Learning and the Reading Brain

By Nancy Weigel, Lower School Reading Specialist

November 8, 2012  Philadelphia

Dr. Jennifer Thomson of Harvard University presented the most recent research in neuroscience regarding how the brain may learn to read and specifically what sections of the brain are involved.  Currently, there are 3 areas of research that have direct impact on how learning is taking place in the area of reading. Neuroscience is showing promise of earlier prediction of reading problems; it can show how behavioral interventions can “normalize” a brain; and can sometimes show changes in brain structure during intervention before these changes are seen in reading behavior.

Dr. Thomson spoke at great length about dyslexia and the research relating to this specific learning disability. Dyslexia accounts for approximately 4% of the learning disabled population. It is a subset of reading disabilities which is a subset of all learning disabilities.  Dyslexia is one of the most specific learning disabilities which is neurobiological; characterized by difficulties in acquiring accurate and fluent word recognition; affected by a deficit in the phonological component of language; unexpected in relation to the person’s other cognitive abilities and the availability of appropriate academic instruction; and is not connected to cultural, educational, environmental or other disabilities. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.

The instructional implications for this research are important. Phonics interventions can have direct effects on the key reading areas involved in dyslexia. However, there are other factors involved. Working memory, attention and vocabulary are critical to reading.   The goal of neuroscientific research is to determine what interventions result in permanent re-wiring of the connectors in the brain and therefore result in permanent change.  There are many programs available that claim to train the brain in these crucial cognitive skills. The research is inconclusive as to the permanence of these trainings. It is important to be aware of programs that claim to change your brain, because all life experiences are brain changing interactions. This does NOT mean that these programs are ineffective, rather that studies need to continue to see if these interventions stick.

About Westtown School

Westtown School is a Pre-K through 12th grade Quaker, coed, college preparatory day and boarding school in West Chester, PA.
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