Brain and Learning

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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