What the research shows
Psychological science can help more kids learn to read. Scientists are using new brain imaging technology to study what happens in the brain when children read. By comparing images of children who are known to have reading difficulties with those of children who are strong readers, researchers are learning more about how to help children overcome reading problems. Furthermore, using new before- and after- images that show what happens to children’s brains after they get systematic, research-based reading instruction, the images show that the right teaching methods can actually normalize brain function and thereby improve a child’s reading skills.
Reading problems, the most common of which is called dyslexia, affect nearly one out of every five children, boys and girls equally, and can continue into adulthood. In the first stage of scientific reading research, experts hypothesized that many reading problems, especially in figuring out the different sounds made by different letters (“decoding”), were caused by a problem in the brain and had more to do with sound than sight. Special imaging studies of the brain proved the hypothesis correct, joining other psychological studies in confirming that dyslexia — although it can make a child feel dumb and be a problem in school — does not reflect visual problems or lower intelligence.
In the next stage of research, psychologists are testing whether certain kinds of reading instruction can actually change the brain. A 2005 study of 32 children — 17 who were at low risk for reading problems and 16 who were at high risk — confirmed that systematic instruction in reading can give children who might otherwise be at risk the ability to read as well as other children who are successful readers.
In that study, researchers including Panagiatos Simos, PhD, Andrew Papanicolaou, PhD, and Jack Fletcher, PhD, of the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, compared the brain activity patterns of kindergarteners with either good or poor pre-reading skills and followed them into first grade. Using magnetic source imaging (MSI), the researchers showed how different parts of the brain get active when people undertake certain tasks, such as reading. MSI can track events at the level of millionths of a second — the speed of a working brain.
The images showed that children who became skilled readers by the end of first grade had, as early as kindergarten, effective brain-activation patterns for reading. Children who had a bumpier start with reading skills showed different patterns. However, 13 of the 16 children with reading difficulties responded to systematic reading instruction. After a year of teachers directly teaching them the “alphabetic principle” (how letters work together to make words), comprehension (the meaning of words), and fluency (accurately reading words aloud), the students with previous reading difficulties became average readers. What’s more, the MSI images showed that their brains started to bring critical areas — areas that they hadn’t used before — into the reading process during the course of first grade. This study followed another MSI study from Papanicolaou’s lab that revealed that these areas of the brain did not function correctly in children who showed early signs of reading problems.
As a result, by the end of first grade, the brains of those children who began the grade with good reading skills, and the brains of those who had been at risk for reading problems but got high-quality instruction, functioned in very similar ways. The brains of the few children who didn’t respond to instruction worked a lot like those of older children with significant reading problems.
Benita Blachman, PhD, of Syracuse University, and her colleagues reported in 2004 that children in second- and third-grades with poor word-reading skills who got eight months of instruction in letter sounds and spelling while reading text (an experimental group), instead of regular remedial-reading programs (a control group), showed significantly greater gains in reading real words, non-words and passages, in reading rate and in spelling. When re-tested a year later, they had mostly held those gains.
A 2004 study of the same students by Sally Shaywitz, M.D., and Bennett Shaywitz, M.D., of Yale University gave more evidence that reading problems come from the abnormal processing of sounds. Previous studies by these researchers showed that when kids without reading problems tried to distinguish between similar spoken syllables, speech areas in the left brain worked much harder than matching areas in the right brain (whose function is still unknown). But when children with reading problems made the same attempt, those parts of the right brain actually worked harder, going into overdrive after a brief delay. In that study of Blachman’s students, the researchers also found that when students with dyslexia learned to read through the intervention, these critical left-hemisphere areas became active. That finding is helping psychologists and their medical colleagues to identify a central marker of the problem that makes it so hard for people with dyslexia to process similar but different sounds, whether spoken or written. This skill, called phonological processing, is fundamental to reading.
What the research means
Reading research has made significant progress over the past 30 years, accelerating in the last few years as researchers who do intervention collaborate with brain-imaging researchers. Many studies over the last three decades have confirmed that reading has more to do with mentally “hearing” letter sounds and words than with seeing them, thus making it clear that children with reading problems are not lazy or unintelligent. Instead, they have specific brain-based differences in how they process information.
By using brain images to study reading, psychologists and their colleagues in medicine and education have found a biological explanation for the 2004 finding that research-based teaching can significantly improve how students with dyslexia read and spell. And in another 2004 study, they found evidence that effective instruction normalizes brain function.
The 2005 study showed that children who might otherwise have trouble learning to read can be identified and taught before their reading problems are apparent. When taught, their brains will change in as little as a year. This news is encouraging: Most kids who are at risk for reading problems can still learn to read.
How the research should be used
Research has underscored the importance of quality instruction in reading basics: phonological awareness, the alphabetic principle, orthographics (the rules of spelling and writing), and comprehension. When children get started with the basics, they become engaged and read quickly enough to make reading effortless and fun. Children as young as beginning kindergarten — if not earlier — should be screened to determine their level of risk for reading difficulties, and research-based reading programs should be incorporated in the elementary-school curriculum. A child who is at risk may need more intense instruction, but the earlier the better.