Reading

When you're reading a picture book to a very young child, it's easy to think it's obvious what picture, or part of a picture, is being talked about. But you know what all the words mean. It's not so easy when some of the words are new to you, and the open pages have more than one picture. A recent study has looked at the effect on word learning of having one vs two illustrations on a 2-page open spread.

The study, in two experiments, involved the child being read to from a 10-page storybook, which included two novel objects, mentioned four times, but only incidentally. In the first experiment, 36 preschoolers (average age 3.5 years) were randomly assigned to one of three conditions:

  • one illustration (the illustration filled the page, with the text written as part of the illustration, and the opposing page blank)
  • two illustrations (each illustration filled its page, on opposing pages)
  • one large illustration (the page was twice the size of that found in the other conditions) — this was the control condition.

Children who were read stories with only one illustration at a time learned twice as many words as children who were read stories with two or more illustrations. There was no difference in reading time, or in the child’s enjoyment of the story.

In a follow-up experiment, 12 preschoolers were shown the two-illustration books only, but this time the reader used a simple hand swipe gesture to indicate the correct illustration before the page was read to them. With this help, the children learned best of all.

In fact, the rate of word learning in this last condition was comparable to that observed in other studies using techniques such as pointing or asking questions. Asking questions is decidedly better than simply reading without comment, and yet this simple gesture was enough to match that level of learning.

Other studies have shown that various distractions added to picture books, like flaps to lift, reduce learning. All this is best understood in terms of cognitive load. The most interesting thing about this study is that it took so little to ameliorate the extra load imposed by the two illustrations.

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-06/uos-poh063017.php

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-07/w-tno071217.php

Also see https://blogs.sussex.ac.uk/psychology/2016/10/24/how-storybook-illustrat... for a blog post by one of the researchers

Four studies involving a total of more than 300 younger adults (20-24) have looked at information processing on different forms of media. They found that digital platforms such as tablets and laptops for reading may make you more inclined to focus on concrete details rather than interpreting information more abstractly.

As much as possible, the material was presented on the different media in identical format.

In the first study, 76 students were randomly assigned to complete the Behavior Identification Form on either an iPad or a print-out. The Form assesses an individual's current preference for concrete or abstract thinking. Respondents have to choose one of two descriptions for a particular behavior — e.g., for “making a list”, the choice of description is between “getting organized” or “writing things down”. The form presents 25 items.

There was a marked difference between those filling out the form on the iPad vs on a physical print-out, with non-digital users showing a significantly higher preference for abstract descriptions than digital users (mean of 18.56 vs 13.75).

In the other three studies, the digital format was always a PDF on a laptop. In the first of these, 81 students read a short story by David Sedaris, then answered 24 multichoice questions on it, of which half were abstract and half concrete. Digital readers scored significantly lower on abstract questions (48% vs 66%), and higher on concrete questions (73% vs 58%).

In the next study, 60 students studied a table of information about four, fictitious Japanese car models for two minutes, before being required to select the superior model. While one model was objectively superior in regard to the attributes and attribute rating, the amount of detail means (as previous research has shown) that those employing a top-down “gist” processing do better than those using a bottom-up, detail-oriented approach. On this problem, 66% of the non-digital readers correctly chose the superior model, compared to 43% of the digital readers.

In the final study, 119 students performed the same task as in the preceding study, but all viewed the table on a laptop. Before viewing the table, however, some were assigned to one of two priming activities: a high-level task aimed at activating more abstract thinking (thinking about why they might pursue a health goal), or a low-level task aimed at activating more concrete thinking (thinking about how to pursue the same goal).

Being primed to think more abstractly did seem to help these digital users, with 48% of this group correctly answering the car judgment problem, compared to only 25% of those given the concrete priming activity, and 30% of the control group.

I note that the performance of the control group is substantially below the performance of the digital users in the previous study, although there was no apparent change in the methodology. However, this was not noted or explained in the paper, so I don't know why this was. It does lead me not to put too much weight on this idea that priming can help.

However, the findings do support the view that reading on digital devices does encourage a more concrete style of thinking, reinforcing the idea that we are inclined to process information more shallowly when we read it from a screen.

Of course, this is, as the researchers point out, not an indictment. Sometimes, this is the best way to approach certain tasks. But what it does suggest is that we need to consider what sort of processing is desirable, and modify our strategy accordingly. For example, you may find it helpful to print out material that requires a high level of abstract thinking, particularly if your degree of expertise in the subject means that it carries a high cognitive load.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-05/dc-dmm050516.php

Kaufman, G., & Flanagan, M. (2016). High-Low Split : Divergent Cognitive Construal Levels Triggered by Digital and Non-digital Platforms. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 1–5. doi:10.1145/2858036.2858550 http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?doid=2858036.2858550

The question of whether supplements of omega-3 fatty acids can help memory and cognition has been a contentious one, with some studies showing a positive effect and others failing to find an effect. My own take on this issue is that, like so many other things, it all depends on what you’re working with. It seems unsurprising if only those who have a deficient diet, or greater demands on their system (e.g., because of stress or age), or greater needs (e.g., because of a lack of cognitive reserve) might benefit from supplementation. A new study is a case in point.

The study involved 362 3rd, 4th, and 5th year students (mostly aged 7-9) from 74 schools, all of whom were reading poorly (in the lowest third). Participants were given 600 mg/day DHA (from algal oil), or a taste/color matched corn/soybean oil placebo. This was given in three capsules throughout the day, for 16 weeks.

The study found no significant improvement in reading or working memory for the DHA group as a whole, and although parents did report fewer behavioral problems, this was not confirmed by teachers.

However, there was a significant effect on reading if only those in the worst-performing 20% are considered (224 children), and an even greater effect if only those in the worst-performing 10% (105 children) are considered.

There was no significant effects for working memory, but I observe that this seems to be due to the much greater variability between individuals in the worst-performing groups (with this particularly evident in the bottom-10% group). It seems likely that whether or not DHA supplementation improves working memory capacity, depends on the factors affecting an individual’s WMC. Interestingly, a U.K. study that looked at the effects of omega-3 supplements on reading found highly significant benefits for those with Developmental Coordination Disorder.

The researchers do say that they had originally intended to look only at the poorest 20%, but decided to extend it to the lowest third when their participant numbers failed to reach the desired threshold (over half of the participant pool declined to take part).

The other point, of course, and typically for this research, is that participants only took the supplements for four months. We cannot rule out greater effects, and to a broader range of individuals, if they were taken for longer. There is also the question of compliance — compliance for those given at school was about 75% on average, and parental compliance is unknown.

In summary, I would say this is affirmation that omega-3 oils can be helpful for some individuals, but it shouldn’t be assumed that it’s a magic bullet for all.

[3069] Richardson AJ, Burton JR, Sewell RP, Spreckelsen TF, Montgomery P. Docosahexaenoic Acid for Reading, Cognition and Behavior in Children Aged 7–9 Years: A Randomized, Controlled Trial (The DOLAB Study). PLoS ONE [Internet]. 2012 ;7(9):e43909 - e43909. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0043909
Full text available at http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0043909

Richardson AJ, Montgomery P (2005) The Oxford-Durham study: a randomized, controlled trial of dietary supplementation with fatty acids in children with developmental coordination disorder. Pediatrics 115: 1360–1366.
 

It’s generally agreed among researchers that the most efficient intervention for dyslexia is to get the child reading more — the challenge is to find ways that enable that. Training programs typically target specific component skills, which are all well and good but leave the essential problem untouched: the children still need to read more. A new study shows that a very simple manipulation substantially improves reading in a large, unselected group of dyslexic children.

The study involved 74 French and Italian children — the two groups enabling researchers to compare a transparent writing system (Italian) with a relatively opaque one (French). The children had to read 24 short, meaningful, but unrelated, sentences. The text was written in Times New Roman 14 point. Standard interletter spacing was compared to spacing increased by 2.5 points. Space between words and lines was also increased commensurately. Each child read the same sentences in two sessions, two weeks apart. In one session, standard spacing was used, and in the other, increased spacing. Order of the sessions was of course randomly assigned.

The idea behind this is that dyslexic readers seem to be particularly affected by crowding. Crowding — interference from flanking letters — mostly affects peripheral vision in normal adult readers, but has been shown to be a factor in central vision in school-aged children. Standard letter spacing appears to be optimal for skilled adult readers.

The study found that increased spacing improved accuracy in reading the text by a factor of two. Moreover, this group effect conceals substantial individual differences. Those who had the most difficulties with the text benefitted the most from the extra spacing.

Reading speed also increased. In this case, despite the 2-week interval, there was an order effect: those who read the normal text first were faster on the 2nd (spaced) reading, while those who read the spaced text first read the 2nd (normal) text at the same speed. Analysis that removed the effects of repetition found that spacing produced a speed improvement of about 0.3 syllables a second, which corresponds to the average improvement across an entire school year for Italian dyslexic children.

There was no difference between the Italian and French children, indicating that this manipulation works in both transparent (in which letters and sounds match) and opaque writing systems (like English).

Subsequent comparison of 30 of the Italian children (mean age 11) with younger normally-developing children (mean age 8) matched for reading level and IQ found that spacing benefited only the dyslexic children.

A further experiment involving some of the Italian dyslexic children compared the spaced condition with normal text that had the same line spacing as the spaced text. This confirmed that it was the letter spacing that was critical.

These findings point to a very simple way of giving dyslexic children the practice they need in reading without any training. It is not suggested that it replaces specific-skill training, but rather augments it.

[3017] Zorzi M, Barbiero C, Facoetti A, Lonciari I, Carrozzi M, Montico M, Bravar L, George F, Pech-Georgel C, Ziegler JC. Extra-large letter spacing improves reading in dyslexia. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [Internet]. 2012 ;109(28):11455 - 11459. Available from: http://www.pnas.org/content/109/28/11455

Music-based training 'cartoons' improved preschoolers’ verbal IQ

A study in which 48 preschoolers (aged 4-6) participated in computer-based, cognitive training programs that were projected on a classroom wall and featured colorful, animated cartoon characters delivering the lessons, has found that 90% of those who received music-based training significantly improved their scores on a test of verbal intelligence, while those who received visual art-based training did not.

The music-based training involved a combination of motor, perceptual and cognitive tasks, and included training on rhythm, pitch, melody, voice and basic musical concepts. Visual art training emphasized the development of visuo-spatial skills relating to concepts such as shape, color, line, dimension and perspective. Each group received two one-hour training sessions each day in classroom, over four weeks.

Children’s abilities and brain function were tested before the training and five to 20 days after the end of the programs. While there were no significant changes, in the brain or in performance, in the children who participated in the visual art training, nearly all of those who took the music-based training showed large improvements on a measure of vocabulary knowledge, as well as increased accuracy and reaction time. These correlated with changes in brain function.

The findings add to the growing evidence for the benefits of music training for intellectual development, especially in language.

Musical aptitude relates to reading ability through sensitivity to sound patterns

Another new study points to one reason for the correlation between music training and language acquisition. In the study, 42 children (aged 8-13) were tested on their ability to read and recognize words, as well as their auditory working memory (remembering a sequence of numbers and then being able to quote them in reverse), and musical aptitude (both melody and rhythm). Brain activity was also measured.

It turned out that both music aptitude and literacy were related to the brain’s response to acoustic regularities in speech, as well as auditory working memory and attention. Compared to good readers, poor readers had reduced activity in the auditory brainstem to rhythmic rather than random sounds. Responsiveness to acoustic regularities correlated with both reading ability and musical aptitude. Musical ability (largely driven by performance in rhythm) was also related to reading ability, and auditory working memory to both of these.

It was calculated that music skill, through the functions it shares with reading (brainstem responsiveness to auditory regularities and auditory working memory) accounts for 38% of the difference in reading ability between children.

These findings are consistent with previous findings that auditory working memory is an important component of child literacy, and that positive correlations exist between auditory working memory and musical skill.

Basically what this is saying, is that the auditory brainstem (a subcortical region — that is, below the cerebral cortex, where our ‘higher-order’ functions are carried out) is boosting the experience of predictable speech in better readers. This fine-tuning may reflect stronger top-down control in those with better musical ability and reading skills. While there may be some genetic contribution, previous research makes it clear that musicians’ increased sensitivity to sound patterns is at least partly due to training.

In other words, giving young children music training is a good first step to literacy.

The children were rated as good readers if they scored 110 or above on the Test of Word Reading Efficiency, and poor readers if they scored 90 or below. There were 8 good readers and 21 poor readers. Those 13 who scored in the middle were excluded from group analyses. Good and poor readers didn’t differ in age, gender, maternal education, years of musical training, extent of extracurricular activity, or nonverbal IQ. Only 6 of the 42 children had had at least a year of musical training (of which one was a poor reader, three were average, and two were good).

Auditory brainstem responses were gathered to the speech sound /da/, which was either presented with 100% probability, or randomly interspersed with seven other speech sounds. The children heard these sounds through an earpiece in the right ear, while they listened to the soundtrack of a chosen video with the other ear.

[2603] Moreno S, Bialystok E, Barac R, Schellenberg EGlenn, Cepeda NJ, Chau T. Short-Term Music Training Enhances Verbal Intelligence and Executive Function. Psychological Science [Internet]. 2011 ;22(11):1425 - 1433. Available from: http://pss.sagepub.com/content/22/11/1425.abstract

Strait, Dana L, Jane Hornickel, and Nina Kraus. “Subcortical processing of speech regularities underlies reading and music aptitude in children.” Behavioral and brain functions : BBF 7, no. 1 (October 17, 2011): 44. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22005291.

Full text is available at http://www.behavioralandbrainfunctions.com/content/pdf/1744-9081-7-44.pd...

It must be easier to learn when your textbook is written clearly and simply, when your teacher speaks clearly, laying the information out with such organization and clarity that everything is obvious. But the situation is not as clear-cut as it seems. Of course, organization, clarity, simplicity, are all good attributes — but maybe information can be too clearly expressed. Maybe students learn more if the information isn’t handed to them on a platter.

A recent study looked at the effects of varying the font in which a text was written, in order to vary the difficulty with which the information could be read. In the first experiment, 28 adults (aged 18-40) read a text describing three species of aliens, each with seven characteristics, about which they would be tested. The control group saw the text in 16-point Arial, while two other versions were designed to be harder to read: 12-point Comic Sans MS at 60% grayscale and 12-point Bodoni MT at 60% grayscale. These harder-to-read texts were not noticeably more difficult; they would still be easily read. Participants were given only 90 seconds to memorize the information in the lists, and then were tested on their recall of the information after some 15 minutes doing other tasks.

Those with the harder-to-read texts performed significantly better on the test than those who had the standard text (an average of 86.5% correct vs 72.8%).

In the second experiment, involving 222 high school students from six different classes (English, Physics, History, and Chemistry, and including regular, Honors, and Advanced Placement classes), the text of their worksheets (and in the case of the physics classes, PowerPoint slides) was manipulated. While some sections of the class received the materials in their normal font, others experienced the text written in either Haettenschweiler, Monotype Corsiva, Comic Sans italicized, or smeared (by moving the paper during copying).

Once again, students who read the texts in one of the difficult conditions remembered the material significantly better than those in the control condition. As in the first study, there was no difference between the difficult fonts.

While it is possible that the use of these more unusual fonts made the text more distinctive, the fonts were not so unusual as to stand out, and moreover, their novelty should have diminished over the course of the semester. It seems more likely that these findings reflect the ‘desirable difficulty’ effect. However, it should be noted that getting the ‘right’ level of difficulty is a tricky thing — you need to be in the right place of what is surely a U-shaped curve. A little too much difficulty and you can easily do far more damage than good!

An imaging study of 10 illiterates, 22 people who learned to read as adults and 31 who did so as children, has confirmed that the visual word form area (involved in linking sounds with written symbols) showed more activation in better readers, although everyone had similar levels of activation in that area when listening to spoken sentences. More importantly, it also revealed that this area was much less active among the better readers when they were looking at pictures of faces.

Other changes in activation patterns were also evident (for example, readers showed greater activation in the planum temporal in response to spoken speech), and most of the changes occurred even among those who acquired literacy in adulthood — showing that the brain re-structuring doesn’t depend on a particular time-window.

The finding of competition between face and word processing is consistent with the researcher’s theory that reading may have hijacked a neural network used to help us visually track animals, and raises the intriguing possibility that our face-perception abilities suffer in proportion to our reading skills.

A digital designer is developing a toolkit to help teachers more effectively assist children with dyslexia. The tool aims to help children remember the sound connected to the letter. For example, you can scroll over the letter "p," and the "p" will then morph to display common items associated with the "puh" sound: (peach, peppermint, pie, pea and piano). Or when moving over a long vowel, the vowel lengthens horizontally; silent letters are shadowed or repel the mouse. And so on. The toolkit has not yet been tested, but I do like the idea. You can catch a 2-minute video showing how it works.

The project, titled "Reading by Design: Visualizing Phonemic Sound for Dyslexic Readers 9-11 Years Old," was presented at the Southwest International Reading Association Regional Conference in Oklahoma City, Okla., on Feb. 5, 2010.

The ongoing 12-year Connecticut Longitudinal Study, involving a representative sample of 445 schoolchildren, has found that in typical readers, IQ and reading not only track together, but also influence each other over time. But in children with dyslexia, IQ and reading are not linked over time and do not influence one another. Although this difference has been assumed, this is the first direct evidence for it. It should also be noted that the language problem is not confined to reading: those with dyslexia take a long time to retrieve words, so they might not speak or read as fluidly as others.

[550] Ferrer E, Shaywitz BA, Holahan JM, Marchione K, Shaywitz SE. Uncoupling of reading and IQ over time: empirical evidence for a definition of dyslexia. Psychological Science: A Journal of the American Psychological Society / APS [Internet]. 2010 ;21(1):93 - 101. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20424029

Data from North Carolina's mandated End-of-Grade tests (2000-2005), which includes student reports on how frequently they use a home computer for schoolwork, watch TV or read for pleasure, reveals that students in grades five through eight (c.10-13), particularly those from disadvantaged families, tended to have lower reading and math scores after they got a home computer. The researchers suggest that the greater negative effect in disadvantaged households may reflect less parental monitoring.

[1635] Vigdor JL, Ladd HF. Scaling the Digital Divide: Home Computer Technology and Student Achievement. National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper Series [Internet]. 2010 ;No. 16078. Available from: http://www.nber.org/papers/w16078

Older news items (pre-2010) brought over from the old website

Literate Arabic speakers have bilingual brains

Research has found that Arabic-speaking students tend to be less proficient in reading than other students are in their native language. Spoken Arabic comes in a variety of dialects and is quite different from the common written Arabic (Modern Standard Arabic - MSA). A new imaging study has now compared brain activity in a priming task among trilinguals fluent in MSA, spoken Arabic and Hebrew. The results revealed that the cognitive process in using MSA was more similar to that employed for Hebrew, and less similar to the cognitive process of using the spoken native language. These results not only help explain why learning to read is more difficult for Arabic speakers, but also suggests that the most effective way of teaching written Arabic is by using techniques usually employed for the instruction of a second language — including exposing children to written Arabic in preschool or kindergarten.

Ibrahim, R. 2009. The cognitive basis of diglossia in Arabic: Evidence from a repetition priming study within and between languages. Journal of Psychology Research and Behavior Management, 2.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2009-11/uoh-wiu110409.php

Remedial reading program improves brain wiring in children

An imaging study involving 72 children aged 8 to 10 has provided the first evidence that intensive instruction to improve reading skills in young children causes the brain to physically rewire itself. The study found that the ability of white matter tracts to transmit signals efficiently improved substantially after the children received six months (100 hours) of remedial training. Moreover, those who showed the most white matter change also showed the most improvement in reading ability. Previous research has found that both children and adults with reading difficulty display areas of compromised white matter.

Keller, T.A. & Just, M.A. 2009. Altering Cortical Connectivity: Remediation-Induced Changes in the White Matter of Poor Readers. Neuron, 64 (5), 624-631.

http://www.physorg.com/news179584529.html

Remedial instruction can close gap between good, poor readers

A brain imaging study of poor readers has found that 100 hours of remedial instruction not only improved the skills of struggling readers, but also changed the way their brains activated when they comprehended written sentences. 25 fifth-graders who were poor readers worked in groups of three for an hour a day with a reading "personal trainer," a teacher specialized in administering a remedial reading program. The training included both word decoding exercises in which students were asked to recognize the word in its written form and tasks in using reading comprehension strategies. Brain scans while the children were reading revealed that the parietotemporal region — responsible for decoding the sounds of written language and assembling them into words and phrases that make up a sentence — was significantly less activated among the poor readers than in the control group. The increases in activation seen as a result of training were still evident, and even greater, a year later.
Although dyslexia is generally thought of as caused by difficulties in the visual perception of letters, leading to confusions between letters like "p" and "d", such difficulties occur in only about 10% of the cases. Most commonly, the problem lies in relating the visual form of a letter to its sound.

Meyler, A., Keller, T.A., Cherkassky, V.L., Gabrieli, J.D.E.  & Just, M.A.. 2008. Modifying the brain activation of poor readers during sentence comprehension with extended remedial instruction: A longitudinal study of neuroplasticity. Neuropsychologia, 46 (10), 2580-2592.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2008-06/cmu-cmb061108.php

Aircraft noise may affect children's reading and memory

A large study involving 2844 children aged 9-10 has found exposure to aircraft noise impaired reading comprehension. The children were selected from primary schools located near three major airports — Schiphol in the Netherlands, Barajas in Spain, and Heathrow in the UK. Reading age in children exposed to high levels of aircraft noise was delayed by up to 2 months in the UK and by up to 1 month in the Netherlands for each 5 decibel change in noise exposure. On the other hand, road traffic noise did not have an effect on reading and indeed was unexpectedly found to improve recall memory. An earlier German study found children attending schools near the old Munich airport improved their reading scores and cognitive memory performance when the airport shut down, while children going to school near the new airport experienced a decrease in testing scores.

Stansfield, S.A., Berglund, B., Clark, C., Lopez-Barrio, I., Fischer, P., Öhrstrom, E., Haines, M.M., Head, J., Hygge, S., van Kamp, I. & Berry, B.F. 2005. Aircraft and road traffic noise and children's cognition and health: a cross-national study. The Lancet, 365, 1942-1949.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2005-06/l-eta060105.php

Imaging study points to the importance of early stimulation in making good readers

A longitudinal study that used imaging to compare brain activation patterns has identified two types of reading disability: a primarily inherent type with higher cognitive ability (poor readers who compensate for disability), and a more environmentally influenced type with lower cognitive skills and attendance at more disadvantaged schools (persistently poor readers). Compensated poor readers were able to overcome some of the disability, improving their ability to read words accurately and to understand what they read. In contrast, the persistently poor readers continued to experience difficulties; as children these readers had lower cognitive ability and more often attended disadvantaged schools. Brain activation patterns showed a disruption in the neural systems for reading in compensated readers, while persistently poor readers had the neural circuitry for reading real words, but it had not been properly activated. The results suggest that providing early interventions aimed at stimulating both the ability to sound out words and to understand word meanings would be beneficial in children at risk for reading difficulties associated with disadvantage.

Shaywitz, S.E., Shaywitz, B.A., Fulbright, R.K., Skudlarski, P., Mencl, W.E., Constable, R.T., Pugh, K.R., Holahan, J.M., Marchione, K.E., Fletcher, J.M. et al. 2003. Neural systems for compensation and persistence: young adult outcome of childhood reading disability, Biological Psychiatry, 54 (1), 25-33.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2003-07/yu-yri071503.php

Neural changes produced by learning to read revealed

Understanding how our brain structures change as we learn to read is difficult because of the confounding with age and the learning of other skills. Studying adult learners is also problematic because in most educated societies adult illiteracy is typically the result of learning impairments or poor health. Now a new study involving 20 former guerrillas in Colombia who are learning to read for the first time as adults has found that these late-literates showed a number of significant brain differences compared to matched adult illiterates, including more white matter between various regions, and more grey matter in various left temporal and occipital regions important for recognizing letter shapes and translating letters into speech sounds and their meanings. Particularly important were connections between the left and right angular gyri in the parietal lobe. While this area has long been known as important for reading, its function turns out to have been misinterpreted — it now appears its main role is in anticipating what we will see. The findings will help in understanding the causes of dyslexia.

Carreiras, M. et al. 2009. An anatomical signature for literacy. Nature, 461 (7266), 983-986.

http://www.physorg.com/news174744233.html

The processes in reading

In a fascinating study, researchers have disentangled the three processes involved in reading: letter-by-letter decoding, whole word shape, and sentence context. They found that letter-by-letter decoding (phonics) determined 62% of reading speed, while context controlled 22% and word shape 16%.

Pelli, D.G. 7& Tillman, K.A. 2007. Parts, Wholes, and Context in Reading: A Triple Dissociation. PLoS ONE 2(8): e680.

Specific brain region for reading

Although a number of imaging studies have provided support for the idea that there’s a specific area of the brain that enables us to read efficiently by allowing us to process the visual image of entire words, the question is still debated — partly because the same area also seems to be involved in the recognition of other objects and partly because damage in this region has never been confined to this region alone. Now the experience of an epileptic requiring removal of a small area next to the so-called visual word-form area (VWFA) in the left occipito-temporal cortex has provided evidence of the region's importance for reading. After the operation, the patient’s ability to comprehend words was dramatically slower, and the results were consistent with him reading letter by letter. A brain scan confirmed that the VWFA no longer lit up when words were read, perhaps because the surgery severed its connection to other parts of the brain.

Gaillard, R. et. al. 2006. Direct Intracranial, fMRI, and Lesion Evidence for the Causal Role of Left Inferotemporal Cortex in Reading. Neuron, 50, 191-204.

Confirmation: boys have more literacy problems than girls

Previous research has suggested the reason that reading disabilities are more common among boys is that teachers simply tend to recognize the problem in boys more often. It is sometimes thought that boys are more disruptive, so the teachers pay more attention to them. However, new research investigating four previous large-scale studies of reading in children (2 New Zealand and 2 U.K.), involving a total of some 9,800 children, seems to make it clear that boys really do have more reading difficulties than girls. Across all the studies, about 20% of the boys had reading disabilities compared with about 11% of the girls. The studies used representative samples of children, not simply children already known to be having learning difficulties - a weakness of some previous research.

Rutter, M., Caspi, A., Fergusson, D., Horwood, L.J., Goodman, R., Maughan, B., Moffitt, T.E., Meltzer, H. & Carroll, J. 2004. Sex Differences in Developmental Reading Disability: New Findings From 4 Epidemiological Studies. JAMA, 291 (16), 2007-2012.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2004-05/uow-rrf051304.php

Reading verbs activates motor cortex areas

A new imaging study has surprised researchers by revealing that parts of the motor cortex respond when people do nothing more active than silently reading. However, the words read have to be action words. When such words are read, appropriate regions are activated – for example, reading “lick” will trigger blood flow in sites of the motor cortex associated with tongue and mouth movements. Moreover, activity also occurs in premotor brain regions that influence learning of new actions, as well as the language structures, Broca's area and Wernicke's area. The researchers suggest that these findings challenge the assumption that word meanings are processed solely in language structures – instead, our understanding of words depends on the integration of information from several interconnected brain structures that provide information about associated actions and sensations.

Hauk, O., Johnsrude, I. & Pulvermüller, F. 2004. Somatotopic Representation of Action Words in Human Motor and Premotor Cortex. Neuron, 41, 301-7.

Growing evidence cerebellum involved in language

An imaging study of children with selective problems in short term phonological memory and others diagnosed with specific language impairment (and matched controls) found that those with selective STPM deficits and those with SLI had less gray matter in both sides of the cerebellum compared to the children in the control groups. This supports growing evidence that the cerebellum, an area of the brain once thought to be involved only in the control of movement, also plays a role in processing speech and language.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2003-11/sfn-ssb111103.php

Gender differences in neural networks underlying beginning reading

A recent study uses EEG readings to investigate gender differences in the emerging connectivity of neural networks associated with phonological processing, verbal fluency, higher-level thinking and word retrieval (skills needed for beginning reading), in preschoolers. The study confirms different patterns of growth in building connections between boys and girls. These differences point to the different advantages each gender brings to learning to read. Boys favor vocabulary sub-skills needed for comprehension while girls favor fluency and phonic sub-skills needed for the mechanics of reading.

Hanlon, H. 2001. Gender Differences Observed in Preschoolers’ Emerging Neural Networks. Paper presented at Genomes and Hormones: An Integrative Approach to Gender Differences in Physiology, an American Physiological Society (APS) conference held October 17-20 in Pittsburgh.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2001-10/aps-gad101701.php

Gathercole, S.E., Service, E., Hitch, G.J., Adams, A. & Martin, A.J. 1999. Phonological short-term memory and vocabulary development: furtherevidence on the nature of the relationship. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 13, 65-77.

Finding: The ability of a child to repeat back unfamiliar words is constrained by the capacity of their working memory rather than their ability to articulate the words. The constraining effect of working memory capacity on the ability to learn new words continues into adolescence.

The effect of phonological short-term (working) memory and vocabulary knowledge was explored in two experiments (see Gathercole et al 1994 for a discussion of this effect). In the first experiment, four-year-olds were given various working memory tests (nonword repetition; digit span; nonword recognition). The correlation between working memory capacity and vocabulary knowledge was as strong for the serial recognition task as for the recall-based tests, supporting the view that it is working memory capacity rather than speech output skills which constrain word learning. In the next experiment, the same association betweenmemory capacity and vocabulary knowledge was found to be strong in teenagers, indicating that these working memory constraints remain significant throughout childhood.

Crain-Thoreson, C. 1996. Phonemic Processes in Children's Listening and Reading Comprehension. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 10, 383-401.

Finding: Rhyme appears to be more confusing than other phonemic similarities and can affect how clearly the child remembers what a heard story was about. However recall of verbatim details does not appear to be affected, and the susceptibility of a child to phonemic confusion doesn't appear to affect their reading skill.

Kindergarten and second-grade children were told phonemically confusing stories and second-graders were given phonemically confusing stories to read. It was found that rhymes were more consistently confusing than alliteratives in both the listening and readingtasks at both grade levels. This suggests not only that rhyme is inherently moreconfusing than alliteration, but that similar information is being activated when children listen and when they readsilently.

Both kindergarten and second-grade children showed phonemic confusion in their remembering of the gist of the stories that they heard, but prereaders were less likely than readers to show signs of phonemic confusion in their verbatim recall. However, children's sensitivity to phonemic information did not appear to affect their reading skill.

Gathercole, S.E., Willis, C.S., Baddeley, A.D. & Emslie, H. 1994. The Children's test of Nonword Repetition: a test of phonological working memory. Memory, 2, 103-27.

Finding: The ability of a child to repeat back unfamiliar words is constrained by the capacity of their working memory, and affects their ability to learn new words, as well as the ability to comprehend what they hear or read.

The Children's test of Nonword Repetition (CNRep) involves the child hearing a single novel word-like item, such as "barrazon", and being required to immediately repeat it back. This occurs for 40 such items. Performance on this test is highly correlated with conventional tests of phonological working memory, and it appears that the ability to repeat back unfamiliar words is affected by the capacity of this aspect (the phonological loop) of working memory.

The test is particularly appropriate for young children, as it is a familiar task (young children are of course constantly coming up against unfamiliar words and often try to repeat them) and they usually readily understand what to do.

A number of studies have consistently found poor CNRep scores in children who are poor readers, and very low scores in children who are reading-impaired (such as dyslexics). Adults with various language processing disorders also perform poorly on this test.

Working memory capacity (which varies among individuals) affects many aspects of comprehension and recall. Among normal adults, working memory constraints usually only affect comprehension of particularly long and grammatically complex sentences. Among children, the ability to repeat back unfamiliar words affects both language comprehension and the learning of new words.