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neuroscience of dyslexia

The Neuroscience of Reading

Reading is not something our brains are born to do. Although we have an innate ability to hear sounds and see images, for our ancestors these skills were used to find food and watch out for potential danger. Writing itself is a manmade convention; our brains are not hard-wired to either create written word or decode it. These are learned skills.

There are many regions of the brain involved in efficient reading. The temporal lobe, found on either side of our brain, processes and discriminates between sounds The Broca’s area, found in the left frontal lobe, governs speech production and language comprehension. The angular and supramarginal gyrus link different parts of the brain so that letter shapes can be combined to make words. Neuroscientists at Stanford University found that reading ability in young children is directly related to the growth of white matter in the brain, known as “myelin” which transmits messages across the brain at lightening speed. Children who were strong early readers had strong signals along this white matter. In dyslexia, the communication along these tracts was intermittent or inaccurate. Rather than smooth white matter, they had crowded, narrow, or bumpy tracts.

That being said, how does that information help us decide how to teach a child with dyslexia how to read? Is it possible to create new pathways? To strengthen weak ones? To connect parts of the brain that aren’t communicating? Yes, it is. The brain, particularly in young children, is very plastic. This means that it can change rapidly when given the right input.

Let me explain using a fictitious student named Michael. Michael is in fourth grade. He was in public school and from the first months of kindergarten, teachers were raising concerns about his ability to “get it.” He wasn’t hearing the first sounds of words, he wasn’t holding his pencil correctly, he didn’t seem to pick up on the easiest sight words such as “is” and “my.” By first grade, he was getting pull-out services for reading. It seemed like he never remembered any words. Rhyming was a complete struggle for him. Testing by a private neuropsychologist in second grade revealed that Michael had profound weaknesses in phonological and orthographic processing. This means he could not process sounds correctly in the temporal lobe nor remember visual images, namely words.

How do we then use neuroscience to create new pathways in the brain and help Michael become a fluent and confident reader and speller?  We know that the brain changes rapidly when it is asked to do things with intensity and in novel ways.  Think of it like doing HIT (high-intensity training) workouts with your trainer at the gym. By using multi-sensory approaches to provide feedback to the brain in a high-intensity structure, the brain can rapidly create new pathways and strengthen weak ones. For example, Michael has a very hard time remembering sight words. Since that pathway is impaired, we can use strategies such as tactile input (drawing the letters on his arm, in sand, on fabric), visualization (close your eyes and picture the word. What’s the first letter you see?) and neurolinguistic programming (look up to the right and draw it in the air. Say the letters as you draw it.) to create new pathways to that part of the brain.

What makes reading instruction unique and Park Academy is its diagnostic and prescriptive nature. With our new assessment tools and growing store of strategies to use, we have the ability to determine if children are responding and what else to utilize to bring about the desired changes.

Teaching reading is a complex task and each child is a unique puzzle. We are committed to staying current with new discoveries in neuroscience, reading instruction and intervention strategies through reading, study, and collaboration with experts in the field.

Written by Ms. Mary Mollway, Assistant Head of School

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