Is There A Right Time To Teach Reading?
Is there a “right” time, neurologically speaking, to teach reading? Jason D. Yeatman, a psychologist at the Stanford University Center for Cognitive and Neurobiological Imaging, and his colleagues report in a new study that in order to learn to read, a young child’s brain must be developed enough to process the information, but still capable of fast growth, according to a new longitudinal study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Sarah Sparks of Education Week writes:
“The researchers tracked the development of reading skills and brain growth in 55 children ages 7-12 during a three-year period. Two separate processes are hard at work in a child’s developing brain during this time, Yeatman explained. Learning and practicing a skill creates and strengthens the neural pathways connecting the associated parts of the brain, represented by white matter; a child has three times as much white matter as an adult because they are making so many more new connections and learning new skills. At the same time, however, unneeded connections are not reinforced and deteriorate over time, a process known as pruning.
‘Both processes are unfolding over time. In good readers they are balanced and going at the same time and being influenced by the child’s experience,’ Yeatman said. ‘What we think is happening in the poor reader is there was this exuberant growth in early life and then it had already plateaued … by the time they were engaged in reading instruction. In the poor readers, the growth process has already stopped and you only see the pruning process.’
High-performing readers initially had lower levels of white matter in the areas of the brain associated with visually identifying words, but these levels grew rapidly during the three years studied. By contrast, below-average readers had higher initial levels of white matter in the areas associated with reading but these levels declined over time, suggesting the children were not creating and strengthening neural pathways.
‘The brain matures in a sequential manner in which some circuits develop and stabilize while others remain capable of plastic change,’ the researchers noted in the study. ‘In this view, reading instruction should be delivered when the systems needed to learn the material are adequately developed but still have a potential for further plasticity so that they can respond to the instruction.’” Read more here.
This study is a great example of how research on neuroplasticity continues to become more complex and interesting: it’s not only the case that the brain is capable of change and growth, but also that different circuits are developing at different times.
On the practical-applications front, Yeatman is optimistic about these scans being used for “neuroprognosis” of future reading difficulties:
”I think we’re getting close to the point of being able to identify a specific abnormality in an individual and make predictions and interventions based on that,” he tells Sparks. “In a decade I’d like to be able to measure a 3-year-old, figure out what abnormalities are in there and what interventions might help prevent reading problems before they start.”