May 08, 2004
The science of phonetics

My thanks to Chris Cooper (he's the one holding the knife), who emailed me about this article.

A new brain-imaging study indicates that a specially designed program for second and third graders deficient in reading boosts their reading skills while prodding their brains to respond to written material in the same way that the brains of good readers do. The same investigation found that the remedial instruction typically offered to poor readers in the nation's schools doesn't improve their skills and fails to ignite activity in brain areas that have been linked to effective reading.

"Good teaching can change the brain in a way that has the potential to benefit struggling readers," says pediatrician Sally Shaywitz of Yale University School of Medicine.

At least one in five U.S. grade-schoolers with average or above-average intelligence encounters severe difficulties in learning to read, researchers estimate. In 2000, a panel of educators and scientists convened by Congress concluded that reading disability stems primarily from difficulties in recognizing the correspondence between speech sounds and letters.

And towards the end of the article the difference made and not made by different kinds of supposedly remedial teaching are spelled out:

At the end of the school year, only poor readers in the experimental program showed marked gains in reading accuracy, speed, and comprehension, the researchers report in the May 1 Biological Psychiatry. Good readers still exhibited the strongest literacy, but the poor readers who received phonetically based instruction had closed the gap considerably.

After poor readers completed the experimental program, their brains displayed pronounced activity in several of the same left-brain areas that are active when good readers do reading-related tasks. In an earlier study of poor readers, Sally Shaywitz and Bennett Shaywitz found that one of those neural regions remains inactive as these kids grow up. Preliminary evidence from other researchers indicates that this structure, located near the back of the brain, fosters immediate recognition of familiar written words and is thus crucial for fluent reading, Sally Shaywitz says.

Students who had completed the experimental tutoring program still displayed improved reading scores and associated left-brain activation when measured 1 year later.

Bruce D. McCandliss, a neuroscientist at Weill Medical College of Cornell University in New York City, calls the new report a "landmark study." It builds upon similar findings by other research teams that tracked much smaller numbers of poor readers given phonological instruction, he notes.

Said Chris in his email: "More support for teaching reading by phonics?" It would certainly seem so.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:52 PM
Category: LiteracyScience