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 Article of Interest - Literacy

Reading by Nine: Brain studies may lead to reading revolution
by Robyn Suriano, Orlando Sentinel, December 15, 2002
For more articles visit www.bridges4kids.org and www.educationnews.org.  

 

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 poor ones.

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 effectively.

"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 them meaning.

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 brain.

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 gyrus.

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 the task.

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 thinking.

"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 adulthood.

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 brain?

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 children.

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 schools.

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 make gains.

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 rsuriano@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5487.
 

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