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.

Read, Kids, Read

Here is another great article that crossed my desk today, from the New York Times.  Enjoy!

Read, Kids, Read

As an uncle I’m inconsistent about too many things.

Birthdays, for example. My nephew Mark had one on Sunday, and I didn’t remember — and send a text — until 10 p.m., by which point he was asleep.

School productions, too. I saw my niece Bella in “Seussical: The Musical” but missed “The Wiz.” She played Toto, a feat of trans-species transmogrification that not even Meryl, with all of her accents, has pulled off.

But about books, I’m steady. Relentless. I’m incessantly asking my nephews and nieces what they’re reading and why they’re not reading more. I’m reliably hurling novels at them, and also at friends’ kids. I may well be responsible for 10 percent of all sales of The Fault in Our Stars, [by John Green] a teenage love story to be released as a movie next month. Never have I spent money with fewer regrets, because I believe in reading — not just in its power to transport but in its power to transform.

So I was crestfallen on Monday, when a new report by Common Sense Media came out. It showed that 30 years ago, only 8 percent of 13-year-olds and 9 percent of 17-year-olds said that they “hardly ever” or never read for pleasure. Today, 22 percent of 13-year-olds and 27 percent of 17-year-olds say that. Fewer than 20 percent of 17-year-olds now read for pleasure “almost every day.” Back in 1984, 31 percent did. What a marked and depressing change.

I know, I know: This sounds like a fogy’s crotchety lament. Or, worse, like self-interest. Professional writers arguing for vigorous reading are dinosaurs begging for a last breath. We’re panhandlers with a better vocabulary.

But I’m coming at this differently, as someone persuaded that reading does things — to the brain, heart and spirit — that movies, television, video games and the rest of it cannot.

There’s research on this, and it’s cited in a recent article in The Guardian by Dan Hurley, who wrote that after “three years interviewing psychologists and neuroscientists around the world,” he’d concluded that “reading and intelligence have a relationship so close as to be symbiotic.”

In terms of smarts and success, is reading causative or merely correlated? Which comes first, “The Hardy Boys” or the hardy mind? That’s difficult to unravel, but several studies have suggested that people who read fiction, reveling in its analysis of character and motivation, are more adept at reading people, too: at sizing up the social whirl around them. They’re more empathetic.  God knows we need that.

Late last year, neuroscientists at Emory University reported enhanced neural activity in people who’d been given a regular course of daily reading, which seemed to jog the brain: to raise its game, if you will.

Maybe that’s about the quiet of reading, the pace of it. At Success Academy Charter Schools in New York City, whose students significantly outperform most peers statewide, the youngest kids all learn and play chess, in part because it hones “the ability to focus and concentrate,” said Sean O’Hanlon, who supervises the program. Doesn’t reading do the same?

Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, framed it as a potentially crucial corrective to the rapid metabolism and sensory overload of digital technology. He told me that it can demonstrate to kids that there’s payoff in “doing something taxing, in delayed gratification.” A new book of his, “Raising Kids Who Read,” will be published later this year.

Before talking with him, I arranged a conference call with David Levithan and Amanda Maciel. Both have written fiction in the young adult genre, whose current robustness is cause to rejoice, and they rightly noted that the intensity of the connection that a person feels to a favorite novel, with which he or she spends eight or 10 or 20 hours, is unlike any response to a movie.

That observation brought to mind a moment in “The Fault in Our Stars” when one of the protagonists says that sometimes, “You read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book.”

Books are personal, passionate. They stir emotions and spark thoughts in a manner all their own, and I’m convinced that the shattered world has less hope for repair if reading becomes an ever smaller part of it.

Copied from the New York Times of May 13, 2014, on page A21 of the New York edition with the headline: Read, Kids, Read .

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