An estimated 37% of our nation’s 4th graders can’t read at a basic level, according to the National Center for Education statistics. Even worse, most poor readers will never catch up. They find the path to reading strewn with roadblocks and detours, and it ends up costing them job opportunities, lower school grades, self-esteem, and even health problems.
Research has come a long way in showing that reading problems do not mean a person is slow or not as smart as the rest of the population. As a matter of fact, many poor readers have very high IQ’s, but never received the proper diagnosis or teaching in order to help them learn the way they need to.
In the year 2000, a panel of experts convened by Congress conducted extensive review of the research detailing the most successful teaching approaches. They were searching for an improved understanding of how we learn to read; what goes wrong when some people have trouble; and a clear path as to how to improve the educational system so we can help all the types of readers. The panel found that in order to teach reading effectively a combination of methods, including phonemic awareness (sounding out the words) and phonics (sounding out the letters of the alphabet and then combining them to form a word). In addition, teaching methods that include vocabulary and reading comprehension were found to be important.
New research also found evidence that include training in phonemics, phonics, vocabulary and comprehension also improved reading by altering brain function. According to an accumulation of research, scientists believe certain patterns of activity in a network of brain areas, including the inferior frontal gyrus, parieto-temporal lobe and occipital lobes are included in the processing of reading.
Imaging techniques were used to examine activity in those areas of the brain of problem readers. Those who participated in instructional programs improved their reading and their brain activity began to change and resemble that of a normal reader. Their findings also preliminary suggest that related instruction methods can improve reading skills and help those at risk of developing reading problems as they get older.
Based on accumulating research, skilled readers exhibit a pattern of brain activity mostly on the left side of the brain — the inferior frontal gyrus, parieto-temporal areas, which help a reader to analyze a word, and the occipito-temporal brain area that helps a reader to recognize known words.
There are also reports that our genes may be wired to make it more difficult for us to read. People who have a parent who is dyslexic, or who has some difficulty reading may in fact have the same problem. Others can actually blame their environment. Having people around you who do not foster a desire to read, or nurture good reading skills, makes if more difficult for some to learn to read.
Understanding the role the brain plays in processing reading skills could improve the effectiveness of teaching methods that work for everyone.
Fostering the ability to read, and finding out why some people are not able to read at a normal level, is important to building a good memory as well as a productive life.
From the Desk of Ron White
Society for Neuroscience — Reading Failure: http://www.sfn.org/index.aspx?pagename=brainBriefings_reading_failure
Reader’s Digest — The Boy Who Couldn’t Read, September 2005, pgs. 72A-72F.