Using Interdisciplinary Strategies to Solve Reading Problems

I was helping a dyslexic child work on their homework when I stopped to google what brain imaging might know about this. To my delight, I found Bruce McCandliss, a Stanford University professor and his talk to the American Educational Research Association (AERA; Dec. 8, 2016). In his talk he points to the basics of reading. Reading is made up of seeing, hearing, and symbols of text. Why do some children put this together so quickly and others do not? How can we teach all to read well?

Brain Images

In order to read, the brain associates symbols on a page with sounds, that make up words, and turn into sentences that the brain makes meaning with. It turns out that the brain constructs new circuits that allow us to master the visual information of reading. When we do this, the left side of the brain hemishpere is active, and when we struggle with this, the right side is active or even just difuse. Dyslexia is identified as this right brain hemisphere and the reader’s problems of phonological awareness.

The Struggle to Read

In the most recent Program for International Student Assessment (PISA, NYTimes, Dec.3, 2019) and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) confirm that about two thirds of children are not proficient readers. As the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading reports, “a full two thirds of U.S. students fail to become proficient readers in the early grades, and schools cannot fix the problem without community support.”

Children with co-occurring ADHD and dyslexia seem to share common neuropsychological deficits (slower naming speed for letters, impaired phonological processing, and poor word identification or reading), behavioral deficits (impulsivity and inattention), and inhibition deficits (Wolf and Bowers, 1999American Psychiatric Association, 2000Donfrancesco et al., 2005Tiffin-Richards et al., 2008Laasonen et al., 2012).

Can Teaching Help?

Can the way a teacher directs student attention impact the brain circuitry of reading? Of course I began to take notes and get excited because he also identified some strategies for working on improving the deficits that struggling readers suffer from, but this research is young. Two ideas I want to leave you with are directing student attention and scaffolding. Scaffolding is not young, see for example Jerome Bruner, but McCandliss suggests that scaffolding leads to left hemisphere integration…the very thing that good readers do naturally! And directing student attention by teachers requires us to think about these four strategies:

  1. Symbolic circuits are constructed by student learning
  2. Children’s circuits differ in ways that matter
  3. Educational scaffolding can change how circuits are constructed
  4. Interdisciplinary research is needed between education and cognitive science

If I am to be successful with my dyslexic student, and if we teachers are to disrupt inequality in education, and propel out students to a more equal world of adult success, we must look to directing their attention to the naming of letter and number symbols, the wiring of new circuits in their brains, and the ultimate success of integration.

Our New School

Tomorrow, January 4th, we open our new school, the Foundations School, a K-3 school for disadvantaged students in Northwood Village. I will need all of my skills to help our teachers and students attend to their novel ideas, their growth in reading, and their success.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

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