The human brain holds a lot of secrets, like why some kids learn to read easily, while so many others struggle. Now brain scientists are looking inside for answers. And they're showing how good teaching can change a child's brain, turning a struggling reader into a good one.
Rewiring the Brain
Dr. Andrew Papanicolaou is trying to find out how kids turn lines and squiggles on a page into stories — by looking inside their brains. He pioneered the use of magnetoencephalography — or M-E-G — for studying how we read.
While the entire brain is involved when we read, Dr. Papanicolaou found that a high level of right-side activation is a kind of cerebral signature of dyslexia. And that's what he saw in Peter Oathout, an eight-year-old who first met Dr. Papanicolaou at a much more trying time. Peter would break in to tears trying to complete a test. That's when his parents went online and found Dr. Papanicolaou's research study.
Peter's brain showed a pattern of activation like other people with dyslexia tested in the study. Peter was expending more energy on the right side of his brain than good readers typically do. To use a metaphor, while good readers use the interstate highways of their brain, Peter was using country roads to get to the same place.
To help "rewire" his brain, Peter was tutored every week at the Texas Reading Institute. He worked intensively on his reading skills — connecting sounds to letters and learning to blend sounds. He practiced the same skills every night with his dad. After a year, the results were impressive. Good teaching made Peter a better reader, and changed his brain in the process.
Biomapping the Brain
In Evanston, Illinois, Dr. Nina Kraus is helping to identify, or to eliminate, one possible cause of a child's reading struggles — difficulty processing sound. The 26 letters of our alphabet are a code for the sounds we make when we speak. So if you can't understand the sounds, the letters won't mean much. Dr. Kraus is testing eight-year-old Jenna Rogers to see if that might be part of her problem.
Dr. Kraus uses an E-E-G in a new way. She calls her measurement a biomap. "Biomap" stands for biological marker of auditory processing. Electrodes measure the involuntary responses Jenna's brain makes to the sound /da/.
Jenna's brain detects sound a little more slowly than most. And that could be part of her problem with reading. Why would such a tiny difference matter? It turns out that the difference between sounds like those made by the letters "b" and "p" is contained within a tiny span of time. So if your brain doesn't process fast enough, you can't distinguish between the two. With the new information about Jenna's auditory processing, Kit Harper, her tutor, is focusing more on helping jenna learn to discriminate between sounds. She's essentially training Jenna's brain to hear more accurately.
Baby's First Reading Skills
If there's one thing that most reseachers agree on, it's that early intervention is the best way to prevent reading problems. Reading experts like to catch kids at three or four, when language problems often emerge. But what if you could start even earlier?
Santana Hamond's not quite ready to start reading. He's only one day old. But doctors Dennis and Victoria Molfese believe they can look into his future. That's because one skill that children must have in order to read is already in place by the time a baby is born. The Molfeses are assessing the ability of one-day-old babies to discriminate between the sounds for the letters "b" and "p."
We don't know why, but some babies are born with a lesser ability to hear the difference between similar sounds, or they hear the difference more slowly. Santana's first stop is a hearing test, which he passes. Researchers test that ability in Santana with a net of soft sensors. Because Santana's brain does pick up on the difference between the two sounds, odds are that with the right opportunity he will become a proficient reader.
The Poet and the Painter
Poet Nikki Giovanni and illustrator Bryan Collier hadn't met until they got together to produce a book about one day in the life of Rosa Parks. So when the invitation came to write a story about her friend, Nikki Giovanni worked to make it fly.
From Emotion to Comprehension
In Toronto, six-year-old Arik Kimber reads like a champ. Kids struggle with comprehension for a lot of reasons. Some children use all their energy just sounding out the words. Other kids have a limited vocabulary, or they may lack the background knowledge they need to make sense of the story. Arik struggles because of the effects of autism. You wouldn't know it right away, but connecting with the rest of the world has always been difficult for him.
Dr. Stanley Greenspan, a renowned child psychiatrist, says that those emotional interactions are the foundation for understanding what you read. To increase Arik's ability to engage emotionally, the Kimbers have been using a technique called floortime.
But floortime is just one aspect of the work Arik is doing to learn how to comprehend. Struggling readers need explicit instruction in how to make sense of what they're reading.
As Arik develops his ability to connect emotionally and to communicate, Dr. Shanker and his team take a look inside his brain. They measure the electrical signals that travel from Arik's brain to his scalp as Arik does things that might engage him emotionally, like looking at familiar faces. As he develops the ability to make emotional connections, Arik blossoms, and he's begun to find meaning in what he reads.