studies may lead to reading revolution
by Robyn Suriano, Orlando
Sentinel, December 15, 2002
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Mariel Segovia changes from her
stylish denim jacket and black jeans into drab, green hospital
scrubs and climbs onto a table for a brain scan.
The Neuroimaging machine is pulled into place, swallowing most
of the 10-year-old's head like a giant helmet. The $1.8
million device is so sensitive that the metal buttons on
Mariel's jeans would disrupt the machine. Any body movement --
even blinking -- is also bad for the machine. So Mariel is
lying still with her hands clasped on her chest, eyes focused
on a computerlike screen hanging above her.
This is not a medical test, and Mariel is not a patient. The
healthy fifth-grader with a sister, brother and a trampoline
at her Texas home is helping research that could revolutionize
the way reading is taught in America.
Scientists at the University of Texas Health Science Center
are tracking Mariel's brain activity while she reads words
from a screen suspended overhead. Researchers hope to learn
how the brain function of this good reader -- one who plows
through books about Egypt for fun -- differs from that of a
child who struggles through picture books.
Already, researchers nationwide have found significant
differences in the brain's workings between good readers and
In the Houston study, struggling readers get brain scans, then
go through an intense reading program at school. Their brain
activity is measured again at the end of the tutoring to see
whether new patterns have been awakened.
The goal is to discover what teaching methods best stimulate
the parts of the brain that support reading. It is early in
this marriage of education and neuroscience, but researchers
say there is evidence that children's brains can be rewired --
provided teachers know how to tap into the circuitry most
"We now know that people with reading problems are using the
wrong hardware in their brains, and if we can get them to
switch to the right hardware, we might be able to improve
their reading," said Andrew Papanicolaou, a professor and
director of neurosurgery at the University of Texas.
Field of study is new
This field of research is young, emerging in the mid-1990s
when advances in technology allowed scientists to track brain
activity with greater precision.
When reading, brain function starts with sight. As the eyes
focus on letters, an area on the back of the brain -- called
the primary visual cortex -- becomes highly activated.
Instantly, impulses travel along the network of cells, or
neurons, firing up areas needed to decipher letters and give
A key region is called Broca's area, named after the French
anthropologist who first described it in the 1860s, where
words are sliced into smaller units of sound. Also critical
for speech, Broca's area is nestled inside the front of the
But it's back in the rear, left side of the brain that sounds
are put together with meanings in a region called the angular
Poor readers tend to have more activity in Broca's area and
within the brain's right hemisphere, a sign that they are
recruiting areas typically not used for reading to help with
In contrast, good readers show most activity in the rear, left
of the brain. This implies that a good reader's brain quickly
assigns sound to the word, freeing the brain for higher
"We've found a direct correlation between the amount of
activity in the left, back of the brain and reading ability,"
said Dr. Sally Shaywitz, a pediatrician at Yale University and
leading researcher on the brain-reading connection. "In other
words, the more activity you have in the left, back of the
brain, the better reader you are."
These differences have been found in studies worldwide in just
the past few years, regardless of the reader's age or native
language. On the adult end, similar patterns between good and
poor readers were seen in people from ages 18 to 52 at Wake
Forest University in North Carolina.
And researchers at the University of Texas found the telltale
signature when they tested kindergarten kids who had not begun
to read, said Panagiotis Simos, an associate professor of
neurosurgery. The kids were shown single letters and asked to
say their sounds.
Children who easily matched sounds with the letters showed
more activity on the left side of the brain, indicating the
faulty patterns are woven into the brain even before a child
begins to read. Once embedded, the pattern persists into
Researchers say the laboratory findings have important
implications for the classroom.
"This shows us is that this is real, this is in the brain;
it's not the child's motivation or their attitude," said
Shaywitz, co-director of the Yale Center for the Study of
Learning and Attention. "The schools may say to a parent,
'Don't worry, boys develop late,' or 'She'll grow out of it,'
but they won't.
"The same neural disturbance we see in children, we still see
in adults. It stays with you," Shaywitz said.
So the question becomes, what can be done to reorganize the
Beyond Houston and Yale, research to answer that question is
being done at Georgetown University in the nation's capital
and at the University of Seattle in Washington. Their methods
of exploring the brain vary, and each location employs
different teaching approaches to reach the struggling
Bringing science to reading
But altogether, these efforts are bringing scientific scrutiny
to reading instruction for the first time, said G. Reid Lyon,
who oversees reading research at the National Institute of
Child Health and Human Development.
"For the past 30 years, reading instruction has not been based
on science at all," Lyon said. "It's based on philosophies and
assumptions. There's still this big, black hole, this gap
between science and the classroom, and it doesn't make sense."
The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development
has earmarked $20 million for reading research this year, and
$12 million of that is paying for studies that incorporate
brain scans with reading instruction. The University of Texas
has received some of this funding for its work, which includes
the study involving Mariel.
As a good reader, Mariel belongs to a "control" group whose
brain patterns already indicate that her brain is working
optimally for reading. Her counterparts who struggle are
first- through third-graders at four Houston elementary
They include Alexander Vaughan and Larissa Goulet, both
7-year-olds in the first grade at Ashford Elementary in a
middle-class suburb on the west side.
Both children had early brain scans that indicate a lack of
activity on the left sides of their brains, in contrast to
Mariel's patterns of heavy left-sided activity in the region
of the angular gyrus.
Now, Alexander and Larissa are working through an eight-week
program called Phono-Graphix, one of many on the market that
focus on phonics. After finishing it, they will go through
another eight-week program called Read Naturally. New brain
scans are to be taken after the completion of each program.
On this day in early November, the kids are sitting side by
side in front of Melinda McGrath, a special-education teacher
and Phono-Graphix instructor. Larissa has taken her shoes off
underneath the table, twirling a sneaker on one toe. Alexander
is leaning sharply to his side, pushing an ear into his
shoulder as he works through an exercise.
The word "truck" is broken into pieces on cards in front of
him. For now, the kids are learning to pull words apart like
taffy, stretching them to find each sound buried inside.
Alexander moves a finger from one card to the next.
"TUH-RRR-UH-KUH," he says, then sweeps his finger across the
cards quickly as he slides the sounds together. "Truck!"
McGrath pushes the kids steadily through the exercises, using
small cards with letters or pictures to help things along.
Sometimes, she writes with a marker on an erasable board. A
smaller portion of the time is spent reading sentences.
Kids such as these youngsters tend to get lost in the system,
lumped into special-education classes where instruction varies
from school to school, said Carolyn Denton, a UT assistant
professor involved in the study.
"It's not the teacher's fault; it's the system that fails
these kids," Denton said. "But we're getting a lot more
information now about what these kids need and how to identify
them early. This field is really undergoing enormous growth."
If the kids' brain patterns can be realigned more closely to
those of good readers, early studies have shown children do
It doesn't mean there is a magic transformation of the child,
but the kids generally become more accurate readers. They
still read slowly, but with the proper neural circuitry in
place, researchers hope they will show ongoing improvement.
"Just because the brain changes doesn't mean they're cured,"
said Virginia Berninger, a developmental neuropsychologist at
the University of Washington, where studies on dyslexia are
being done. "What we're seeing is that dyslexia is certainly
treatable, but it may not necessarily be curable. These kids
need very explicit instruction and much more of it."
By finding what works with these children in very small,
intense reading programs, researchers think they will find
tips for every classroom.
"Anyone who is in the business of teaching kids how to read
needs better information about what it takes a child to learn
to read," said Guinevere Eden, director of the Center for the
Study of Learning at Georgetown University Medical Center.
"And researchers need to do a better job of making that
information available to them."
Robyn Suriano can be reached at