Reading and White Matter in the Brain
I recently read an intriguing article in the New Yorker, “How Children Learn to Read” by Maria Konnikova, that summarizes the finding of studies conducted by Famiko Hoeft, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco.
Hoeft and her colleagues have been conducting longitudinal studies looking at the basic neuroscience of reading development. They have found that the one thing that consistently predicted how well a child would learn to read 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.
Why did I choose Hoeft’s research for this blog post? Most teachers are too busy teaching students and don’t have time to stay up to date on the neuroscience of reading, and I have to admit that sometimes research articles can be dense and difficult to translate into effective teaching practices. However, Hoeft’s research conclusions have important implications for instruction, and the New Yorker article explains these implications in a way that educators will find easy to understand.
Konnikova makes this point regarding Hoeft’s findings about growth in white matter: Reading instruction during kindergarten through grade three is crucial, especially learning how to link sounds and letters and how they correspond. If children do not get sufficient practice with skills that develop phonological processing, speech, and reading during these years and the increase in white matter doesn’t occur as a result, they will have a hard time with reading. As Konnikova explains, “What Hoeft’s studies demonstrate is that no matter a kid’s starting point in kindergarten, reading development also depends to a great extent on the next three years – and those three years can be used to teach something that Hoeft now knows to be tied to overcoming reading difficulty.”
If you are interested in learning more about reading and the brain, visit the blog post I wrote last year, Reading and the Brain.