Words in the Brain: Reading program spurs neural rewrite in kids

A new brain-imaging study indicates that a specially designed program for second and third graders deficient in reading boosts their reading skills while prodding their brains to respond to written material in the same way that the brains of good readers do. The same investigation found that the remedial instruction typically offered to poor readers in the nation’s schools doesn’t improve their skills and fails to ignite activity in brain areas that have been linked to effective reading.

“Good teaching can change the brain in a way that has the potential to benefit struggling readers,” says pediatrician Sally Shaywitz of Yale University School of Medicine.

At least one in five U.S. grade-schoolers with average or above-average intelligence encounters severe difficulties in learning to read, researchers estimate. In 2000, a panel of educators and scientists convened by Congress concluded that reading disability stems primarily from difficulties in recognizing the correspondence between speech sounds and letters.

Panel member Sally Shaywitz, along with Bennett A. Shaywitz, a neurologist also at Yale medical school, and their colleagues used that finding to design a brain-imaging investigation.

At the beginning and end of the school year, the investigators administered reading tests and functional magnetic resonance imaging scans to three groups of children, ages 6 to 9, attending school in New York or Connecticut. The brain scans were taken as each volunteer tried to identify written letters that matched spoken letters.

In one of the groups, 37 underachieving readers were given experimental tutoring that consisted of 50 minutes of daily, individual instruction in letters and combinations of letters that represent speech sounds called phonemes. The lessons also focused on development of fluency in reading words, oral reading of stories, and spelling.

Another 12 deficient readers received standard remedial reading and special education programs in their schools. These students didn’t receive explicit instruction in learning to recognize how letters correspond to phonemes.

A third group, this one consisting of 28 good readers, received regular classroom instruction.

At the end of the school year, only poor readers in the experimental program showed marked gains in reading accuracy, speed, and comprehension, the researchers report in the May 1 Biological Psychiatry. Good readers still exhibited the strongest literacy, but the poor readers who received phonetically based instruction had closed the gap considerably.

After poor readers completed the experimental program, their brains displayed pronounced activity in several of the same left-brain areas that are active when good readers do reading-related tasks. In an earlier study of poor readers, Sally Shaywitz and Bennett Shaywitz found that one of those neural regions remains inactive as these kids grow up. Preliminary evidence from other researchers indicates that this structure, located near the back of the brain, fosters immediate recognition of familiar written words and is thus crucial for fluent reading, Sally Shaywitz says.

Students who had completed the experimental tutoring program still displayed improved reading scores and associated left-brain activation when measured 1 year later.

Bruce D. McCandliss, a neuroscientist at Weill Medical College of Cornell University in New York City, calls the new report a “landmark study.” It builds upon similar findings by other research teams that tracked much smaller numbers of poor readers given phonological instruction, he notes.

The Yale group now plans to study children who will be randomly assigned to different types of reading programs.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.