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Reading boosts brain pathways, affects multiple disciplines


 

Children who have had more language exposure find reading easier.

 

Recent research shows that reading has a massive impact on brain function and can actually affect understanding in nearly all school subjects.

Neuroscientist Stanislaus Dehaene conducted research on the brain function of Portuguese-speaking Brazilian adults, both those who had learned to read and those who were illiterate. Dehaene chose Brazil because of its lack of compulsory education laws. Some of the population voluntarily forewent education, while others lacked access. The adults were matched for socio-economic status (SES) so the results would not be biased by educational or income level.

Martha Burns, an associate professor at Northwestern University and a speech and language pathologist, recently examined Dehaene’s studies in a blog post.

“A person who is a reader actually listens better,” said Burns. “They actually listen to speech and process speech faster and in more detail.”

Dehaene then proceeded to teach the illiterate adults to read, and found astonishing results, which Burns expanded on in her blog.

“Lo and behold, their brains changed dramatically in the same way the literate adults who had read their whole lives changed. Their visual perceptual skills improved, their auditory listening skills improved, and their ability to drive this whole left hemisphere symbolic problem-solving way of syncing changed,” Burns said.

This crux of the study has significant implications for educators.

“The reason [that it’s] so important for our educators to know [this] is that educators change brains. They don’t just teach content, they don’t just improve the brain that I already have by giving me information that I hold on to. They actually change the way that the human brain processes information,” said Burns.

Such a massive change occurs as a result of how the brain is structured. The left hemisphere of the brain enables humans to perceive the internal details of words, such as the “b” sound in book, so they can then make the conversion between the sound and letter. The front lobe contains a segment that enables the sequencing of sounds, so you can remember how words are pronounced (i.e., “animal,” and not “aminal”). These two areas are connected by a huge superhighway of fiber.

“The brain builds based on what it does. So children who have lots of language exposure build this pathway very precisely, and then when they get into school reading is easy,” Burns said. However,  children who lack language exposure during their early development have a less defined pathway and language structure in their brains.

“If that superhighway system is weak, that doesn’t mean the child doesn’t have potential, that doesn’t mean the child isn’t smart. It just means that it hasn’t been exercised as much,” said Burns.

When this connection is weak, it makes it difficult for children to link letters and sounds, in turn making it hard to sequence words. This causes complications when learning grammar, which entirely revolves around sequencing. When this problem isn’t addressed, students fail to learn to read at all.

But a lack of literacy doesn’t just affect literature-based subjects.

“When students are struggling and they don’t learn how to read, that then interferes with their ability to learn visually, it interferes with their ability to problem solve, and it interferes with their ability to listen to teachers, so they’re getting further and further behind, which we’ve known but we haven’t really known why,” Burns said. “It turns out that the key is the ability to read, which I think changes our emphasis to, ‘Let’s find these children early, and let’s get them reading—and let’s use neuroscience-based intervention that boosts their capacity to learn to read.'”

If reading skills are improved and the connection between the left hemisphere and frontal lobe strengthens, studies show that not only do reading scores improve, but so do social studies scores, math scores, and science scores.

“If you get reading—and the underlying processes that support reading—in shape so that a child can learn and benefit from classroom instruction, it can boost all academic areas,” said Burns.

Burns emphasized that the process for building these stronger pathways starts at home, and she encouraged parents to talk to their children.

“It’s hard to reach the parents who don’t talk to their kids, because those are the very parents who are working two jobs, who are single-parent homes, who didn’t have a lot of speech in their home when they were little,” Burns said, adding that children from low SES families are exposed to a 32 million-word gap compared to children from a higher SES.

Because the brain is a quantity analyzer and processes more based on receiving more data, this gap can cause serious issues.

“The message we want to get out to parents everywhere is: Talk to your children. Reading is fine, too, read to your children. But I’m not so concerned about reading, because that architecture will build itself once a child learns to read; I’m more concerned about language in general,” Burns said. “Get [children] off the TV, get them away from screen time before two years of age, just talk, talk, talk.”

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