The New Yorker online has an interesting article on How Children Learn to Read. The information in it comes from a study cognitive neuroscientist Fumiko Hoeft published last fall. In 2008-2009 she recruited a group of five and six-year-old children from a variety of backgrounds, ran a bunch of tests and then had them all back three years later and ran more tests. Her goal was to study the neuroscience of reading development and she discovered some interesting things. For one, over-all intelligence and IQ did not matter when it came to learning to read. Instead, it has everything to do with a specific organizational pattern in your brain:

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.

White matter is like a series of roads that allow communication between various parts of the brain. The more roads you develop, the better the communication, the better your reading ability. White matter apparently has a particular window for development, and if it doesn’t happen, or it happens incompletely, children will have a hard time turning letters into words that mean something.

Of course there are all kinds of things that can go wrong but Hoeft also discovered some fascinating things the brain can do to compensate. Development of the white matter is a combination of genetics and environment which is a help to fretful parents who might worry they have failed their child in some way.

Read the article for all the details. It isn’t super long. One thing I am disappointed she didn’t talk about is early readers. If the white matter develops between ages 5 to 9 and this is what spurs reading development, what about those of us who could read before the age of five? Are we freakish outliers? Or is there something else going on, and if so, what? I know studies like these are expensive so of course you are going to study the group that is the most typical age for reading development, but gosh darn it, I want to know about what my brain was up to when I was four. What was going on that allowed me to read early instead of beginning the process in kindergarten with my peers?

Isn’t neuroscience interesting, especially when applied to one of our favorite subjects? That our brains are so much alike yet at the same time so different is fascinating. At least I think so!

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