Brain and Learning

School Readiness

P. Gail Williams, Marc Alan Lerner. School Readiness. Pediatrics (July 2019). From the American Academy of Pediatrics Technical Report.

Many children in the United States enter kindergarten with limitations in their social, emotional, cognitive, and physical development that might have been significantly diminished or eliminated through early identification and attention to child and family needs. School readiness once was thought to be solely the function of the child and family with focus primarily on pre-academic skills. We now recognize that schools and communities also are responsible for school readiness, and that a child’s experiences from birth impact the social, emotional, physical and cognitive development needed for school success. Pediatricians have a significant role to play in school readiness. They have longstanding relationships with children and families that are established early and grow over time. In many instances, pediatricians are at the forefront of advocating for access to health care, home visitation, preschool mental health consultation, early literacy funding, quality early childhood programs and child care subsidies. In multiple ways, pediatricians are an integral link between children and their families to school and community programs that promote school readiness.

Beyond the 30-Million-Word Gap: Children’s Conversational Exposure Is Associated With Language-Related Brain Function

Rachel R. Romeo, Julia A. Leonard, Sydney T. Robinson, Martin R. West, Allyson P. Mackey, Meredith L. Rowe, John D. E. Gabrieli. Beyond the 30-Million-Word Gap: Children’s Conversational Exposure Is Associated With Language-Related Brain Function. Psychological Science, February 14, 2018

This study found that young 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds who engaged in more conversation at home had more brain activity and verbal aptitude while they were listening to a story and processing language. The hypothesis is that back-and-forth conversation may rewire the brain and cause it to grow — a hypothesis that will be tested in a future study. In the study, the benefits of conversation were just as strong for low-income children as they were for high-income children. Children who experienced high amounts of conversation scored 12 percent higher on standardized language assessments.

Rapid and widespread white matter plasticity during an intensive reading intervention

Elizabeth Huber, Patrick M. Donnelly, Ariel Rokem & Jason D. Yeatman. Rapid and widespread white matter plasticity during an intensive reading intervention, Nature Communications volume 9:2260 (2018).

Using MRI measurements of the brain’s neural connections, or “white matter,” researchers have shown that, in struggling readers, the neural circuitry strengthened — and their reading performance improved — after just eight weeks of a specialized tutoring program. The study is the first to measure white matter during an intensive educational intervention and link children’s learning with their brains’ flexibility. After eight weeks of intensive instruction among study participants who struggled with reading or had been diagnosed with dyslexia, two of those three areas showed evidence of structural changes — a greater density of white matter and more organized “wiring.” These findings demonstrate that targeted, intensive reading programs not only lead to substantial improvements in reading skills, but also change the underlying wiring of the brain’s reading circuitry.

What the Research Says About the Impact of Media on Children Aged 0-3 Years Old

Rachel Barr, Elisabeth McClure, and Rebecca Parlakian. What the Research Says About the Impact of Media on Children Aged 0-3 Years Old. October 25, 2018. Washington, DC: Zero to Three.

Developed in partnership with leading researchers in the field of media and young children, this report describes what is known at this time about the effect of screen media on young children’s learning and development. The report covers key topics related to children’s early learning and screen experiences, including: why very young children sometimes struggle to learn from screen media (the “transfer deficit”); the influence of parent screen use on children’s learning (“technoference”); key ingredients to consider when making media decisions for children (The “3 C’s”); and key components of screen media content that support early learning.

Comparing and validating methods of reading instruction using behavioural and neural findings in an artificial orthography

Taylor, Joanne; Davis, Matthew; Rastle, Kathleen. Comparing and validating methods of reading instruction using behavioural and neural findings in an artificial orthography (April 20, 2017) Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

This study showed that learning to read by sounding out words (a teaching method known as phonics) has a dramatic impact on the accuracy of reading aloud and comprehension. Researchers tested whether learning to read by sounding out words is more effective than focusing on whole-word meanings. In order to assess the effectiveness of using phonics the researchers trained adults to read in a new language, printed in unfamiliar symbols, and then measured their learning with reading tests and brain scans. The results were striking; people who had focused on the meanings of the new words were much less accurate in reading aloud and comprehension than those who had used phonics, and the MRI scans revealed that their brains had to work harder to decipher what they were reading. Results suggest that early literacy education should focus on the systematicities present in print-to-sound relationships in alphabetic languages, rather than teaching meaning-based strategies, in order to enhance both reading aloud and comprehension of written words.

Relationships Between Home Literacy Practices and School Achievement: Implications for Consultation and Home–School Collaboration

Nicole Lynn Alston-Abel and Virginia Berninger. Relationships Between Home Literacy Practices and School Achievement: Implications for Consultation and Home–School Collaboration. Journal of Psychological and Educational Consultation, p 1-26, May 23, 2017.

In a 5-year longitudinal study of typical literacy development (Grades 1–5 or 3–7), relationships were examined between (a) parental responses to questionnaires about home literacy activities and ratings of children’s self-regulation at home, both completed annually by the same parent, and (b) children’s reading and writing achievement assessed annually at the university. Higher reading and writing achievement correlated with engaging in more home literacy activities. Parental help or monitoring of home literacy activities was greater for low-achieving than for high-achieving readers or writers. Children engaged more minutes per week in reading than writing activities at home, but parents provided more help with writing and reported computers were used more for homework than for school literacy instruction. Parental ratings of self-regulation of attention remained stable, but executive functions — goal-setting, hyperactivity, and impulsivity — tended to improve. Results are translated into consultation tips for literacy learning and best professional practices.

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 incidental; 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.

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.
"You may have tangible wealth untold. Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold. Richer than I you can never be — I had a mother who read to me." — Strickland Gillilan