The brain reads sound by sound Research: Scientists can now watch what goes on in children's brains as they read. When the lights go on, it confirms an old theory: We learn to read by linking letters with sounds.

November 03, 1997|By Kathy Lally and Debbie M. Price | Kathy Lally and Debbie M. Price,STAFF WRITERS Sun staff writers Marego Athans, Mike Bowler and Howard Libit and research librarian Andrea Wilson contributed to this article.

NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- A gigantic white magnet fills the room and a small blond boy lies very still inside it. A great ping-pinging noise, like the sonar echo of a submarine, begins as the magnet goes to work, taking pictures of the boy's brain.

Words flash on a screen before the child. He is asked to decide whether the words rhyme and push a button. Computers whir madly, processing the brain pictures and the boy's responses.

Together, the magnet, the computers and a team of scientists and doctors are working to solve one of the great mysteries of humankind.

They are watching the brain read.

With the cutting-edge technology of the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) device - commonly called "the magnet" - scientists at Yale University's Center for Learning and Attention have found a window on the brain. Through this high-tech porthole, they can see what their predecessors had deduced by studying children in classrooms: The brain reads by breaking words into sounds.

The scientists, led by Yale physicians Sally and Bennett Shaywitz, have identified the parts of the brain used in reading. ,, By observing the flow of oxygen-rich blood to working brain cells, they have found that people who know how to sound out words can rapidly process what they see.

These readers, asked to imagine "cat" without the "kah" sound, readily summon "at." And the MRI photographs show their brains lighting up like pinball machines.

When the brain gets it, the light bulbs really do go on.

Conversely, the brains of people who can't sound out words often look different on MRI pictures. There is less blood flow to the language centers of the brain and, in some cases, not much activity evident at all. Scientists are not sure why this is or what it means.

But simply put, without the ability to sound out words, the brain is stumped.

The Yale research offers more high-powered ammunition for the argument that beginning readers should be taught to discern the individual sounds within words.

It builds upon millions of dollars of research, conducted over the past 20 years under the aegis of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, that has documented similar conclusions: Children need to understand the sounds of the English language and sound-letter relationships - known as "phonics" - before they can learn to read. For some, this comes naturally; others must be taught.

What's more, NIH-sponsored studies are finding that at least 95 percent of even the poorest readers can learn to read at grade level if they are given early and proper instruction in sound-letter relationships.

By contrast, as many as 40 percent of school-age children remain poor readers, with half of them having serious trouble. In Maryland, two-thirds of the third-graders aren't meeting the state's standard in reading.

A key reason for this huge gap is that for years scientific research has been ignored by educators.

"The gap that exists between the level of knowledge and what we have implemented of that knowledge all across the board I is absolutely awful and sad," says Sally Shaywitz, a pediatrician-scientist involved in reading research for almost two decades. "It would be a tremendous tragedy if, knowing what we know about how children learn, [that knowledge] were not put to work."

But in the academic arena, science has been no match for fad and fashion, infused with politics and religion. Since the 1970s, school districts across the country have abandoned phonics for enticing "whole-language" programs that promise to teach children to read by immersing them in literature.

The battles over the two reading methods have been ugly, and the casualties have been children.

Millions of children today read poorly or not at all because, as mounting scientific and academic evidence proves, they could have been taught better. While the pendulum is swinging back toward more phonics in many school districts, a generation has been damaged.

"When children don't learn to read, there's not much accountability," says G. Reid Lyon, a neuropsychologist in charge of the NIH's reading research. "People blame the kids, the teachers, the parents, the socioeconomic background, all kinds of things except the instructional procedures being used."

Two methods

Phonics or whole language? The methods derive from educational philosophies that are as different as night and day.

Pure phonics instruction is meticulous and begins with baby steps. Children are first taught the 44 basic sounds in the English language and how those sounds are formed by combinations of the 26 letters of the alphabet. Then they learn how to sound out or decode the words. Sentences, stories and books come linked to these particular skills.

At City Springs Elementary in Baltimore, which has adopted a rigorous phonics-based reading program, first-graders progressed in the first month of class from a review of sounds they learned in kindergarten to simple stories that employ limited sets of sounds, such as one titled, "Lots of Pots."

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