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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Sylvia Klor's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My son sees all two-dimensional letters and numbers (the printed word)in three dimensions. All letters are puffy and turned slightly to the right. It makes it extremely difficult for him to read. We discovered it by accident after seeing a graphic artist's work, Ji Lee, Univers Revolved, in a magazine in 2004. None of his teachers all through school had ever heard of this and few believed us. There was, after all, no "official" diagnosis. So he eeked through school with a horrible self-esteem because of his reading. However, as an educator, I could tell he was gifted kinestheticaly. Sure enough, he excels at anything involving three dimensions - art, mechanics. As a teacher, I'm always looking for ways to be able to help those kiddos who have similar brain-based problems. Who knows how many others there are?

Mr. Mintman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Not that I am any medical professional, but your son sounds like he has something akin to synethesia, where the brain mixes up certain sensory information (i.e. colors that have particular scents, sounds that have a visual pattern, etc.) I saw a special about it a few years ago and realized that I have it in relation to numbers and measurements of time. I don't believe this affected me negatively in the same way it may have affected your son, but I tended to struggle in math classes throughout school. Like I said, I am mostly speculating, but it is something perhaps worth exploring further.

bonnie raphael's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have been a teacher of students with "SO_CALLED,? Learning disabilities for over 15 years. I am an an artist and worked in the stock market for many years with "rocket scientists," for whom reading was never their best subjsct--It amazes me that the burocracy of public education is still soing the 2 step with two left feet--which can work fine if you know how. I am sick of schools insisting that in the US we insist on test scores for kids--know wonder they don't read--they are tested and BORED to death!!!!! What about asia, Sweden, and around the world where children are allowed to be children and learn to read at about age 7 without undo stress!! Stop killing CREATIVITY it is essential inall subject!! Apologees for sp/sentnece structure--venting is my only intention!'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

From my own experience I note that babies who are talked to, sung to, nursed, carried, and given a lot of attention by a stay at home mom who dotes on them, etc. are well nurished in all areas. When a toddler, the mom who reads to them and engages them in the best children stories say 3 hours out of the day, a half an hour here a half an hour there, and then just has fun with playing and exploring. The mom, (and dad as I forgot to add him to the recipe) who takes their child to museums, zoos, and family gatherings, BSA, or girl scouts and other character development will probably see success. I did with my children who are both gifted.

What we have now are kids who see family do drugs, and of course all of the above is lacking when a parent is hooked on drugs--forget the brain development theories, and neuron connections. Your brain dies if you are on drugs. No wonder kids can't read--that is the last thing on their mind with a hopeless drug parent!

Mary Alterman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My son has been labeled dyslexic, something I resisted for years and years and years. I still struggle with the idea that he is "learning disabled" if, by that it means, there is something wrong with him or not quite right with him.

I have a Masters Degree in Education. My husband has a Masters in Computer Science. I am a voracious reader and have read to both my sons for as long and as often as they would allow. So for those who believe that environment is the issue, I would have to strongly dispute that.

The best book on the subject of dyslexia that I have read so far is Thomas G. West's "In the Mind's Eye", about how many children who struggle with reading have a different approach to learning altogether.

My son is one smart cookie. I know that for sure. Unfortunately, the public school system is still very much stuck in the paper, pencil, and textbook approach to learning which makes it almost impossible for him to succeed in a standard educational setting.

I look forward to brain research that will give our society the information we need to explore new ways and means of educating the young people like my son.

Susan Baum. Ph.D.,'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My research is in the area of gifted learning disabled students. Many of these students are spatial and seem to read later. We are finding that pushing reading in the early years, consistently makes them feel like failures. It is amazing how the reading kicks in when they are nearing middle school and introduced to more complex reading material. I thoroughly agree with Denkla that some students begin to read later (dyslexic students) for developmental reasons unlike those poorer readers who are not economically disadvantaged or English Language Learners.

Michele M's picture

After reading a few of these articles on brain based development research, I am convinced that learning more about this topic will be extremely beneficial for our students and the way we teach them. As a teacher, I've always wondered why some students grasp reading and letter sounds much more quickly than other students. I agree with previous posts that external circumstances and experience at home with reading can also have an impact on how the child will progress once they get to school. However, these studies show that there is more to the story. Unfortunately, there is so much pressure on the primary teachers to get their students reading early. I agree with Denckla that this might not be the best course of action. Brain research is something that I will continue to follow up on.

PamelaEspi's picture

What about the recent research that demonstrated that 100 days of intense reading instruction strengthened the white matter in the brain? I worry that the interpretation of the research in this article may feed the notion that we have no control over student success in reading. It is of critical importance that our teachers understand the great power they do have to make a difference in the lives of our children - today. We know the devastating impact the high stress of poverty can have on brain development. It is just as important to know that recent studies reveal the power we have to reverse that damage. The Keller and Just Study* demonstrated a clear increase in the quality of white matter with strong reading instruction. Check out the article and the brain images...

Keller TA, Just MA. Altering cortical connectivity: Remediation-induced changes in the white matter of poor readers. Neuron.

Jacque Verrall's picture

This would go right along with the Alliance for Childhood report and the lack of/minimal time for free play or Choice Time in

There is much more to reading than teaching decoding skills/phonics.

Josh Hopps's picture

I haven't read the original study, but there are some unwarranted leaps as it is portrayed in this story:
1. DTI on 7-12 year old brains tells you little about early reading. For this you would need 3-5 year old brains.
2. As another poster mentioned, other bodies of research have shown that neuronal connections can be demonstrably strengthened, not by delaying instruction or limiting stimulation, but by providing appropriate, intense stimulation. In fact, everything we know about sensitivity periods and neuronal plasticity go against further delay.
3. Inferences from the data (as presented here) are limited due to their correlative nature.
4. The data do not appear to address motivation or alienation from reading and speculation regarding this should be avoided at this early stage of the research.
5. All teachers have dealt with alienated students and know ways to gauge when they hit their frustration tolerance. You slowly build their stamina for the task. But to my mind, the risk of being alienated from reading altogether by losing instructional opportunities is far more severe than the risk of being alienated from something with which they are already frustrated. People self-select as readers and there are plenty of adults (without LD) who rarely or never read a book. This is not because somebody crammed it down their throats and now they hate it, but because they just don't like it: never have, never will. But receiving reading instruction (in spite of the risk of alienation) may at least enable them to read at a higher functional level so they can pass a driver's test or obtain and maintain competitive employment.

I can only hope that these flaws were in the retelling and not the original.

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