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The Science of Learning

April 4, 2017
3 Ways Poverty Impacts Children Learning to Read

  “Reading is a luxury,” says Dr. Martha Burns, director of neuroscience education at Scientific Learning Corporation. This is a powerful quote when it comes to understanding the impacts of poverty on children learning to read. Research tells us that children who come from homes in poverty are often not ready to learn to read due to the impacts poverty has on how their brains develop.   Let’s explore the reasons for this. The Poverty Trifecta According to Dr. Burns, there are three major factors that adversely impact learning and reading on children who come from homes of poverty. Factor #1:  Children from homes of poverty do not have as much exposure to language. Frequently cited research by Hart & Risley (1995) found that there is a 32-million word gap in students who come from homes of poverty. They simply do not get as much language exposure as peers from homes of higher income levels. This affects development of oral language at early ages, so that by the time these children enter our classrooms there is already a significant difference in how they are able to understand, respond, and be ready to learn. Factor #2:  Poverty changes the way the brain matures. We can agree that all children have the capacity to learn. Experience in the world drives this learning and affects the development of the brain. What does the world of a child in poverty look like? We don’t always know the answer to that question because many factors can be at play. However, neuroscientists have studied the brains of children from different income levels, controlling for variables, and have identified significant differences in the brain maturation of children in poverty. Findings have shown: Differences in the frontal lobe, affecting cognitive control and self-control (in the classroom, this translates […]

March 21, 2017
What Weak Cognitive Skills Look Like in the Classroom

  "I just don't get it!" is a phrase some of us may have heard or even used in our lives. Our brains successfully comprehend and utilize incoming information when strong cognitive skills are present. With weak cognitive skills, especially in young children, learning is a challenge. The major cognitive skills necessary for optimal learning are memory, attention, processing, and sequencing. When children are deficient in one or more of these essential cognitive tools, learning acquisition problems will occur. We all use cognitive skills every day to function successfully. Just driving to the supermarket and back requires those four cognitive skills which are so ingrained that we are often not consciously aware of them. Memory Let's look at memory, often referred to as working memory. This cognitive skill allows us to remember information, an essential building block of learning. Without good recall, a child will struggle in the classroom. When kindergarteners are given directions to color the apples red, the tulips yellow, and the cats black on a worksheet, those with poor short-term memory may only remember the first color. Other children may have difficulty following a first grade morning routine which may include placing homework in the inbox, clearing desktops, and getting and completing morning worksheets. Although homework is handed in and desks cleared, some students may forget the next step in the routine. It is, therefore, imperative that memory evolves to optimal levels so that children may learn to the best of their ability. Attention Another important cognitive skill is attention. Children must be able to attend to (listen and understand) information for learning to occur. Without this cognitive skill at a high functioning level, reading acquisition along with school success will be adversely affected. Normal classroom movements or noises may not bother most children. Those students with poor […]

March 7, 2017
Impaired Auditory Processing in Children from Low-Income Homes

As the achievement gap between children of different socioeconomic levels stubbornly persists, there is increased awareness of how the home environment impacts learning. New research by Nina Kraus and Samira Anderson at Northwestern University’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory reveals that these differences are more foundational than previously thought, affecting not only language ability but auditory processing itself. Much well-deserved attention has been given to the landmark study by Hart and Risley, which showed that children in poor households are exposed to 30 million fewer words than their better-off peers by the age of four. Yet more recent research suggests that the problem begins even earlier.  According to a study at Stanford University, the gap is already present at the age of 18 months, with children of different socioeconomic levels showing a 200-millisecond difference in how long they take to process basic verbal prompts. Why does this matter? Because auditory processing ability can distinguish good from poor readers, and this is among the first of a set of studies that shows how low socioeconomic status impacts this foundational cognitive skill. Kraus and Anderson’s work indicates that differences in phonological processing may be to blame. In the study, researchers presented children with a 40-millisecond sound sample of the speech syllable ‘da’. Those in the lower socioeconomic group showed weaker response activity of the complex auditory brainstem, and lower consistency in their responses across trials. In other words, children raised in underprivileged circumstances don’t just have trouble learning words – they have trouble distinguishing sounds themselves. Consider learning English and encountering the word ‘table’ for the first time in a sentence like “the bowl is on the table”. If you’ve easily understood the rest of the sentence, you’ll be able to use the established context to narrow down the unfamiliar word’s meaning. But if your brain struggles to determine whether you heard ‘bowl’ or ‘pole’, chances are the […]

February 7, 2017
Phonemic Awareness as a Predictor of Reading Success

What is the first sound you hear in the word “cat”? Now, change the "c" sound to "m". What’s the word now? These are examples of activities we use to target phonemic awareness. We are building the understanding that every word can be perceived as a sequence of phonemes, or individual sounds. A child’s success with phonemic awareness is the best predictor of later reading success. On the road to reading, phonemic awareness is at the start. The language to reading connection As a speech-language pathologist, I’m fascinated by language development. When my son was born, I marveled at every smile, coo, sound, get the picture. Typical language development unfolds from the earliest moments in a child’s life. Babies begin to tune into the sounds of the language(s) they are exposed to. They start babbling in longer and more varied strings of sounds, then begin speaking their first words. As vocabulary grows, children start putting words together, gradually learning the grammar of their language and applying it to express more sophisticated word and sentence structures. Language and the ideas understood and expressed become more complex. Onwards and upwards! What we as parents and educators must know is that language and reading skills are connected.   The elements of language development--phonology (sounds), vocabulary, grammar and pragmatics (social skills)--come into play as reading skills grow. Among these, phonological skills influence the early learning of letters, sounds and words. Much of the time, but not always, phonological development occurs implicitly as part of language acquisition. Phonological skills are built from the recognition and production of the sounds (phonemes) of a given language and understanding of the rule-based system by which these phonemes are used to create words. A crucial phonological skill for early readers is, you guessed it, phonemic awareness!   We must teach […]

February 2, 2017
5 Ways to Boost Parental Involvement at Low-Income Schools

The great Chinese philosopher Confucius professes, “Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me and I’ll remember. Involve me and I’ll understand.” It's been proven time and again: students from low-income families are at higher risk for academic and social problems. We know that parental involvement is crucial to success in school. Let us remember our role as educators in garnering that involvement and take a look at 5 ways to encourage parental involvement at our schools: 1. Ditch stereotypical beliefs about parents and poverty Lisa Montez Sullivan, a teacher in Detroit, reminds us, “For a great many […] students, just making it to school every day is a triumph.” We must not forget that we are entrusted with the care of children who may not have access to many basic resources. We may take for granted our vast and appropriate wardrobes, full stomachs, and stable, safe lives. While we may not easily see which of our students are hungry, we have a responsibility to arrive in our classrooms every day with kindness and compassion. Too often, we are blind to our own stereotypical beliefs about students and families living in poverty. When we believe that parents of poor students care less than parents of the affluent, we do our students and society a monolithic disservice. Actually, studies show that parents of lower socioeconomic status “want to be involved in their...students’ education just as much as parents with higher incomes and more education” (“What Schools Need”). In order to best help our students, we must first relieve ourselves of inaccurate beliefs. Many teachers blame the lack of parental involvement on the parents themselves, reasoning that they just don’t care. If we operate on the assumption that parents do care, which represents the truth rather than steadfast opinions without merit, we can put professionalism and empathy at the forefront […]

January 24, 2017
4 Education Trends in 2017

While education policy was one of the less contentious issues of 2016, a new administration is always bound to have some impact. Let’s take a look at the biggest 2017 education trends, and how they may take shape in the coming year. 1. School choice and education reform The recent election has brought us one of the most ambitious initiatives in the history of school choice – a proposal to redirect $20 billion of federal funding towards vouchers for low-income students. This is consistent with the new president's choices of appointees, showing a clear preference for market-based education approaches. Incoming Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has been a proponent of school vouchers and an architect of Detroit’s charter school system, Vice President Mike Pence greatly expanded the voucher program in Indiana, and researchers from the American Enterprise Institute and Hoover Institution have been tapped as advisors. But this may not mean a major shift in education policy. School choice has already become bipartisan over the last decade, though there is fear the coalition is now unraveling in precisely the urban areas where school choice has been most effective. While the $20 billion proposal may prove difficult to implement even with Republican control of Congress, it’s reasonable to expect an acceleration of school reform, with expansion of vouchers and relaxed restrictions on charter schools. 2. Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) The recent replacement of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) increased local and state control in ensuring that students from low-income, minority, and other disadvantaged groups are making educational progress. The new administration is expected to leave ESSA intact, although some supplemental regulations passed by the outgoing administration – particularly regarding teacher training and spending of Title I funds – are likely be rescinded. While […]

December 13, 2016
Cursive Becoming Obsolete?

Cursive is becoming obsolete. How can that be?  I remember 1st grade at Glebe Street Elementary School in Johnstown, New York, where we practiced penmanship every day.  I tried to be so perfect writing out my letters.  The next step was learning cursive in 2nd grade!  Once I learned how to make those curly letters, I was considered a big kid, like a rite of passage.  As handwriting has disappeared with the advent of computers and smartphones, this rite of passage (and some people argue an important developmental milestone) may seem old-fashioned, outdated and irrelevant in today’s modern world. Current research: Is handwriting still important? The current research on handwriting is somewhat mixed - some say yes, some say no.  Some educators and the Common Core say handwriting might be not be as relevant because it doesn’t directly tie-in to curriculum.  And many states are no longer required to teach it.  Only a handful of states are still teaching handwriting.  If I were a young student today in upstate New York, I wouldn’t necessarily be learning handwriting/penmanship.  Many skills aren’t deemed relevant if they aren't directly related to skills that state tests are targeting, which includes handwriting. Why should we teach handwriting?  Popular author/psychologist, Stanislas Dehaene, at the College de France in Paris states that, “When we write, a unique neural circuit is automatically activated. There is a core recognition of the gesture in the written word, a sort of recognition by mental simulation in your brain. And it seems that this circuit is contributing in unique ways we didn’t realize. Learning is made easier.” So when we write something down, this research has shown that our brains get activated in ways that aren’t activated when we type something.  And this brain activation helps with recall when we are learning. […]

November 29, 2016
5 Steps to ERASE Discord in Your Home

Our children bring us joy for many reasons. We can’t help but love them. It doesn’t hurt that they have tiny fingers and toes and that they say and do the silliest things. An acquaintance of mine recently posted on Facebook an interaction between her husband and daughter. During a trip to the grocery store, the husband perused the shopping cart and listed aloud the items. Among them were Pop Tarts, Tostitos, and Lucky Charms. “Are we missing anything?” he asked his daughter. She quickly responded, “Our dignity.” She’s six. We are constant witnesses to our children’s actions and words, so we know just how wise and brilliant they can be. But sometimes the immaturity they exhibit is more annoying than endearing. They are throwing tantrums because they aren’t allowed to eat glue or because we won’t allow them to play video games into the wee hours of the night. In response to the noise of our children’s minor frustrations, we adapt, adjust, and learn to cope, all the while making our best attempt to teach them that it is their responsibility not to become monsters in the world. However, when our kids fail to follow simple directions, it’s enough to drive us mad, and we might not always respond in ways conducive to promoting positive change in the home. How to get your child to follow directions (without a meltdown!) You may be relieved to know there are steps you can take as a parent to assist your children with following directions. Especially if your child struggles with his/her attention, language, or memory, this task may seem incredibly daunting. But if you are interested in improving the quality of your life—and possibly the quality of your relationship with your child—remembering the acronym ERASE just might do the trick. You have the […]

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