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Stanford study shows how the brain responds to different types of reading instruction

Girl ReaderFor years, early childhood teachers have seen that students taught to read using a phonics approach — sounding out the letters in each word — tended to become better readers than those taught to recognize whole words by sight. Now a new study, published in the scientific journal Brain and Language, has given researchers insight into why, providing some of the earliest neurological data about early readers’ learning processes.

During the study, which was co-authored by Bruce McCandliss, PhD, a Stanford education professor who is part of the Stanford Neurosciences Institute, researchers developed a new written language and compared how 16 adult study participants learned when they were taught using a phonics versus a whole-word approach. The researchers then used a brain mapping technique that employs an electroencephalograph, or EEG, to track participants' responses to newly learned words. As described in a Stanford Report story:

[T]hese very rapid brain responses to the newly learned words were influenced by how they were learned.

Words learned through the letter-sound instruction elicited neural activity biased toward the left side of the brain, which encompasses visual and language regions. In contrast, words learned via whole-word association showed activity biased toward right hemisphere processing.

McCandliss noted that this strong left hemisphere engagement during early word recognition is a hallmark of skilled readers, and is characteristically lacking in children and adults who are struggling with reading.

The study also showed that as long as study participants used the letter-sound pattern, they were able to read words they had never seen before. As noted in the piece, the researchers believe this work "could eventually lead to better-designed interventions to help struggling readers."

Previously: Building a bridge between education and neuroscience, Using texting to boost preschool reading skills, Examining the inter-workings of the brain when reading silently, Researchers identify the neural structures associated with poor reading skills and Stanford study furthers understanding of reading disorders
Photo by Philippe Put

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