A Story to Explain Brain Research About Reading

A Typical Day in a Brain Research Lab

The machine was familiar to her now, but it was still amazing to think that it could take a picture of her son’s brain while he was reading!  Johnny was lying down inside the machine, and she could hear him answering questions that the doctor was asking.

Ann sat down to wait and thought about all that had happened in the last couple of months. Her son had been having a hard time in second grade.  She knew she had to do something about it when he came home crying, saying that everyone else knew how to read, and he just didn’t get it.

“I’m just stupid”, he had sobbed.  “I’m never going to learn how to read!”

His teacher told her that Johnny was quite bright, but that he did have trouble reading.  She suggested that Ann might look into the reading research project that was going on in the neuroscience department at the nearby university.  At first Ann was skeptical that brain research would be of any help to Johnny, but she noticed that they were also providing special instruction.  Luckily, she came to a decision that would change Johnny’s life.

Eight weeks ago, when Ann and Johnny had agreed to be part of the study, the researchers tested his reading to see what problems he had. He did poorly at recognizing words, but what Dr Matthews found most interesting was the fact that Johnny couldn’t identify the separate sounds in words.

C-A-T“When I say the word “CAT”, my mouth is making three sounds,” Dr Matthews explained. “c”, “a”, and “t”.  What are the sounds in the word “PIG”?  Johnny couldn’t tell him.

The first pictures of his brain had showed that Johnny was activating mostly the right side of his brain when he did the reading tasks inside the machine.  Dr. Matthews said that skilled readers used mostly the left side of the brain.

“He’s not using his brain efficiently for reading”, he said.  “We’d like to give him about 80 hours of special instruction and see whether his reading improves. Then we’ll look at his brain again and see if there are any changes.”

Johnny had faithfully come two hours every day for the last eight weeks. The researchers taught him to pay attention to the way his mouth moved when he made the different sounds in words.  He learned that the speech sounds he pronounced could be represented by letters.  Finally he began to understand what reading was about!  Yesterday, when they tested his reading, it had improved dramatically!

Ann stood up and went to the window.  She was impatient for the brain imaging to be over.  Today would be an interesting day.  They would see whether Johnny was using his brain differently to do the same reading tasks he had done eight weeks ago in the machine.

When the new pictures were ready, Dr. Matthews was as anxious as Ann and Johnny were to look at them.  He put them up beside the original pictures taken eight weeks ago. The results were startling!  Although Johnny had been using areas of his right hemisphere eight weeks ago, now the right hemisphere activity had diminished and he was clearly using areas in the left.  When Dr. Matthews put up a picture of a brain of a skilled reader, the activation showing in the left side of the brain was very similar to what they were seeing in Johnny’s new pictures.

“Bingo!” he exclaimed.  “Congratulations, Johnny!  You’re going to help us explain to the world how children can be helped to learn to read!”

“But wait a minute!” Ann exploded.  “If it just took eight weeks to fix this, and you literally changed his brain, how come he didn’t learn to read this way in school?  Why did his brain start working inefficiently in the first place?  How should children be taught so that they don’t start using the wrong side of their brains?

“We don’t know all the answers yet,” Dr. Matthews replied. ”Some children with severe reading problems (dyslexia) may have a genetic difference that affects how the brain organizes itself.   However, we now think that many children labeled with reading disabilities may simply have had ineffective early instruction.  It does seem that some children are more vulnerable and need more intense instruction than others, and we don’t know why.  But it should be possible to teach the skills Johnny has just learned starting in kindergarten or even earlier.  The children who find reading and writing easy should be allowed to tackle more and more challenging stories, and those children who need help should get more intense instruction until they are aware of the different sounds their mouths make when they say words and can link those sounds with letters.” He smiled.  “Anyway, I think Johnny is on his way!”

This fictional story is typical of the experience of students who have volunteered in recent years for similar studies.  The new techniques for imaging the brain have changed the way we think about reading because they have shown that struggling readers are using inefficient brain pathways, mostly in the wrong half of the brain.  The most dramatic discoveries, however, were exactly what happened to the Johnny in our story.

Intense special instruction significantly improved the reading skills and changed the way the brain organized itself for reading!


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One Response to “ A Story to Explain Brain Research About Reading ”

  1. Dawn says:

    Wow. This is so interesting! It really shows how important listening and speaking skills are when it comes to learning to read. Thank you for sharing this.

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