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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Brain Research May Point to Changes in Literacy Development

New scientific findings spell difference, not disability, for struggling readers.
Sara Bernard
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Here's the latest from the research desk: Despite its dominance in the No Child Left Behind era, an across-the-board focus on reading skills may be somewhat misguided.

"The past decade has seen a tremendous push for earlier and earlier emphasis on reading skills," says Martha Bridge Denckla, director of developmental cognitive neurology at the Kennedy Krieger Institute and neurology professor at Johns Hopkins University, who has studied reading acquisition for forty years. "It's well meaning, but possibly not good for a significant subset of children."

New brain-imaging technologies and a spate of recent studies suggest that reading aptitude is better understood as a spectrum of abilities related to biological architecture than as a universally acquirable skill. Misconstruing the neurological underpinnings of reading risks alienating and discouraging students for whom this particular task will never come easily.

"Since the techniques have improved over the last decade, we can see things we couldn't see before," explains Brian Wandell, chair of the psychology department at Stanford University and lead researcher for a study funded by the National Institutes of Health correlating reading skills with brain structure and brain activities. Preliminary results of the study, which followed forty-nine children ages 7-12 over a three-year period, indicate that white matter (the connections between neurons) may be a big factor in reading ability.

Specifically, Wandell's team found that in poor readers, water tends to flow more easily across the axonal membranes in the back portion of the corpus callosum -- the thick band of neurons that connects the brain's hemispheres. "The piece of the brain that's important for detecting moving objects and patterns wasn't functioning as well in the kids who were poor readers," Wandell says.

Although these and similar findings are clearly still "too premature to turn into education policy," says Wandell, "it's not premature to see whether there are some possibilities here for improving reading instruction in the future." To that end, Wandell's team is exploring the ways computer displays and text imaging can help compensate for neurological differences.

Teachers should know about brain development, too, says Denckla, who is also a lead participant in the Neuro-Education Initiative, a collaboration launched last year between Johns Hopkins University's School of Education and its Brain Science Institute. She and other faculty are designing curricula for a master's certification in neuro-education, with the goal of supporting collaboration between the two fields and developing effective applications of brain research to classroom learning.

Some students are ready to read at age three, while others might need to wait until nine, says Denckla, who adamantly opposes the view that earlier is always better in reading instruction. The hope is that a fuller understanding of brain structure can help neuroscientists and educators better determine how -- and when -- each student will best learn to read.

Sara Bernard is a former staff writer and multimedia producer for Edutopia.

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Teresa 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Is there a connection between poverty and the neurological development? Does the act of curling up with a book and a parent help this develop? Is there a fix of some sort for this weakness?
I can't think of anything more damaging than a child not learning to read well.

Michele Smith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Advances in science have shown us that the way a child's brain is wired has significance in the development of their literacy skills. Neuroscientists and educators should be working together to develop new techniques that can cross barriers of learning. I have a child that is dyslexic and we have been able to cross those barriers with significant intervention and a different approach to the relationship between sounds and letters. Delays in reading and writing go hand in hand in most causes, which only complicates their ability to be successful in school. A strong literacy based program, that includes early intervention that actually helps to rewire how the brain receives information and how the child "hears" the sounds of letters works. This disability is not addressed with traditional phonetic instruction. When we start providing the correct intervention (including brain remapping) for these kids in the primary grades, and providing them with the support tools that they need to assimalate information we will then be addressing 40% of the literacy difficiency in our early education. Sending these kids through to Jr. High that cannot read is a crime. Administrators need to accept that not all kids learn the same.

Vickie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with Stephen Krashen, that first addressing students' needs from the affective domain, and engaging their motivation, can mitigate a great percentage of student's reading difficulties that primarily emanate from environmental underexposure. This is what schools must do first, and packaged curriculum do poorly. Engaging a child requires exposing them to the wonders of the world, and none of the publishing companies canned literacy program offerings can do that. It requires project based learning rooted in essential questions that matter to the child. To want to read, one must have curiosity.

As an urban special educator I have come to see how incredibly different we all are in the ways our brain works, and I recently became aware of the term, "neurodiversity," which I like very much. So many of my students who struggle with reading have other strengths that are not celebrated and used as learning entry points enough in public schools today, so that their reading "disability" is highlighted more than I think it should be, in a compassionate society. I see many students struggle, and by fifth grade, if they are not reading well, simply disengage, and sometimes even form aversions.

I yearn for some way of training the brains of my students with severe reading difficulties to better read, and currently all the mainstream approaches originate from Orton Gillingham, an approach developed in the 1930s, I believe. Certainly we have better by now! I envision the work of people like Wandell in getting us to the next level, and being able to utilize technology to train the brain to better read and form automaticity with whole words, onset/rimes, and the like. We need to be able to do this more quickly, and spread our resources farther. Many students with severe reading difficulties require 1:1 support for hundreds of hours in order to get where they need to be. Public schools do not provide this, in my experience.

Technology is also greatly needed in classrooms to better address the needs of English Language Learners, and more. And what better entry point for getting kids involved in learning than through video games, the medium that is already nearly universally loved by all kids. I think video games could be great for building background knowledge and somehow remediating reading difficulties. Go developers!

Suki H's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think this study confirms what most teachers already intuitively know. Understanding biological differences certainly helps "explain" differences in young readers. The key of course is differentiating instruction and, like someone else mentioned, finding high interest low level material that they find engaging. I know, it's easier said than done. But what's the alternative? We need to focus on emotionally engaging children first - most toy and game designers understand this. Why don't we? I've seen struggling students read sophisticated guides on the internet if it will help them score higher on a video game. I think many teachers and reading specialists would find the work of James Paul Gee & Henry Jenkins illuminating.

Phyllis Ain's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you for your post, with which I agree wholeheartedly. Am looking for video games that both build background knowledge and "hook" kids into reading across content. Are you aware of any?

Gisele's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a special education teacher who has left the public school system because I got tired of putting all these kids in a mold. Seeing these kids socially promoted from one grade to another and they can't read. They just cannot read, they hate it because of the struggle. How did they get to 4th or 5th grades. These poor kids.
Unfortunately teachers teach the same way and no one seems to get anywhere.
I have spent a lot of time substituting and observing in the private sector to see if anything is going on there that I don't know. Its not, their kids are strong readers and they are clueless to special needs. Don't get me wrong, there are special needs. Kids are repeating kindergarten and first grade. There is a special needs teacher that will come in and work with they child occasionally. She mainly stays with the older kids. Their course of action? This school is not a good fit for your child.
I began working with 3-5 year old kids, trying to train the brain to work the right way from the beginning. Help them begin right and if there is a problem, nip it the bud.

Jill's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with you. Teachers should know more about neuroscience and brain development. Other than parents, teachers, effective teachers, observe and know their students well. Every child, (every adult), have multi means of acquiring and applying knowledge. Providing students with content they are not yet ready for, can be detrimental to their future success. Background knowledge is necessary. Reading, and comprehension of what is being read, is vital to the success in all content areas. The more we as teachers are educated on how one is 'wired', the more successful we become in planning curriculum to reach all children, which will eventually lead to a greater amount of success for each child.

Becky B's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a reading teacher, and I totally agree with what you said about emotionally engaging children first. That is so true. It seems that the powers that be have forgotten that.

Susan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As to the comment regarding allowing social promotion even when kids are not reading at grade level: I can think of nothing more harmful and detrimental to a child than NOT promoting them. We have all agreed here that there is no magic potion for these kids who struggle with reading..... making them repeat a grade is no solution ! It only exacerbates the already poor image these kids have of themselves. Check the research, flunking does not improve performance, and the negative psychological ramifications are endless.

Amy Kerins's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a student at Walden University, and this week we are studying brain based research. I must admit while I have thought about how speech and hearing difficulties slow the reading process, I have never thought about differences is the make up of the brain. I find this very interesting. While attending a conference this summer one of the presenters said that we as teachers take credit for students learning to read, while most students learn to read just by "walking by a library!" I had to laugh out loud because it is true. So many times we pride ourselves on what just comes naturally in our students. I had two students last year that just struggled in second grade to learn to read. They all tested way below the 44 wpm minimum goal for second grade (DIBELS test). By the end of the year they had progressed but were now called emerging readers. I found on child's progress from 10-80 wpm to be commended. I believe I did everything I could do as an educator to move him along in his abilities in reading. I just hope it was enough. The child was very bright in other areas, but just lacked the skills in reading. Other children often lack the skills all around in IQ/comprehension as well. I wonder how those students brains process information.
FYI- My school uses to boost reading skills. This is an online program offering reading passages and a club house where students earn tickets to buy things for thier club house. They earn tickets by meeting reading goals and answering comprehension questions.

Amy Kerins
Bridgeville, DE
Epworth Christian School
Walden Unviersity

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