Reading builds brain connectivity

Intensive reading practice can change a child’s brain, according to a study published in Neuron.  Several programs “improved the integrity of fibers that carry information from one part of the brain to another,” reports NPR.

Some parts recognize letters, others apply knowledge about vocabulary and syntax, and still others decide what it all means. To synchronize all these operations, the brain relies on high speed “highways” that carry information back and forth, (Marcel Just, director of the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging at Carnegie Mellon) says.

Using a MRI, Just and colleague Timothy Keller found children 8 to 12 years old with poor reading skills had lower-quality white matter compared to typical readers. Some of the poor readers  were given 100 hours of remedial reading instruction.

When they were done, a second set of MRI scans showed that the training changed “not just their reading ability, but the tissues in their brain,” Just says. The integrity of their white matter improved, while it was unchanged for children in standard classes.

Equally striking, Just says: “The amount of improvement in the white matter in an individual was correlated with that individual’s improvement in his reading ability.”

The reading instruction focused on “decoding unfamiliar words,” reports UPI.

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  1. So, decoding (i.e., synthetic phonics) is the real “brain-based” way to teach reading!

  2. OK, I’ll be fair. I just delved into the paper itself (posted by the author here) and saw what the actual reading remediation programs were. The programs were Corrective Reading, Wilson Learning System, Spell Read Phonological Auditory Training, and Failure Free Reading. Per the authors, “All of these programs provided systematic and explicit instruction in word-level decoding skills. Failure Free Reading focuses on developing recognition of words by sight, while the other three programs emphasize phonemic decoding.” So, one of the four remediation programs used was not phonics; but, it wasn’t whole language, either! (See

    I’m disappointed with NPR’s reporting. The only thing they said about the remediation was “The programs had the kids practice reading words and sentences over and over again.” Hardly helpful to anyone wondering what actually works and suspiciously worded to appear supportive of whole language.

  3. This is great news. My teenage reluctant/struggling readers hate reading anything on paper yet willingly read something posted on line. They seem to spend hundreds of hours on line. I hope this is building their white matter to improve their reading skills when they do have to read something on paper.

  4. Don Bemont says:

    This is a very interesting claim.

    Western civ passed through a period of several hundred years where the lives of ordinary people were dominated by print to several decades where ordinary people increasingly avoided print due to the rise of visual screen media.

    Democracy, capitalism, rapid technological advance and the culture of continuous progress are all the children of the print era when literacy became widespread. In truth, literacy was the membership card to that society. As Neil Postman wrote, landholding requirements for voting were often overlooked, but not literacy requirements.

    The implication was that one was not fit to take full part in this culture unless one were literate.

    In recent years, much has been written about multiple intelligences, and, of course, taken at face value, this has merit: intrapersonal, kinesthetic, and musical brain operations are very real and valuable. Yet, one always had the sense that the subtext was to bring the cultural value placed on literacy-linked intelligences down to the level placed on other brain operations.

    One does not want to be an elderly reactionary blasting change just because it is change, but I was never comfortable with the assumption that just because one could linguistically equate visual-spatial judgment and verbal reasoning as “just dfifferent kinds of intelligence”, that they actually have the same broader implications for human thinking.

    Now this linked article purports to prove the effect of literacy on the brain, suggesting that there is indeed a reason why literacy rates have always been linked to societal progress of all sorts.

    To be fair, though, similar images need to be taken of brains before and after significant learning unrelated to literacy — and it would be especially interesting if these tests were deliberately linked to Gardner’s other intelligences.

  5. This is the second paper by Professor Just and the folks in his lab that was based on the Power4Kids study. The first, by Ann Meyler and others from the Just group, showed that these same reading interventions caused changes in brain function. The study reported by Keller and Just is important because it shows changes in brain structure.

    The Power4Kids was conducted in the Allegheny Intermediate Unit of Pennsylvania (US) and was led by Joe Torgesen. Catherine has accurately noted that Failure Free Reading is not phonics-based. Indeed, most of those that emphasize decoding also include fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension work (see Corrective Reading, for example). Keller & Just analyzed their data for differences in the outcomes by reading program and found none.

    I have more about these studies on LD Blog in posts from 13 June 2008 and 11 December 2009.


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