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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
Journalist

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.

Comments (32)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Kate Harrison's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

"More stories and more exposure to interesting books" are the last resort because we can't control those, especially in the real world. We realistically have even less control for computer displays and text imaging but it seems more "high-tech" and new. Everyone wants what is new and they hope they can develop a marketable product. My experience with young-aged, lower level struggling readers is that high interest texts do not exist for them. On a more positive, if they have the intelligence, they usually find high interest texts when they are in intermediate grades.

john holanda's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Response to Kate Harrison (not verified)

'high interest text' might exist for them (learners) if the text emerged from their interest and their personal creative endeavor. Within the context of PBL this would require mindful and attentive scaffolding that responded to and elaborated upon the (differentiated) curriculum process....jh

Eileen Tresansky's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Based just on my our children's reading abilities, all three went to kindergarten able to read. All three had the same kindergarten teacher who was able to suggest alternative activities to keep them busy. All three had different teachers in first grade. These teachers however were not as willing or as able to challenge their abilities. As a teacher of students with learning disabilities, I understand that some students are ready to learn how to read but others need many basic gaps filled before they can start. Besides the ideas stated by NCLB, what is a good age to start to teach reading?

Traci Hart's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I work with lower level readers and this article begins to answer some questions I have been struggling with all year. I work with seven year olds that just cannot make a connection with letters and sounds and the last paragraph in this article makes a very bold statement when it says that not all children are ready to read at an early age. We, as teachers, expect them to follow the pattern when they start school. They must learn to read in kindergarten because that is what we think they must do. This will be some very intersting research that I intend to follow.

Aurora Farese's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I believe that poor reading skills in children are attributed not only to research based neurological differences, but also to lack of exposure from the home environment and non-utilization of authentic texts. Neurological difficulty may be made less benign when family reinforcement is present, and texts that are interesting and personal to the student are utilized. This may be an overwhelming endeavor to tackle, but it is something for teachers to be aware of so he or she can compensate more rigorously in the areas that are lacking.
A. Farese

Rebekah's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that teachers should be learning about neuroscience and brain development as it relates to learning and memory. It would help us understand many things about our profession better including how students learn, how students retain and recall information, and developmentally appropriate instruction for each individual student.

The second part of this article reminded me of a conversation I had last year with my administrator. Some of my Kindergarten students were not reading or remembering sight words as quickly as my principal would have liked (by mid-year). He told me I should be teaching them more sight words each week than I already was in order to boost their reading potential. I tried to explain my philosophy of teaching them in ways that were developmentally appropriate: the students who were not ready to learn the two or three words per week would get no benefit from four to six words per week - it would not make them read any faster. However, with lack of scientific and human development knowledge and theory, I was not able to make my point as convincingly or clearly as I wanted. Studying brain development research and neuroscience would help me gain the knowledge to explain the different developmental levels of my students and how it affects their readiness for reading and their reading abilities.

Like Denckla above, I agree that earlier is not "always better in reading instruction". I just didn't have the science to back up my point. I would be very interested to learn more about this subject!

Rebekah's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that teachers should be learning about neuroscience and brain development as it relates to learning and memory. It would help us understand many things about our profession better including how students learn, how students retain and recall information, and developmentally appropriate instruction for each individual student.

The second part of this article reminded me of a conversation I had last year with my administrator. Some of my Kindergarten students were not reading or remembering sight words as quickly as my principal would have liked (by mid-year). He told me I should be teaching them more sight words each week than I already was in order to boost their reading potential. I tried to explain my philosophy of teaching them in ways that were developmentally appropriate: the students who were not ready to learn the two or three words per week would get no benefit from four to six words per week - it would not make them read any faster. However, with lack of scientific and human development knowledge and theory, I was not able to make my point as convincingly or clearly as I wanted. Studying brain development research and neuroscience would help me gain the knowledge to explain the different developmental levels of my students and how it affects their readiness for reading and their reading abilities.

Like Denckla above, I agree that earlier is not "always better in reading instruction". I just didn't have the science to back up my point. I would be very interested to learn more about this subject!

Rebekah's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that teachers should be learning about neuroscience and brain development as it relates to learning and memory. It would help us understand many things about our profession better including how students learn, how students retain and recall information, and developmentally appropriate instruction for each individual student.

The second part of this article reminded me of a conversation I had last year with my administrator. Some of my Kindergarten students were not reading or remembering sight words as quickly as my principal would have liked (by mid-year). He told me I should be teaching them more sight words each week than I already was in order to boost their reading potential. I tried to explain my philosophy of teaching them in ways that were developmentally appropriate: the students who were not ready to learn the two or three words per week would get no benefit from four to six words per week - it would not make them read any faster. However, with lack of scientific and human development knowledge and theory, I was not able to make my point as convincingly or clearly as I wanted. Studying brain development research and neuroscience would help me gain the knowledge to explain the different developmental levels of my students and how it affects their readiness for reading and their reading abilities.

Like Denckla above, I agree that earlier is not "always better in reading instruction". I just didn't have the science to back up my point. I would be very interested to learn more about this subject!

Rebekah's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that exposure to more, and more interesting, books is good for all children and may help. However, what I understood from this article is that the computers and brain imaging would be not used instead of these things. They would be used to determine when it is most developmentally appropriate for a child to begin learning to read (i.e. at what age or stage, so that we aren't pushing children before they're ready or holding them back too long). They would also be used as a tool for compensating for the neurological differences that might exist in different students and therefore impede them from learning to read in traditional ways (i.e. if exposure to many books does not work), in order to compensate for gaps or processing weaknesses that may be occurring.

I think that advances in science and knowledge of human development can only improve our reading instruction and interventions! I don't think anyone is suggesting we use this instead of traditional methods, but as another important tool in doing our best to help every child read regardless of differences or development.

Jon's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Ironically, another study about what's "wrong with some kids" as opposed to how reading INSTRUCTION can get better.

Check out the REAL answers:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diane_McGuinness
"McGuinness has stirred up controversy for her views on dyslexia and teaching letter names. She argues that dyslexia is not a biological condition but a socially-created problem that results from a complex spelling code and ineffective teaching methods. She has argued against teaching the letter names in the early phases of instruction on the grounds that letter names can confuse students. What is important, McGuinness argues, is that students be taught the relationships between sounds and letters."

John Taylor Gatto:
http://www.johntaylorgatto.com/chapters/3m.htm
The single word was made a self-conscious vehicle for learning letters. Once letter sounds were known, reading instruction proceeded traditionally. To a great extent, this is the method my German mother used with my sister and me to teach us to read fluently before we ever saw first grade.

Rudolph Flesch (1955):
http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,807107,00.html
"Under the word method, if a child comes up against a new word, all he can do is guess--not at its pronunciation, but at its "looks." As a result, says Flesch, word-method pupils make outlandish errors, reading "said" for "jumped," "caps" instead of "houses." One youngster who had successfully recognized "children" on a word-recognition card was unable to read it on the printed page. How did he get it from the card? His simple answer: "By the smudge over in the corner."

Come on people! Get out of the MATRIX and learn about what you teach! Take the red pill!

BTW - I am a teacher.

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