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In Art of Language, the Brain Matters

Discovery: New techniques let researchers observe neural activity as children read. Understanding how the mind works could reshape classroom instruction.

October 18, 1998|ROBERT LEE HOTZ | TIMES SCIENCE WRITER

For generations, teachers have struggled to correct the reading disorders that handicap one in every five Americans with little more than theory and the informed intuition of trial and error to guide them.

Now, by probing the neural processing of written words, researchers for the first time are discovering the true character of reading problems.

Surprisingly, they are finding that to every human brain--tailored by evolution to communicate through speech--reading is an unnatural act.

As the eye chases a sentence across the page, the brain must perpetually orchestrate neural systems crafted by nature for entirely different tasks, new research shows. So quickly must the brain work that the difference between a good reader and a poor reader may be measured in thousandths of a second.

Complicating the process are mental differences in how men and women read; in the brains of those who read poorly and those who read well; even between the same person reading aloud and reading silently. And, unexpectedly, the neurological roots of reading problems may develop well before toddlers are ever introduced to the alphabet.

Already, scientists are learning to correct reading disorders by directly attacking the neural processing problems that cause them, actually changing the physical structure of the brain. Indeed, several leading brain researchers are marketing computerized training programs that remold a child's crucial neural circuits, taking advantage of the brain's remarkable ability to rewire itself.

These new discoveries offer a glimpse into the future of reading reform, in which classroom instruction would be based on an intimate scientific understanding of how the brain works.

"In the past, educational methods . . . have never been based on neuroscience or any research based on an understanding of how the brain actually learns," said UCLA neuro-psychologist Susan Y. Bookheimer, who studies language disorders and the brain. "This is something fundamentally different."

At a time when debates over the best way to teach reading are waged with ideological fervor in elementary school classrooms, the systematic study of the brain offers the best hope of solving the problems caused by learning written language, experts say.

Reading problems affect as many as 8 million children between the ages of 4 and 13, with an additional 800,000 poor readers diagnosed every year, experts at the National Institutes of Health said.

If not corrected by age 9, a reading problem will become a lifetime struggle, according to Yale University studies. New research by Harvard University scientists shows that people diagnosed as poor readers in elementary school still have not caught up on their reading skills even 30 years later.

"In the long run, the only way to make really serious progress is to develop a thorough scientific understanding of what is going on in the brain," said Stanford University neuroscientist David Heeger, who studies how the brain visualizes letters and words.

Such progress does not come easily--or cheaply. The National Institute of Childhood Health and Human Development has been steadily spending about $21 million a year on research projects that so far have studied 38,000 readers. Teaching experiments are underway at 266 schools.

But even so, the gap between the laboratory and the classroom remains all but unbridgeable, experts said, due to long-standing disagreements over the ultimate causes of reading failures. In addition, some research is so new that educators simply have not had time to digest its ramifications.

Those who study language and the brain say that poor readers are being diagnosed incorrectly or too late, taught improperly or not intensively enough. Their problems often are misunderstood, even by those trying hardest to help them.

"What we know already from research is not being applied in instruction," said language expert Jack M. Fletcher at the University of Texas-Houston.

Technique Yields Surprising Insights

For the first time, researchers are able to study the living brains of children and adults directly.

This revolution in reading research is being driven in large measure by a new generation of noninvasive imaging techniques that allow monitoring of rapid, subtle shifts in mental activity as people read.

"Scientists are euphoric that we have a technology that allows us to look at brains of people while they are reading," said neurologist Bennett A. Shaywitz, co-director of the Yale University Center for the Study of Learning and Attention. Like UCLA, Yale is using brain scanners to study children who have trouble reading.

"The imaging technology takes a hidden disability and makes it visible," Shaywitz said.

The result is a cascade of surprising new neurobiological insights. Scientists are finding that reading:

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