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Reading Failure: Research on Reading and the Brain

By: Tracey Somers

Making a difference today

Millions of children and adults in the United States have trouble reading, and these difficulties can lead to short- and long-term problems in other areas. Children who fail to acquire adequate reading skills are at risk for increased difficulties such as poor grades, a dislike of school, frustration, low self-esteem, and behavioral problems. Adults with poor reading skills encounter similar difficulties, and those adults who fall in the lowest levels of literacy are less likely to be employed than their more literate peers.

Approximately 36 percent of the nation's fourth graders cannot read at a basic level, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Most poor readers never catch up over the years, with between 21 to 23 percent of US adults falling at the lowest level of literacy.

The US Department of Labor estimates that illiteracy costs American businesses about $225 billion a year in lost productivity.

Research leads to improved understanding

Fortunately, research funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is helping to improve the reading skills of many people by increasing understanding of typical reading development and what happens when children and adults encounter difficulties in reading.

By scanning children's brains with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while they were actively reading, researchers found that as children improved their reading skills, they made increasingly more demands on the regions on the left side of the brain that are involved in language processing, and at the same time suppressed activity in regions on the right side of the brain.

Scientists largely funded by the NIH also have identified specific areas of the brain linked to reading skills: The parieto-temporal and the inferior frontal areas are active when sounding out words, as is often needed in the early stages of learning to read, whereas the occipito-temporal area quickly recognizes familiar words and is often used by skilled readers.

Using fMRI in another study, scientists compared the brains of children early in their process of learning how to read, while they were performing reading tasks involving phonemic awareness—the understanding that words are made up of sounds—and letter sound knowledge. These studies indicated that those children who had not mastered pre-reading skills and were at risk for reading problems showed decreased activation in regions of the left, parieto-temporal region and increased activation in the corresponding region on the right side of the brain, as compared to those who had already mastered pre-reading skills. Similar results are found in older children with known reading impairments, where decreased activity occurs in the region of the brain that quickly recognizes words.

Advances in Reading Interventions

Research indicates that when children have difficulty acquiring phonemic awareness and phonics skills—using letters of the alphabet to represent the sounds in words and blending these sounds to form words—reading failure can result, and poor reading skills will be perpetuated without proper interventions. According to a 2000 congressionally mandated review of many NIH-supported behavioral and brain imaging studies, reading strategies that teach phonemic and phonics skills, especially early in elementary school, significantly improve a child's reading skills more than instruction that does not teach these skills. Research indicated that after children with reading failure completed intensive phonemic and phonics instruction, their reading skills improved. In addition, fMRI studies showed increased activity in the reading brain regions, at a level similar to the brain activity of typical readers. Some studies showed maintained improvement of reading skills and brain activity at one to two years.

Although these new interventions prove successful for some, they do not help everyone, especially many who receive the reading instruction later in life. More research is still needed to fully understand reading development and reading problems so that better targeted interventions can be developed.

Continued funding for research could lead to:

  • A greater understanding of the brain regions and functions involved in typical reading development and in reading failure.
  • Better tests for earlier identification of children with potential reading problems.
  • More specifically targeted interventions that will better help children and adults overcome reading failure.
  • Increased information about the different factors—including genetic and environmental—that contribute to reading difficulties.

Making a difference tomorrow

Instructional programs for reading failure—based on brain imaging and behavioral studies of typical reading—now are available for people who have difficulty reading, but they do not help everyone. And some children are not being diagnosed with reading problems early enough to receive the increased benefits of early intervention.

As a result, reading failure continues to be a major problem in America. Many children with low reading skills also receive poor grades, have low self-esteem, grow up to be shy in front of groups, and fail to develop to their full potential. And adults who fall in the lowest levels of literacy are less likely to be employed and receive lower wages if they are employed, compared with their more literate peers.

Did you know that:

  • According to the US Department of Labor, illiteracy costs American businesses about $225 billion a year in lost productivity.
  • Approximately 36 percent of America's fourth graders cannot read at a basic level, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, and most poor readers never catch up over the years.
  • Between 21 to 23 percent of US adults fall at the lowest level of literacy.

With continued funding for research from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), scientists can learn more about how typical reading develops and what goes wrong in reading failure. These findings can lead to better tests to identify children with potential reading problems earlier. Furthermore, continued research can translate into increasingly fine-tuned instruction to help more people overcome their reading difficulties, thus increasing literacy rates.

Research Brings Hope for the Future

Scientists also are looking at the different reasons children have problems learning to read. For example, an inherited or environmental factor may make it harder for some children to read.

According to NIH-supported research, reading problems can have a genetic component. Studies have shown that if a person has developmental dyslexia, a type of reading disorder, his or her child has a 30 to 40 percent chance of having this disorder. Newer twin studies also indicate a genetic link to phonemic and phonological processing.

Recently, researchers funded by the NIH have identified a gene on human chromosome 6 called DCDC2 that is linked to the susceptibility of developing a reading disability. This gene is most strongly activated in regions of the brain that are involved in the reading process, such as the temporal lobe. Researchers hypothesize that a deletion in the DCDC2 gene disrupts the movement of neurons early in development, resulting in faulty brain circuits that are involved in reading.

However, having a faulty reading gene or having one or both parents with a reading disorder does not account for all variability in reading skills. The child's environment, such as the type of reading instruction and experience they are exposed to early in development, also may play a role in how a child's brain develops and how well a child learns to read.

Understanding the genetic and environmental causes of reading failure will help lead to better and earlier diagnoses of reading problems. Furthermore, with increased understanding of the brain regions and patterns of activity involved in typical reading and in reading failure, scientists and clinicians can develop better interventions that improve reading skills.

Further NIH funding will aid in making more of these tailored interventions a reality.

Already research has led to:

  • Identification of effective ways to teach reading—by focusing on the sounds that make up words to increase phonemic awareness and phonics skills.
  • The discovery that skilled reading requires patterns of activity in a network of areas located primarily on the left side of the brain, including the inferior frontal gyrus, parietotemporal region, and occipito-temporal region.
  • Improvement of the reading skills of children and adolescents.
    • Reprinted from Brain research success Stories, Society for Neuroscience, 2006