Intensive teaching changes brain

Gains in reading last after instruction period, study finds

May 27, 2000|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Dyslexic boys as old as 13 who received just three weeks of intensive reading instruction made significant and lasting gains in their reading skills, according to a new study.

The carefully designed teaching strategies also appeared to trigger lasting chemical changes in key areas of the boys' brains, showing that reading really had become easier for them, University of Washington scientists said.

"This research offers a measure of hope," said neuropsychologist Virginia Berninger, who led the work. "We can see improvement in children's reading levels with this intervention even if there are preexisting brain differences that make learning difficult."

Parents of several boys in the study - children who never used to read independently before the instruction - told Beringer and her team that their sons "are now picking up books on their own and reading them."

The study, published in the May edition of the American Journal of Neuroradiology, is another in a growing body of research indicating that struggling readers - even those diagnosed as dyslexic - can make important gains if they receive the right kind of direct and intensive phonics-based instruction.

The University of Washington study suggests further that children as far along as middle school can be helped.

"These kids were 10 and up," said G. Reid Lyon, a neuropsychologist who directs reading research funded by the National Institutes of Health. "What that shows is that the brain is malleable and continuing to be plastic and responsive to the environment to a greater degree than people have thought in the past. This is pretty promising information," he said.

Although the Washington study was very small - involving eight dyslexic and seven "normal" boys - Lyon said the results have been replicated and confirmed in several studies involving hundreds of children. Those studies have not been published.

In their study, Berninger, Todd L. Richards, David Corina and their team identified eight dyslexic boys between ages 10 and 13. All were reading well below their age group, and all had family histories of multigenerational dyslexia.

Next, the researchers found seven above-average readers who were carefully matched to the dyslexics in IQ, age and head size. (Head size was important because later comparisons of chemical activity in the brain required that the brains be of equal volume.)

All 15 boys underwent brain imaging sessions that measured and mapped the production of lactate in key areas of their brains - those involved in processing language sounds - while they performed tasks involving comparisons of word sounds and meanings.

The imaging technology, dubbed PEPSI (for "proton echo-planar spectroscopic imaging"), provides scientists with a noninvasive means to detect and locate certain chemicals in the brain.

In this case, they were looking for lactic acid, a byproduct of the metabolism of glucose and an indicator, in this case, of exertion by the brain cells engaged in processing word sounds.

Previous research by Paula Tallal at Rutgers University and others has demonstrated that before the brain can decode written letters and words, it has to run the information through those segments of the brain dedicated to processing the sounds of spoken language.

Children and adults whose sound-processing machinery does not work properly, or fast enough, will have difficulty perceiving the individual sounds or "phonemes" symbolized in written language.

The first PEPSI scans of the boys in the Washington study showed four times as much lactic acid production in the sound-processing portions of the dyslexics' brains when compared with the good readers. That suggested the dyslexics had to work much harder than the good readers to perform the same language tasks.

Over the next three weeks, the dyslexic boys were enrolled in 15 two-hour group instruction sessions in which they were named "Einstein's Ninja Turtles."

The workshops were enriched with science materials from Seattle's Pacific Science Center, and the boys were encouraged by reading competition, sound games and talks by scientists.

But the core of the program was intensive and direct instruction in decoding and processing the sounds contained in oral and written language.

A year after the instruction sessions, the boys' brains were imaged again while they performed the same language tasks they were given before workshops.

The dyslexic boys still produced somewhat more lactic acid than the normal readers, but the differences were not statistically significant, the study concluded.

That suggests they were having an easier time analyzing word sounds, decoding words and sounding out unfamiliar words. Their reading scores bore that out.

Right after the instruction, six of the seven were reading at or above their grade level. Eight months later, they remained close to average for their grade.

"The relative gains they made compared to children of the same age were more than what would be expected for the time that passed between tests," Berninger said.

Unfortunately, Lyon said, most teachers are not yet trained to do the kind of direct, intensive reading instruction that research has begun to prove is most effective for children who have difficulty learning to read.

"It requires very hard work, on the teachers' side and the kids' side," he said.

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