.

This is at the core of Read3. We want children to understand how our language works - the syllable structure, the natural rhythm and patterns in words, how the individual sounds fit together, how words fit together. This deeper understanding will give them the confidence, and skills, to tackle new words and larger words, applying meaning as they go. 

Set clear learning objectives

State the purpose of learning so that children can see that the tasks move towards that purpose. Stay focused on the goal.

In Read3 we focus on mastering skills. Learning intentions for each Lesson and Module Step are clearly set out. Skills are monitored daily by both parent and child and if mastery is achieved, they can celebrate and move on to the next step! 

Accept and correct mistakes

A child’s ability to tolerate errors and quickly correct them is fundamental to learning. Why? Because an error signal is the element of surprise that drives learning.

Our daily Chunk Check and 60 Word Stories encourage children to monitor their own errors for correcting. It's amazing to see how quickly a child starts to monitor their own areas of weakness when they are graphing their achievements or want to beat their personal best time.

Practise regularly

Practice newly learned skills until automatic, unconscious, and reflexive. This allows the brain to focus on other activities, like comprehension when reading becomes fluent. Practice should be spaced out, with a little every day.

As we are realists, Read3 aims to have children formally practising with an adult five days per week for an achievable 20 minutes per day. Additional reading and incidental practise should be incorporated into the day at every opportunity.

Make sure children get enough sleep

This is hugely important and becoming a growing concern in this digital age. The good news is that sleep, especially deep sleep, allows for consolidation and generalisation of knowledge. The take home message from Dehaene is “make sure that our children sleep long and deep”.

This whole concept of consolidation in sleep is addressed in more detail in our post on The Four Essentials of Learning, but suffice to say, turn those devices off and get those kiddies to bed people! Bed-time routines, with a lot of dogged determination and possibly a little meditation, melatonin or music, can make all the difference :) 


If you're keen to get your hands on a copy of Deheane's "How We Learn" Click here.  If you have any comments on this checklist, or anything else learning related, feel free to share them below.

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