True! Researchers Drs. Dennis and Victoria Molfese have found that they can predict with 80% accuracy from birth if a child will be a successful reader or not. How is this possible? Apparently one skill children must have in order to read is already in place by the time a baby is born – the ability to discriminate between the sounds ‘b’ and ‘p’. Dr. Molfese uses a net of sensors to pick up on brain activity generated by neurons in the baby’s brain. If the brain waves generated for the ‘b’ and ‘p’ sounds are different, then they know that the baby can differentiate between those sounds. This means that with the right opportunities, that child is highly likely to become a proficient reader.
The importance of this work is the ability to screen children at an earlier age, start reading-intervention strategies before children develop negative feelings about reading, and provide supports to help children become successful readers. Unfortunately, this infant screening test is not available to the public yet, but they are working on it. The Molfeses are also developing strategies that parents can use to develop children’s ability to discriminate sounds. For children who have difficulty discriminating between similar sounds, they recommend giving them extra practice with rhymes, word games and word play. For all prereaders, the more exposure to and practice with spoken language and print material, the more likely that they are to be successful at learning to read.
Screening infants to determine their potential to be successful readers isn’t public yet, but there are other ways to determine this. In How the Brain Learns to Read, David A. Sousa highlights studies that show we can predict if a child will be a successful reader by the size of his or her vocabulary. How well children learn to speak and how many words they acquire can have a great impact on how quickly and how successfully they will learn to read. Studies show that in the stages of early reading, intelligence is not as strong a predictor of success with reading comprehension as phonological awareness, phonological memory and visual-spatial skills.
Sousa lists successful instructional approaches and strategies that help students with later literacy skills such as:
- Code-focused strategies (i.e. teaching skills related to cracking the alphabetic code)
- Shared reading (i.e. reading books to children)
- Parent and home programs (i.e. involvement by parents, especially when the focus is on vocabulary development)
- Preschool/kindergarten programs (studies showed that the greatest impact was on readiness)
- Language enhancement (i.e. instructional strategies designed to improve children’s language development such as frequency of word use)
Here’s another question - Reading is a natural ability: True or False?
False. Reading is not a natural ability. We are genetically hardwired to learn how to speak because we’ve been doing it for thousands of years and genetic changes have favored the brain’s ability to acquire and process spoken language. Reading, however, is a relatively new skill in the development of humans, so our genes have not incorporated reading into their coded structure. Brain-imaging technology shows us that we don’t have specialized areas in the brain for reading, which is why reading is one of the most difficult cognitive tasks for a child to undertake. If reading were a natural ability, everyone would be doing it – like speaking. But we know from statistics that about 45% of adults in Canada have low literacy levels.
Because reading is not a natural ability and the brain does not have areas specialized for reading, direct instruction is needed to link the sounds of the language to the letters of the alphabet. Current researchers do not specify at what age the brain can begin to learn to read. They say that more important than age is the degree and pace of brain development, which can vary widely among children of the same age. Some children make the transition from spoken language to reading easily once they are exposed to formal instruction, but for others it’s a much more challenging task and for some people it’s the most difficult cognitive task they will ever undertake.
Sousa says that “because of recent research, it is now possible to identify with a high degree of accuracy those children who are at greatest risk of reading problems even before the problems develop, to diagnose the problems eventually, and to manage the problems with effective and proven treatment programs.” We just need to ensure that reading instruction is in touch with what research is uncovering about how children learn to read.
Sousa’s advice to students with reading problems is reassuring:
“Your brain is constantly changing and rebuilding itself as a result of your experiences. With appropriate practice, it is possible to overcome some or all of your reading difficulties.”
For more information about reading and the brain, read David A. Sousa’s How the Brain Learns to Read.
For more information about Drs. Dennis and Victoria Molfese’s studies, watch the video Reading and the Brain on www.readingrockets.com.
By Monica De
Community Literacy Coordinator
Columbia Basin Alliance for Literacy - Golden