Beginning readers who focus on letter-sound relationships, or phonics, increase activity in the area of their brains best wired for reading

Posted on June 2, 2015

Researchers have found that to develop reading skills, teaching students to sound out "C-A-T" sparks more optimal brain circuitry than instructing them to memorize the word "cat." And, the study found, these teaching-induced differences show up even on future encounters with the word.

The study, co-authored by Stanford Professor Bruce McCandliss of the Graduate School of Education and the Stanford Neuroscience Institute, provides some of the first evidence that a specific teaching strategy for reading has direct neural impact. The research could eventually lead to better-designed interventions to help struggling readers.

"This research is exciting because it takes cognitive neuroscience and connects it to questions that have deep meaning and history in educational research," said McCandliss, who wrote the study with Yuliya Yoncheva, a researcher at New York University, and Jessica Wise, a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin.

In the study, released this month in the journal Brain and Language, the researchers devised a new written language and contrasted whether words were taught using a letter-to-sound instruction method or a whole-word association method. After learning multiple words under both approaches, the newly learned words were presented in a reading test while brainwaves were monitored.

McCandliss's team used a brain mapping technique that allowed them to capture brain responses to the newly learned words that are literally faster than the blink of an eye.

Remarkably, the researchers said, these very rapid brain responses to the newly learned words were influenced by how they were learned.

Words learned through the letter-sound instruction elicited neural activity biased toward the left side of the brain, which encompasses visual and language regions. In contrast, words learned via whole-word association showed activity biased toward right hemisphere processing.

In addition, the study's participants were subsequently able to read new words they had never seen before, as long as they followed the same letter-sound patterns they were taught to focus on. Within a split second, the process of deciphering a new word triggered the left hemisphere processes. By comparison, when the same participants memorized whole-word associations, the study found that they learned sufficiently to recognize those particular words on the reading test, but the underlying brain circuitry differed, eliciting electrophysiological responses that were biased toward right hemisphere processes.

The researchers from Stanford University assert that the results underscore the idea that the way a learner focuses their attention during learning has a profound impact on what is learned. It also highlights the importance of skilled teachers in helping children focus their attention on precisely the most useful information.

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Category(s):Child Development

Source material from Science Daily


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