Mar 16, 2011 by Martha Burns, Ph.D
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Learning to read

Did you know that school is not just about learning new information; it is also about improving brain function?  Of course the content learned in coursework like social studies, science, geography and mathematics is very important. But, it turns out that learning to read does far more than impart a skill.  Recent research by the neuroscientist Stanislaus Dehaene indicates that learning to read actually improves the way the brain functions in several critical ways.
 
Dr. Dehaene and his colleagues compared the brain function of Brazilian and Portuguese adults who can read with those who had never learned to read. He reported the results in the journal Sciencein December. In the study the scientists used functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure brain function of adults while they responded to oral language, written language, and visual tasks. The adults were matched for socio-economic status (SES) so as not to bias the results by educational or income level. Thirty-one of the adults had been literate from childhood, twenty-two had learned to read as adults, and ten had never learned to read (were illiterate). What they found was that regions of the brain that all of us use to process visual information were enhanced among the adults who were readers; both those who had read from childhood and those who learned to read as adults. They also found that listening skills were better among both groups of readers than among the adults who did not read. The specific listening skill that was enhanced in readers involved the ability to perceive speech sounds more accurately.  
 
This research has important implications for those of us interested in education. It helps us to understand the importance of reading in the educational process, of course. But, perhaps even more important, it helps to explain why children who struggle to read fall so far behind in other school subjects as well. If, as Dehaene’s research suggests, the ability to read helps build parts of the brain that are essential for listening and observing, students who struggle to read may also have problems learning from auditory classroom instruction as well.  Thus they become hampered in three ways – they cannot learn to read, so will not be able to read to learn, and may struggle just as much with other forms of instruction.  
                                                                                       
Another issue is why children struggle to read in the first place. Dehaene’s research with adults controlled for this possible variable by controlling for socio-economic status and including adults who did not learn to read until they were adults. But in the United States as in other countries where education is mandatory for every child, there is a question as to why some children find learning to read so difficult.  Two new studies appear to shed light on that issue and seem related to Dehaene’s research. Bart Boets and his colleagues at the University of Leuven in Belgium have research that is to be published in the journal Research in Developmental Disabilities,that indicates a sort of double-whammy – children who in kindergarten have trouble with auditory perception, are likely to be diagnosed with dyslexia by grade 3.

Cassandra  Billiet  and Terri Bellis have also published research on the relationship between auditory perception and dyslexia in the Journal of Speech, Language and Hearing Researchin February 2011 Both research studies suggest that problems with processing of rapid sound changes, like those that occur in speech,  may interfere with learning to read in the first place. When considered in light of Dehaene’s research, children who struggle to learn to read likely end up at a further disadvantage as school progresses  because auditory skills do not continue to develop which, in turn, will affect all classroom learning.
 
Most of us would agree that learning to read is one of the most important tasks a child undertakes when they enter school. This new research helps us to understand that reading depends on listening skills in the first place and then builds them as reading improves. The science described in this study is the same science upon which Scientific Learning’s Fast ForWord softwareis built, there is strong evidence of its validity, from a variety of schools/districts and independent research labs.  Reading builds brain functions essential for listening and learning:  good readers become good listeners become good students. Helping students as early as possible with the underlying cognitive skills that enable reading will have academic benefits for years to come.

 

References

Billiets, C and Bellis, T. (2011) The Relationship Between Brainstem Temporal Processing and Performance on Tests of Central Auditory Function in Children With Reading Disorders. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research Vol.54 228-242

Boets, B. et al (In Press) Preschool impairments in auditory processing and speech perception uniquely predict future reading problems. Research in Developmental Disabilities

Dehaene, S, et al.(2010)How Learning to Read Changes the Cortical Networks for Vision and Language. Science 330, 1359

 

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