Teaching phonics to second and third graders with reading problems improves their reading skills by changing their brains to resemble good readers’ brain patterns, says a new study. Unfortunately, poor readers usually get poor remedial instruction that doesn’t change their skills or their brain activity, concludes a study by pediatrician Sally Shaywitz and neurologist Bennett Shaywitz of Yale University School of Medicine. Science News reports:
At the beginning and end of the school year, the investigators administered reading tests and functional magnetic resonance imaging scans to three groups of children, ages 6 to 9, attending school in New York or Connecticut. The brain scans were taken as each volunteer tried to identify written letters that matched spoken letters.
In one of the groups, 37 underachieving readers were given experimental tutoring that consisted of 50 minutes of daily, individual instruction in letters and combinations of letters that represent speech sounds called phonemes. The lessons also focused on development of fluency in reading words, oral reading of stories, and spelling.
Another 12 deficient readers received standard remedial reading and special education programs in their schools. These students didn’t receive explicit instruction in learning to recognize how letters correspond to phonemes.
A third group, this one consisting of 28 good readers, received regular classroom instruction.
At the end of the school year, only poor readers in the experimental program showed marked gains in reading accuracy, speed, and comprehension, the researchers report in the May 1 Biological Psychiatry. Good readers still exhibited the strongest literacy, but the poor readers who received phonetically based instruction had closed the gap considerably.
After poor readers completed the experimental program, their brains displayed pronounced activity in several of the same left-brain areas that are active when good readers do reading-related tasks. In an earlier study of poor readers, Sally Shaywitz and Bennett Shaywitz found that one of those neural regions remains inactive as these kids grow up. Preliminary evidence from other researchers indicates that this structure, located near the back of the brain, fosters immediate recognition of familiar written words and is thus crucial for fluent reading, Sally Shaywitz says.
A year later, the benefits in reading skills and brain activity persisted for children in the phonics program.