Brain and Learning

Learning About Learning: What Every New Teacher Needs to Know

Pomerance, L., Greenberg, J., and Walsh, K. (January 2016). Learning About Learning: What Every New Teacher Needs to Know. Washingtobn, D.C.: National Council on Teacher Quality.

This report asserts that textbook publishers and authors are failing the teaching profession, students and the public by neglecting to provide our next generation of teachers with the fundamental knowledge they need to make learning “stick.” The report finds that out of 48 texts used in teacher-training programs, none accurately described fundamental evidence-based teaching strategies comprehensively. Only 15 percent had more than a single page devoted to evidence-based practices; the remainder contained either zero or only a few sentences on methods that have been backed up by the decades of scientific findings that exist in the field of educational psychology.

Knowledge and Practice: The Real Keys to Critical Thinking

Willingham, D. (May 2016). Knowledge and Practice: The Real Keys to Critical Thinking. Knowledge Matters, Issue Brief #1.

A strong body of evidence shows that analysis requires deep knowledge of the topic, and therefore critical thinking can’t be reduced to a set of skills and strategies. In short, to “think like a scientist,” a student must know the facts, concepts, and procedures that a scientist knows. Background knowledge is absolutely integral to effectively deploying important cognitive processes. What this means for teachers: (1) facts should be meaningful; (2) knowledge acquisition can be incedental; and (3) knowledge learning should start early.


Dysfunction of Rapid Neural Adaptation in Dyslexia

Perrachione, Tyler K. et al. Dysfunction of Rapid Neural Adaptation in Dyslexia. Neuron, Volume 9 , Issue 6, 1383-1397, December 21, 2016. DOI:

This study suggests that people with the reading disability dyslexia may have brain differences that are surprisingly wide-ranging. Using specialized brain imaging, scientists found that adults and children with dyslexia showed less ability to "adapt" to sensory information compared to people without the disorder. And the differences were seen not only in the brain's response to written words, which would be expected. People with dyslexia also showed less adaptability in response to pictures of faces and objects. That suggests they have "deficits" that are more general, across the whole brain, said study lead author Tyler Perrachione. He's an assistant professor of speech, hearing and language sciences at Boston University. The findings offer clues to the root causes of dyslexia.

Adding Words to the Brain's Visual Dictionary

Glezer, L.S., Kim, J., Rule, J., Jiang, X., and Riesenhuber, M. (2015) Adding Words to the Brain's Visual Dictionary: Novel Word Learning Selectively Sharpens Orthographic Representations in the VWFA , The Journal of Neuroscience, 25 March 2015, 35(12): 4965-4972

This research demonstrates the brain’s ability to adapt and learn to recognize new words, and to store the spelling of a familiar word as an image or pattern. The brain can add new words to its “visual dictionary” even if they are made up and have no meaning attached to them. The findings and future research could have implications for how we teach reading, particularly to those who struggle with traditional methods.

Hemispheric specialization for visual words is shaped by attention to sublexical units during initial learning

Yoncheva, Y.N., Wise, J., and McCandliss, B. Hemispheric specialization for visual words is shaped by attention to sublexical units during initial learning, Brain and Language, Volumes 145–146, June–July 2015, pages 23-33.

This study investigated how the brain responds to different types of reading instruction. Results indicate that beginning readers who focus on letter-sound relationships, or phonics, instead of trying to learn whole words, increase activity in the area of their brains best wired for reading. To develop reading skills, teaching students to sound out "C-A-T" sparks more optimal brain circuitry than instructing them to memorize the word "cat." And, the study found, these teaching-induced differences show up even on future encounters with the word. The study provides some of the first evidence that a specific teaching strategy for reading has direct neural impact. The research could eventually lead to better-designed interventions to help struggling readers.

Auditory Processing in Noise: A Preschool Biomarker for Literacy

White-Schwoch T, Woodruff Carr K, Thompson EC, Anderson S, Nicol T, Bradlow AR, et al. (2015) Auditory Processing in Noise: A Preschool Biomarker for Literacy. PLoS Biol 13(7): e1002196.

This study suggests that the neural processing of consonants in noise plays a fundamental role in language development. Children who struggle to listen in noisy environments may struggle to make meaning of the language they hear on a daily basis, which can in turn set them at risk for literacy challenges. Evaluating the neural coding of speech in noise may provide an objective neurophysiological marker for these at-risk children, opening a door to early and specific interventions that may stave off a life spent struggling to read.

The Words Children Hear: Picture Books and the Statistics for Language Learning

Jessica L. Montag, Michael N. Jones, and Linda B. Smith. The Words Children Hear: Picture Books and the Statistics for Language Learning, Psychological Science 0956797615594361, August 4, 2015.

Young children learn language from the speech they hear. Previous work suggests that greater statistical diversity of words and of linguistic contexts is associated with better language outcomes. One potential source of lexical diversity is the text of picture books that caregivers read aloud to children. In this study, researchers looked at the language content of 100 popular picture books. In comparing the language in books to the language used by parents talking to their children, the researchers found that the picture books contained more “unique word types.” The text of picture books may be an important source of vocabulary for young children, and these findings suggest a mechanism that underlies the language benefits associated with reading to children.

Home Reading Environment and Brain Activation in Preschool Children Listening to Stories

John S. Hutton, Tzipi Horowitz-Kraus, Alan L. Mendelsohn, Tom DeWitt, Scott K. Holland. Home Reading Environment and Brain Activation in Preschool Children Listening to Stories, , August 10, 2015. doi: 10.1542/peds.2015-0359

Functional magnetic resonance imaging was used to study brain activity in 3-to 5-year-old children as they listened to age-appropriate stories. The researchers found differences in brain activation according to how much the children had been read to at home. Children whose parents reported more reading at home and more books in the home showed significantly greater activation of brain areas in a region of the left hemisphere called the parietal-temporal-occipital association cortex. This brain area supports mental imagery and narrative comprehension. Children who were exposed to more books and home reading showed significantly more activity in the areas of the brain that process visual association, even though the child was in the scanner just listening to a story and could not see any pictures.

Glutamate and Choline Levels Predict Individual Differences in Reading Ability in Emergent Readers

Fulbright, R. et al (2014) Glutamate and Choline Levels Predict Individual Differences in Reading Ability in Emergent Readers, The Journal of Neuroscience, 12 March 2014, 34(11): 4082-4089.

The research team measured levels of glutamate, choline, and other metabolites in 75 children, aged 6 to 10, whose reading abilities ranged from what is considered impaired to superior. The researchers conducted behavioral testing to characterize the children’s reading, language, and general cognitive skills, and used MR spectroscopy to assess metabolite levels. They found that children with higher glutamate and choline levels in their brains tended to have lower composite scores for reading and language. In follow-up testing two years later, the same correlation still existed for initial glutamate levels. This study is believed to be the first to examine neurochemistry in a longitudinal study of children during the critical period when they are considered "emergent readers" — the age at which neurocircuits that support skilled reading and speaking are still developing.

Simultaneously Uncovering the Patterns of Brain Regions Involved in Different Story Reading Subprocesses

Wehbe L, Murphy B, Talukdar P, Fyshe A, Ramdas A, et al. (2014) Simultaneously Uncovering the Patterns of Brain Regions Involved in Different Story Reading Subprocesses. PLoS ONE 9(11): e112575. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0112575

Story understanding involves many perceptual and cognitive subprocesses, from perceiving individual words, to parsing sentences, to understanding the relationships among the story characters. In this study, researchers constructed the first integrated computational model of reading, identifying which parts of the brain are active when breaking down sentences, determining the meaning of a text and understanding the relationships between words. Researchers used a functional MRI to document what happened in the brains of participants while they read a chapter from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. This approach is promising for studying individual differences: it can be used to create single subject maps that may potentially be used to measure reading comprehension and diagnose reading disorders.

Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind

Kidd, D. C. & Castano, E. (2013) Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind. Science, 18 October 2013: 342 (6156), 377-380.

Theory of Mind is the human capacity to comprehend that other people hold beliefs and desires and that these may differ from one's own beliefs and desires. The currently predominant view is that literary fiction — often described as narratives that focus on in-depth portrayals of subjects' inner feelings and thoughts — can be linked to theory of mind processes. The researchers in this study provide experimental evidence that reading passages of literary fiction, in comparison to nonfiction or popular fiction, does indeed enhance the reader's performance on theory of mind tasks — a set of skills and thought processes fundamental to complex social relationships and functional societies.

Improving Students' Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K., Marsh, E., Nathan, M.J., Willingham, D. Improving students' learning with effective learning techniques: promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, January 2013 vol. 14, 4-58.

In this monograph, the researchers discuss 10 learning techniques in detail and offer recommendations about their relative utility. The selected techniques are relatively easy to use and could be adopted by many students. Also, some techniques (e.g., highlighting and rereading) were selected because students report relying heavily on them, which makes it especially important to examine how well they work. The techniques include elaborative interrogation, self-explanation, summarization, highlighting (or underlining), the keyword mnemonic, imagery use for text learning, rereading, practice testing, distributed practice, and interleaved practice.

Neural Activity Tied to Reading Predicts Individual Differences in Extended-Text Comprehension

Mossbridge JA, Grabowecky M, Paller KA and Suzuki S (2013) Neural activity tied to reading predicts individual differences in extended-text comprehension. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 7:655.
This study looked at whether a reader’s level of comprehension can be quantified with brain imaging technology. Researchers designed an experiment in which participants were asked to read two versions of the same text. One version was an original story; the other was a scrambled version of the text. Both were presented one word at a time on a computer screen. As the subjects read the texts, the researchers used electroencephalography (EEG) to monitor their brain activity. Each subject was then asked to complete a comprehension quiz. The team theorized that in subjects with poor reading comprehension, brain activity should remain largely uniform throughout the test. Conversely, participants with high comprehension should exhibit a surge in activity while reading the original story. Their hypothesis was supported: brain activity could be used to predict comprehension quiz outcomes with almost 90 percent accuracy.

Dissecting Dyslexia

May, T.S. (2006). Dissecting Dyslexia. BrainWork, the Neuroscience Newsletter from the Dana Foundation.

Genetic differences in the brain make learning to read a struggle for children with dyslexia. Luckily, most of our brain development occurs after we're born, when we interact with our environment. This means that the right teaching techniques can actually re-train the brain, especially when they happen early.

Remediation Training Improves Reading Ability of Dyslexic Children

Trei, L. Remediation Training Improves Reading Ability of Dyslexic Children. Stanford Report, 25 May 2003.
For the first time, researchers have shown that the brains of dyslexic children can be rewired — after undergoing intensive remediation training — to function more like those found in normal readers.
"The man who does not read good books is no better than the man who can't." — Mark Twain