School & District Management

‘Right’ Instruction Helps Poor Readers’ Brains, Study Says

By Darcia Harris Bowman — April 28, 2004 | Corrected: February 23, 2019 3 min read
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Corrected: Clarification: The story should have noted that the research was a joint effort between reseachers at Yale University and Syracuse University. The reading-intervention component of the study was directed by Benita A. Blachman, a professor of education and psychology at Syracuse.

Proper instruction for children with reading disabilities has been found to spur development of the parts of the brain that enable skilled reading.

“Development of Left Occipitotemporal Systems for Skilled Reading in Children After a Phonologically-Based Intervention” can by ordered by calling Biological Psychiatry at (888) 615- 4500.

A new brain-imaging study, published in the May 1 issue of Biological Psychiatry, shows that once children are taught to overcome their reading disabilities, their brains begin to function more like those of skilled readers. Researchers found increased activity in such children in the left- hemisphere areas of the brain responsible for word recognition.

“What we’re seeing is that good teachers can be pretty good neuroscientists—with the right instruction, they can not only improve reading skills, but also help develop the neural pathways” that support critical reading skills, said G. Reid Lyon, the chief of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development’s child-development and -behavior branch and a co-author of the study.

The analysis builds on several decades of research financed by the National Institutes of Health into how children learn to read, why so many have difficulties with that task, and the biology of reading disabilities.

The study, led by Drs. Bennett A. and Sally E. Shaywitz of Yale University, is one of a series that use a technology called functional magnetic resonance imaging to map the parts of the brain used for reading.

But the study’s authors say this work is the first analysis of reading intervention in either children or adults that reports effects on reading fluency, or the speed and accuracy with which one reads.

They also say it’s the first and largest imaging study to compare results for children with reading disabilities who received an experimental intervention against those for poor readers who did not.

Experimental Approach

The researchers studied 77 children, ages 6 to 9, of whom 49 were determined to have reading disabilities, based on test scores. Of the latter group, 12 received whatever remedial reading instruction their schools and communities offered, in addition to regular classroom instruction.

For the remaining 37 poor readers, who were recruited from the Syracuse, N.Y., area, all school-based remedial efforts were replaced with eight months in an experimental reading program. The students also still received whatever classroom instruction their schools offered.

The experimental intervention was composed, the study says, of 50 minutes of daily “individual tutoring that was explicit and systematic and focused on helping children understand the alphabetic principle (how letters and combinations of letters represent the small segments of speech known as phonemes).”

Each lesson was built around a five-step plan: review of sound- symbol associations; practice using phonemes; timed reading of learned words to develop fluency; reading of stories aloud; and dictation of words like “chap” and “spin” that have phonetically regular spelling-sound patterns.

On average, the children in the experimental intervention received 105 hours of tutoring between September 2001 and May 2002.

The 37 poor readers who received the tutoring outpaced the 12 who did not receive the experimental help, showing statistically significant gains in three measures of reading skill: accuracy, fluency, and comprehension. Researchers used the Gray Oral Reading Test to measure the effects of the two interventions.

Also, functional MRI scans of the brains of the poor readers immediately after the intervention showed increased activity in the left occipitotemporal systems of the brain for those who received the experimental intervention. The effect was most pronounced in the part of the brain that instantly recognizes words without having to decipher them.

One year after the completion of the intervention, brain scans of 25 of the children in the experimental group showed that those developmental changes in the brain persisted.

“What we can see in these scans on the left side of the brain is that the motor for skilled reading is activated,” said Dr. Sally Shaywitz, the co-director of the Yale University Center for the Study of Learning and Attention and the author of the 2003 book Overcoming Dyslexia: A New and Complete Science-Based Program for Overcoming Reading Problems at Any Level.

“The experimental intervention led to development of the normal pathways that underlie skilled reading,” Dr. Shaywitz said of the tutoring. “This tells us that the brain is malleable—it can be organized.”

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