How Children Learn To Read

By Maria Konnikova

Why is it easy for some people to learn to read, and difficult for others? It’s a tough question with a long history. We know that it’s not just about raw intelligence, nor is it wholly about repetition and dogged persistence. We also know that there are some conditions that, effort aside, can hold a child back. Socioeconomic status, for instance, has been reliably linked to reading achievement. And, regardless of background, children with lower general verbal ability and those who have difficulty with phonetic processing seem to struggle. But what underlies those differences? How do we learn to translate abstract symbols into meaningful sounds in the first place, and why are some children better at it than others?

This is the mystery that has animated the work of Fumiko Hoeft, a cognitive neuroscientist and psychiatrist currently at the University of California, San Francisco. “You know where the color of your eyes came from, your facial features, your hair, your height. Maybe even your personality—I’m stubborn like mom, sloppy like dad,” Hoeft says. “But what we’re trying to do is find out, by looking at brain networks and accounting for everything in the environment, is where your reading ability originates.”

This fall, Hoeft and her colleagues at U.C.S.F. published the results of a three-year longitudinal study looking at the basic neuroscience of reading development. Between 2008 and 2009, Hoeft recruited a group of five- and six-year-old children. Some came from backgrounds predictive of reading difficulty. Others seemed to have no obvious risk factors. In addition to undergoing a brain scan, the children were tested for general cognitive ability, as well as a host of other factors, including how well they could follow instructions and how coherently they could express themselves. Each parent was also surveyed, and each child’s home life, carefully analyzed: How did the child spend her time at home? Was she read to frequently? How much time did she spend watching television? Three years later, each child’s brain was scanned again, and the children were tested on a number of reading and phonological tests.

When Hoeft took into account all of the explanatory factors that had been linked to reading difficulty in the past—genetic risk, environmental factors, pre-literate language ability, and over-all cognitive capacity—she found that only one thing consistently predicted how well a child would learn to read. That was the growth of white matter in one specific area of the brain, the left temporoparietal region. The amount of white matter that a child arrived with in kindergarten didn’t make a difference. But the change in volume between kindergarten and third grade did.

What is white matter? You can think of it as a sort of neural highway in the brain—roads that connect the various parts of the cortex and the brain surface. Information, in the form of electrical signals, runs across the white matter, allowing for communication between the different parts of the brain: you see something, you give it meaning, you interpret that meaning. Hoeft saw an increase in the volume of pathways in the left temporoparietal, which is central in phonological processing, speech, and reading. Or, as Hoeft puts it, “it’s where you do the tedious work of linking sounds and letters and how they correspond.” Her results suggested that, if the increase in white matter doesn’t occur at the critical time, children will have a hard time figuring out how to look at letters and then turn them into words that have meaning.

Hoeft’s discovery builds on previous research that she conducted on dyslexia. In 2011, she found that, while no behavioral measure could predict which dyslexic children would improve their reading skills, greater neural activation in the right prefrontal cortex along with the distribution of white matter in the brain could, with seventy-two-per-cent accuracy, offer such a prediction. If she looked at over-all brain activation while the children performed an initial phonological task, the predictive power rose to more than ninety per cent. Over-all intelligence and I.Q. didn’t matter; what was key was a very specific organizational pattern within your brain.

The group’s new findings go a step further. They don’t just show that white matter is important. They point to a crucial stage where the development of white matter is central to reading ability. And the white-matter development, Hoeft believes, is surely a function of both nature and nurture. “Our findings could be interpreted as meaning that there’s still genetic influence,” Hoeft says, noting that preëxisting structural differences in the brain may indeed influence future white-matter development. But, she adds, “it’s also likely that the dorsal white-matter development is representing the environment the kids are exposed to between kindergarten and third grade. The home environment, the school environment, the kind of reading instruction they’re getting.”

She likens it to the Dr. Seuss story of Horton and the egg. Horton sits on an egg that isn’t his own, and, because of his dedication, the creature that eventually hatches looks half like his mother, and half like the elephant. In this particular case, Hoeft and her colleagues can’t yet separate cause and effect: Were certain children predisposed to develop strong white-matter pathways that then helped them to learn to read, or was superior instruction and a rich environment prompting the building of those pathways?

Hoeft’s goal isn’t just to understand the neuroscience of how children read. Neuroscience is the tool to figure out a much broader question: How should early reading education work? In another study, which has just been submitted for publication, Hoeft and her colleagues try to turn their understanding of reading ability toward helping to identify the most effective teaching methods that could help develop it. Typically, children follow a very specific path toward reading. First, there is the fundamental phonological processing—the awareness of sounds themselves. This awareness builds into phonics, or the ability to decode a sound to match a letter. And those, finally, merge into full, automatic reading comprehension. Some children, however, don’t follow that path. In some cases, children who have problems with basic phonological awareness nonetheless master phonic decoding. There are also children who have problems with the decoding, yet their reading comprehension is high. “We want to use these surprising cases to understand what allows people to be resilient,” Hoeft says.

She’s studied, in particular, a concept known as stealth dyslexia: people who have all of the makings of dyslexia or other reading problems, but end up overcoming them and becoming superior readers. Hoeft may even be one of them: she suspects that she suffers from undiagnosed dyslexia. As a child in Japan, she had a difficulty with phonological processing very similar to that experienced by dyslexics—but, at the time, the diagnosis did not exist there. She struggled through without realizing until graduate school that a possible explanation for her problem existed in scientific literature. Studying stealth dyslexics, Hoeft posits, could be key to figuring out how to improve reading education more broadly. These stealth dyslexics have reading problems but are able to develop high comprehension all the same.

Hoeft’s group, she told me, has found that stealth dyslexics display a unique dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. That’s the part of the brain that is responsible, among other things, for executive function and self-control. In stealth dyslexics, it seems to be particularly well-developed. That may be partly genetic, but, Hoeft says, it may also point to a particular educational experience: “If it’s superior executive function that is helping some kids develop despite genetic predisposition to the contrary, that is really good news, because that is something we do well—we know how to train executive function.” There are multiple programs in place and multiple teaching methods, tested over the years, that help children develop self-regulation ability: for example, the KIPP schools that are using Walter Mischel’s self-control research to teach children to delay gratification.

What Hoeft’s studies demonstrate is that no matter a kid’s starting point in kindergarten, reading development also depends to a great extent on the next three years—and that those three years can be used to teach something that Hoeft now knows to be tied to overcoming reading difficulty. “That might mean that, in the earliest stages, we need to pay attention to that executive function,” she says. “We need to start not just giving flashcards, letters, and sounds the way we now do, but, especially if we know someone might be a problem reader, look at these other skills, at cognitive control and self-regulation.” Being a better reader, in other words, may ultimately involve instruction around things other than reading.

Re-posted from

February 11, 2015

Shiny Appy Children

Republished from

By  Natalia Kucirkova  

With Christmas holidays round the corner, many parents are considering the pros and cons of digital books. Storyapps are a hybrid of books, short films and digital games. In the  Nosy Crow Cinderella app for example, children do not just hear and read the story. They can dress Cinderella’s stepsisters in their ball clothing, help Cinderella tidy up plates in the kitchen and even insert their “selfie” in one of the magic mirrors.

Many storybook apps claim to support children’s budding literacy. The Nosy Crow app received  rave reviews and several prestigious awards. Yet ongoing research warns that the very interactive features that make apps so exciting may actually disrupt children’s ability to learn from them.

Two recent studies at Royal Holloway University show that with traditional print picture books, learning is facilitated by simple, non-manipulatable stories with realistic illustrations. When books have features that can be manipulated, children are less able to follow the storyline and focus instead on the various features they can play with. Flaps, for example, such as opening a window in a print book, can create a form of interaction that is great for capturing children’s attention.

However, to gain a deeper understanding, children need to appreciate the flow of a narrative and gradually learn that there is a sequence to events, sentences, words and indeed letters that afford meaning and coherence. High-quality children’s books are characterised by rich vocabulary and grammatically complex sentences. If we take children’s attention away from such rich language stimulations and replace them with a fancy game instead,  children are unlikely to benefit from repeated exposure to high-level text and simply spend that time playing the game.

Parental or peer support is also critical when children are learning to read from print books and this may be less available when children interact with storyapps. In 2012, researchers  explored the differences between reading styles when parents and children read a print book as compared to a story presented on a children’s touch-sensitive electronic console book. The more electronic features there were in the book, the less parents engaged in supportive reading styles and the lower the children’s overall story comprehension.

We know from  observational studies that parents and children have a great time when interacting with storyapps, with a lot of fun and bonding as a family. Many storyapps offer scaffolding for the emerging reader (eg highlighting the text when each word is read aloud) or let the child choose independently how to advance the story (eg by choosing alternative story endings). This is great for cultivating children’s independent reading ability and can support learning.

Research with print books shows that for specific groups of children, for instance for children with language impairments, books that can be manipulated to work better for learning than the ones without interactive features. Some basic customisation features (such as enlarging the text or changing the background colour) make reading easier for those who are not confident. Similarly, for children with attention difficulties, feedback embedded in apps helps capture their attention and improve attitudes about reading.

A particularly accomplished feature in many storyapps is the ability to customise and  personalize the story to tailor the reading to the child’s needs and interests. Personalising digital stories means that storybooks can enrich relationships that already exist. Family members can be various story characters, Daddy can be Superman, children and parents can write and illustrate stories together.

Personalisation is especially useful for children with special needs. For example, for children with severe learning difficulties, the ability to personalise the digital story can provide a unique opportunity to share their feelings with others in the classroom . Digital interactive books can also be changed for different markets more easily than print books and therefore might better address the  problem of diversity  in children’s books than print media.

For each child, parents and teachers need to decide the appropriateness of any story, the context of use and the platform it is delivered on. They also need to bear in mind that no matter how well-designed and interactive the storyapp is, children still  need adults  and other peers to share the story experience with. This old truth applies to children’s interaction with TV, digital games or storybooks. Their hybridisation in storyapps has intensified its relevance for the new generation.

What’s Lost as Handwriting Fades

Posted from The New York Times,  Science section, by Maria Konnikova. June 3, 2014


Does handwriting matter?

Not very much, according to many educators. The Common Core standards, which have been adopted in most states, call for teaching legible writing, but only in kindergarten and first grade. After that, the emphasis quickly shifts to proficiency on the keyboard.

But psychologists and neuroscientists say it is far too soon to declare handwriting a relic of the past. New evidence suggests that the links between handwriting and broader educational development run deep.

Children not only learn to read more quickly when they first learn to write by hand, but they also remain better able to generate ideas and retain information. In other words, it’s not just what we write that matters — but how.

“When we write, a unique neural circuit is automatically activated,” said Stanislas Dehaene,  a psychologist at the Collège de France in Paris. “There is a core recognition of the gesture in the written word, a sort of recognition by mental simulation in your brain.

“And it seems that this circuit is contributing in unique ways we didn’t realize,” he continued. “Learning is made easier.”

A 2012 study led by Karin James, a psychologist at Indiana University, lent support to that view. Children who had not yet learned to read and write were presented with a letter or a shape on an index card and asked to reproduce it in one of three ways: trace the image on a page with a dotted outline, draw it on a blank white sheet, or type it on a computer. They were then placed in a brain scanner and shown the image again.


Karin James, a psychologist at Indiana University, used a scanner to see how handwriting affected activity in children’s brains. CreditA. J. Mast for The New York Times

The researchers found that the initial duplication process mattered a great deal. When children had drawn a letter freehand, they exhibited increased activity in three areas of the brain that are activated in adults when they read and write: the left fusiform gyrus, the inferior frontal gyrus and the posterior parietal cortex.

By contrast, children who typed or traced the letter or shape showed no such effect. The activation was significantly weaker.

Dr. James attributes the differences to the messiness inherent in free-form handwriting: Not only must we first plan and execute the action in a way that is not required when we have a traceable outline, but we are also likely to produce a result that is highly variable.

That variability may itself be a learning tool. “When a kid produces a messy letter,” Dr. James said, “that might help him learn it.”

Our brain must understand that each possible iteration of, say, an “a” is the same, no matter how we see it written. Being able to decipher the messiness of each “a” may be more helpful in establishing that eventual representation than seeing the same result repeatedly.

“This is one of the first demonstrations of the brain being changed because of that practice,” Dr. James said.

In another study, Dr. James is comparing children who physically form letters with those who only watch others doing it. Her observations suggest that it is only the actual effort that engages the brain’s motor pathways and delivers the learning benefits of handwriting.

The effect goes well beyond letter recognition. In a study that followed children in grades two through five, Virginia Berninger, a psychologist at the University of Washington, demonstrated that printing, cursive writing, and typing on a keyboard are all associated with distinct and separate brain patterns — and each results in a distinct end product. When the children composed text by hand, they not only consistently produced more words more quickly than they did on a keyboard, but expressed more ideas. And brain imaging in the oldest subjects suggested that the connection between writing and idea generation went even further. When these children were asked to come up with ideas for a composition, the ones with better handwriting exhibited greater neural activation in areas associated with working memory — and increased overall activation in the reading and writing networks.

It now appears that there may even be a difference between printing and cursive writing — a distinction of particular importance as the teaching of cursive disappears in curriculum after curriculum. In dysgraphia, a condition where the ability to write is impaired, usually after brain injury, the deficit can take on a curious form: In some people, cursive writing remains relatively unimpaired, while in others, printing does.

In alexia, or impaired reading ability, some individuals who are unable to process print can still read cursive, and vice versa — suggesting that the two writing modes activate separate brain networks and engage more cognitive resources than would be the case with a single approach.

Dr. Berninger goes so far as to suggest that cursive writing may train self-control ability in a way that other modes of writing do not, and some researchers argue that it may even be a path to treating dyslexia. A 2012 review suggests that cursive may be particularly effective for individuals with developmental dysgraphia — motor-control difficulties in forming letters — and that it may aid in preventing the reversal and inversion of letters.

Cursive or not, the benefits of writing by hand extend beyond childhood. For adults, typing may be a fast and efficient alternative to longhand, but that very efficiency may diminish our ability to process new information. Not only do we learn letters better when we commit them to memory through writing, memory and learning ability in general may benefit.

Two psychologists, Pam A. Mueller of Princeton and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the University of California, Los Angeles, have reported that in both laboratory settings and real-world classrooms, students learn better when they take notes by hand than when they type on a keyboard. Contrary to earlier studies attributing the difference to the distracting effects of computers, the new research suggests that writing by hand allows the student to process a lecture’s contents and reframe it — a process of reflection and manipulation that can lead to better understanding and memory encoding.

Not every expert is persuaded that the long-term benefits of handwriting are as significant as all that. Still, one such skeptic, the Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, says the new research is, at the very least, thought-provoking. “With handwriting, the very act of putting it down forces you to focus on what’s important,” he said. He added, after pausing to consider, “Maybe it helps you think better.”


The “What’s Your Favourite Animal” Project


In What’s Your Favorite Animal? a new book by Eric Carle & Friends, 14 amazing children’s book artists share their favorite animals.

They are inviting all children and adults to do the same!

For Spring 2014, The Carle Museum of Picture Book Art is creating a special exhibition to celebrate this new book. They will showcase the original work of the 14 published artists as well as a digital exhibition from friends from around the world.

They are inviting people of all ages to submit a digital image of an original work of art depicting your own favorite animal. Your submission will be available on a digital screen in their gallery from April 8-August 31 and will be included in an online exhibition that will live on their museum’s blog.  Submissions will be accepted from now until August 1, 2014.

For further information on submitting your art, click here.



Parents Who Encourage Reading for Pleasure See Education Rewards

From Education News:

Parents who encourage their children to read for pleasure could be doing them more good than they know. A recently published study by the Institute of Education concludes that youngsters who enjoy books have better language and spelling skills and, in a more surprising development, also perform better in mathematics.

The seed for the improved academic results is planted early. Children whose parents read to them while they were infants outperformed peers whose parents did not on almost all academic metrics. However, in later years, the impact of books put even parental influence in the shade. Simply put, books were more vital to children’s educational development than even their family environment was.

The study by academics at the Institute of Education, part of the University of London, found that reading had the strongest effect on vocabulary development but the impact on maths and spelling was “still significant”.
The findings come amid continuing concerns that too many children are shunning books in favour of iPads, games consoles and television.

Research earlier this year found the relative difficulty of books read by pupils “declined steadily” as pupils got older, with large numbers of children ditching them altogether in secondary school.

Dr Alice Sullivan, co-author of today’s research, said: “There are concerns that young people’s reading for pleasure has declined. There could be various reasons for this, including more time spent in organised activities, more homework, and of course more time spent online.

But where technology taketh away, it can also giveth, according to Sullivan. She predicted that growing popularity of e-readers as well as e-reading apps on smartphones and tablets could expand access to beneficial reading materials and encourage more children to read. Sullivan also notes that government must play a role as well by developing policies that promote reading, especially among teens.

According to Graeme Paton of the Daily Telegraph, reading habits of more than 6,000 kids were closely monitored over the course of the study which also looked at lives of people born in 1970. Researchers then compared their early childhood reading habits with their academic performance further down the road.

Children who were read to regularly by parents at the age of five performed better in all three tests at 16 than those who were left without a bedtime story.

But it emerged that the greatest effect was felt between the age of 10 and 16.

It emerged that children who read books regularly at 10 and more than once a week at 16 gained higher results in all three tests at the end of secondary education.

Reading was found to be more important for children’s cognitive development at secondary school than the influence of their parents.

Education News, Sunday, September 15, 2013

5 Lessons Adults Can Learn from Children’s Literature

Enjoy this great article from the Huffington Post!

~~ By Kinne Chapin.

Children are much smarter than adults. They play outside, tell people their opinions straight, and finagle their way into forbidden bedtimes, junk foods, and TV shows.

There’s a lot we could learn from children, but we probably shouldn’t make their heads any larger then they are already (both metaphorically and biologically. Kudos to every mother ever on that one). We can learn even more from children’s authors — because they’re the ones who teach kids to wise up and have ethics and all that jazz (this all comes straight from literature. No parenting plays a role.)

And when it comes to children’s authors, my favorite is Norton Juster, author of “The Phantom Tollbooth.” Why? Because he lays low… there haven’t been any sequels to the book and, even in the age of “Twilight” and “Harry Potter,” there have been no films turning Milo or the Humbug into weirdly sexualized characters.*

Think I’m wrong? Think that adults already learned their lessons from children’s literature when we were…well, children? Nope. If we had absorbed everything that Judy Blume and Astrid Lindgren wanted us to, there would be no such thing as the finger moustache tattoo. Just trust me.

Here are just a few lessons that we can learn from “The Phantom Tollbooth.” As it turns out, Juster is a very wise guy indeed.

1) Choose your words carefully: I’m looking at you, talk radio. In the land of Dictionopolis, Milo is arrested because he and his companions have been careless with their words (which function as sort of a currency there. Hence the “diction”). Of course, we don’t arrest people for poor use of words, given free speech and everything. ** But I promise you that if you are consistently say things that aren’t quite what you mean, the consequences will catch up with you. Anyone else remember how the words “47 percent” tanked a presidential campaign?

2) Most people are not exceptional: In the middle of the woods, Milo finds a shack purporting to be the home of “the shortest tall man in the world.” On subsequent visits, the same guy claims to be the tallest short man in the world, the thinnest fat man in the world, and the fattest thin man in the world. Guess what? He’s just a dude. People talk too much about how fantastically extraordinary they are. Mostly in college classrooms. So, sorry twentysomethings — hang up your guitar by its straps and go find a day job.

3) Don’t assume: In Digitopolis (land of numbers, y’all), Milo is offered something to eat — he accepts, only to find himself growing more and more ravenous after each bowl. Turns out it’s subtraction stew, and the people in Digitopolis start eating when they’re full and stop when they’re hungry. When you’re somewhere new, sit back and those who know their way around lead — just for a little bit. There’s no need to pretend you know Portuguese … and now you’ve just ordered us all sheep’s head.

4) Know your limits: Milo comes across a conductor whose job is to conduct the day — as he lifts his hands, the sun rises, and he doesn’t stop conducting until nightfall. When the conductor is resting, Milo decides to try his hand at conducting, but before he knows it the sky is purple, it’s snowing, and three weeks have passed. Just…don’t do that. Don’t say you can volunteer 20 hours of week after work, don’t say that you’re going to run a marathon this year if you’ve never laced up your sneakers, and definitely don’t do a keg stand. People will still like you when you’re not pretending to be able to do ridiculous things.

5) Boredom is underrated: Seriously, have you ever been so bored you wanted to find yourself lost and alone in a foreign land with a vital mission to accomplish and death around every corner? Milo only got himself into that hot mess because he was bored. And if you feel similarly, you should probably consider going into the CIA or being a drug dealer. Just pop in “Step Brothers.” See? Boredom gone.

See what I mean? There are plenty of lessons that adults have yet to learn from children’s literature. We should all just stop reading adult literature and go back to the books that nourished our souls as kids — what have grown up books ever taught us anyway? Dan Brown: people get too worked up over books they can buy in an airport. The Help: It’s easy to be casually racist if you slap on a happy ending. Dostoyevsky: Everyone’s name sounds the same.

Children’s literature is much more inspiring.

*Apparently there is an animated film. I refuse to acknowledge the veracity of that claim.
**There are days when I’d be willing to reconsider that right. This day, for example.

Poster, Essay, Poetry and Video Contest

The BC/Yukon Command of the Legion is hosting a Youth Ambassadors of Remembrance Contest for students from Grades 1 to 12.  Participation in the contest is a great way to learn about history and the meaning of Remembrance Day in a fun and meaningful way.

Grades 1-3 can make posters while the older children can also write poetry or essays.  Attached please find the information from the Legion.Youth Ambassadors

Illustrated History Challenge 2010

Kayak Kids is running a History Challenge now through October 8, 2010.  The grand prize is a trip to Ottawa and a $1000 RESP!

Students can either write a story or a comic about an exciting moment in Canadian history.  Stories should be 500 to 1200 words long and contain at least 3 original illustrations.  Comics should be at least 5 pages and have around 500 words.  They have provided a graphic comic and an illustrated story template to help get students started.

Check out the top winners and finalists from last year.  The top 25 stories and comics will be published in a special book.

The deadline for entries is October 8, 2010.  Projects can be emailed to, submitted online through or mailed to: Canada’s History,  Bryce Hall Main Floor, 515 Portage Avenue., Winnipeg, MB, R3B  2E9

Dont forget to save a copy for your portfolio if you decide to enter!

A Poem A Day – April 10th


The railroad track is miles away,
And the day is loud with voices speaking,
Yet there isn’t a train goes by all day
But I hear its whistle shrieking.

All night there isn’t a train goes by,
Though the night is still for sleep and dreaming,
But I see its cinders red on the sky,
And hear its engine steaming.

My heart is warm with the friends I make,
And better friends I’ll not be knowing;
Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,
No matter where it’s going.

by Edna St. Vincent Millay