Inside the brain of a struggling reader

Why a one-size-fits-all approach does not work for every child

While home environment, access to books, and social and economic factors all play a part in children’s literacy development, brain differences also play a crucial role.

Left-brain activity in struggling readers is often underconnected, like two city suburbs that have only side streets for access. This part of the brain helps readers make the connection between letters and sounds, or phonemes, called “phonological processing.”

The occipital lobe is the part of the brain that helps us understand what we see. While struggling read­ers may not have vision problems, differences in the occipital lobe can prevent them from recognizing individual letters or words when they see them.

In a typical brain, Wernicke’s Area acts as a giant warehouse for speech sounds and their links to meaningful vocabulary. For strug­gling readers, this area shows less activity and may be poorly mapped. That means that for some students, access to word meanings is slow and effortful.

Broca’s Area is usually associated with speaking (or reading) words and grammatical sentences aloud. Students with phonological processing issues often show less activity in this region.

Auditory-processing difficulties also contribute to reading struggles. When something interrupts the brain’s ability to process sounds, it can be difficult to distinguish between words, like rock, rocks and rocked, for example. It may also be difficult to follow certain directions.

These fundamental brain differences can keep struggling students behind. This means a one-size-fits-all approach to education simply does not work for every child.

Help for struggling readers

New research, however, demonstrates the plasticity of the brain, or the ability for it to change over the course of a human’s life. This means we can help struggling readers at a neurological level. Here’s how:

Check for discrimination of similar sounds, such as pig, peg and peck. Children must first identify differences in sounds before being able to learn which sound goes with each letter. Studies show that the ability to make these small distinctions is strongly linked to success in reading.

Provide instruction that is intense, motivating and frequent. Brain change happens when a task is done frequently, is motivating and allows for repeated practice.

Work on vocabulary from an early age. Research shows that students who are exposed to more words as toddlers and young children have greater pre-reading skills when they get to school.

Have students work on listening accuracy, auditory sequencing and phonological memory. A Cornell University study demonstrated that dyslexic students who used Fast ForWord, a language and literacy intervention that emphasizes these skills, achieved significant improvements in oral language and reading.

Effective intervention

Perhaps even more exciting are neuroscience-derived technological interventions that may ameliorate differences in brain architecture and efficiency–even in children diagnosed with dyslexia. One such intervention builds up the regions of the left hemisphere responsible for perception of speech sounds, working memory and oral language skills.

A recent study used functional magnetic resonance imaging to show the potential of such interventions. After an intensive, six-week program, 35 students averaging 7 years of age and all diagnosed with dyslexia showed significant improvements in decoding and reading comprehension, and heightened activity in brain regions that function in typical readers during phonological awareness tasks.

In other words, the right strategies combined with sophisticated technology tools can help struggling readers change their brain physiology and, in the process, become successful, confident readers.

As the author of more than 100 journal articles and multiple books, neuroscientist Martha S. Burns is a leading expert on how children learn.

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