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Featured Article

The Multiple Pathways Model™: Addressing Multiple Pathways in the Brain to Enhance Language Learning
Janet Zadina

In spite of many advances in brain research and neuroimaging, “our notions are still very primitive,” according to neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran (Horgan, 2009), and caution must be exercised in making leaps from brain research to classroom practices. We can, however, gain insight into the learning process and ways to improve our teaching practices from the research. With neuroscience, as with education, models are helpful to simplify and organize our thoughts and make sense of the information. Presented here is the Multiple Pathways Model™. This model can provide a schematic to remind us of what we know and to add diversity to our teaching practices in order to reach more learners.

Three assumptions form the foundation of the Multiple Pathways Model:

  1. the brain activates multiple pathways in learning,
  2. brains are very diverse, and
  3. we want to teach from a variety of approaches.

Students struggling with language differences may benefit from varied approaches that help them build connections to existing knowledge and strong networks of information.

In this paper, seven key pathways implicated in learning are addressed, starting with the most familiar and moving toward those we sometimes fail to consider. First is the Sensory-Motor pathway. While we understand that presenting information visually is important, we may have underestimated the importance. Images are important to the brain and enhance memory (Lindsay, Hagan, Read, Wade, & Garry, 2004). A growing body of research indicates that it is easier to learn if you visualize information. In addition to providing pictures to be associated with words that are being learned, utilizing visualization is an additional effective tool. Visualization activates the visual cortex as if the person were actually seeing it (Koenig, Reiss, & Kosslyn, 1990). Therefore, having students close their eyes and visualize the word itself, and its meaning and context can be helpful. We have often relied on auditory presentation of information, but for language learners, coupling auditory with visual and speech processes is more effective. Speaking activates the motor cortex and involves different brain processes from hearing or seeing. Do you have students say, “I know it, but I can’t say it or explain it”? This can happen when students have not formed the expressive pathway or the articulatory loop involved in speaking (Marian, Spivey, & Hirsch, 2003). Therefore, we want to include many opportunities for students to speak.

Next is the Language pathway. Of course we are using it in our language classrooms! Neuroscientists are convinced that the earlier a second language is learned in school the better, and express concern that the field of education has not changed significantly in response to this information. We know that becoming fluent enough in a second language to perform academic tasks in that language actually enhances one’s overall thinking, with improved cognition in classification skills, concept formation, analogical reasoning, visual-spatial skills, and creativity (Baker, 2001).

A pathway implicated in learning that educators may be unaware of is the Reward/Survival/Pleasure pathway. This pathway—which keeps us alive as individuals and as a species through a pleasurable response to activities necessary for survival, such as eating—is also activated during learning. Real learning is pleasurable to the brain; the activity of detecting patterns is also pleasurable. You can capitalize on this by creating lessons wherein the student figures out the grammar rule from examples rather than memorizing a rule. Turn your lessons into puzzles rather than memorization activities. Cooperation was shown to activate the reward pathway, so collaboration is a beneficial classroom activity.

The brain is a Social brain—another pathway. Recently, mirror neurons were discovered that activate when you see someone doing something the same way as if you were doing it. This enables humans to learn by watching others, which is the way humans learned through most of human history. One implication from this research is the importance of modeling in the classroom and learning-by-doing, with an opportunity to watch how others perform the tasks. It’s important to model the behavior you want.

A pathway that is always engaged in the classroom is the Emotion pathway. Learning is state dependent and affected by our emotions. Based on this principle, we have seen evidence that students perform better when tested if they are in similar conditions to those in which they learned the material, i.e., same classroom, emotional state, or similar context. We should keep this in mind when testing. Furthermore, emotional material is more easily remembered by students. Drama can often be used to engage emotions in the classroom and create involvement.

Neuroscientists have a saying: Emotion drives attention and attention drives learning—this makes Attention the next pathway. Educators sometimes mistakenly think that attention means taking in as much as possible around you so we say, “Pay attention!” But the brain’s processing abilities in a given moment are limited, and attention is the way the brain allocates its resources. It is helpful if you specifically direct the student toward the desired object of attention. We know that some students are impaired in their attentional abilities, but these can be improved through activities that require sustained attention. The emotional engagement pathway is effective in capturing and sustaining attention.

Finally, we want to consider the Frontal Lobes pathway. Many pathways recruit the frontal lobes, which are known as the executive part of the brain. The frontal lobes do what an executive does: plan, evaluate, delay gratification, make good judgment, analyze, and synthesize. Do you ever complain that your students can’t think critically? Some recent research indicates that frontal lobes don’t fully develop until around ages 18-25. Just like other brain processes, however, experience is necessary to develop this region. Instead of expecting your students to just have this ability, help them develop it through scaffolding and explicit instruction. Also keep in mind that many of the activities we give students are actually activities involving working memory (what can be held “online” for a short period of time). If students fail to comprehend lengthy directions or long sentences or passages, it may not be a reading or language comprehension problem, but a working memory problem. Shorter sentences can be helpful.

As you may have already discovered, these pathways overlap and interact. This brief overview is sufficient only to stimulate thinking; the goal is to incorporate as many of these pathways as possible into every lesson. To see an example of a lesson incorporating every pathway, check out Dr. Joyce Nutta’s demonstration video at By thinking of the multiple pathways involved in learning, we can design strategies to enhance our classroom practices. One clear implication from the scientific research is that we are probably all wired differently—and—while the brain engages multiple pathways, the nature of these connections can vary with individuals. Though this bridge between science and education is new and must be approached with caution, we can keep informed about the research and use it to stimulate our thinking about how we can diversify our strategies and become more effective in reaching all learners.


Baker, C. (2001). Foundations of bilingual education and bilingualism. Clevedon [England]: Multilingual Matters Ltd.

Horgan, J. (2009). The myth of mind control. Discover Presents the Brain, William C. Hostetter, NY.

Koenig, O., Reiss, L. P., & Kosslyn, S. M. (1990). The development of spatial relation representations: Evidence from studies of cerebral lateralization. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 50, 119-130.

Lindsay, D., Hagan, L., Read, J., Wade, K., & Garry, M. (2004). True photographs and false memories. Psychological Science, 15, 149-154.

Marian, V., Spivey, M., & Hirsch, J. (2003). Shared and separate systems in bilingual language processing: Converging evidence from eyetracking and brain imaging. Brain and Language, 86, 70-82.

About the Author

Janet N. Zadina, Ph.D., is a cognitive neuroscientist and former high school and college teacher. She conducts workshops on various topics bridging brain research and education internationally, including the Multiple Pathways Model and Second Language and the Brain.