Learning music develops the brain

Youth Orchestra Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel leads the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles. Photo: Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

Studying music may improve young children’s auditory and language-processing abilities, according to early findings of a study published in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience. That could help kids learn to read.

University of Southern California researchers began following 45 children from lower-income bilingual families (most are Latino, one is Korean)  when the children were 6 and 7, reports Jackie Zubrzycki in Education Week.

Yashelyn, 9, plays violin in the Youth Orchestra LA at the Heart of Los Angeles music program class in Los Angeles. Photo: Eric Grigorian/ Education Week

Yashelyn, 9, plays violin in the Youth Orchestra LA. Photo: Eric Grigorian/ Education Week

The Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles is teaching 13 of the children to play musical instruments using the El Sistema approach developed in Venezuela. Another group plays soccer and the third has no after-school activity.

After two years, brain scans showed the music students “had more-developed auditory pathways than their peers,” writes Zubrzycki. “The authors write that this development in auditory processing also affects students’ ability to process speech and language — which means it could have an impact on students’ academic progress as well as their musical abilities.”

Hearing test predicts reading woes

The Associated Press

Testing how well preschoolers can recognize sounds such as “dah” predicts reading difficulties, according to a Northwestern study published in PLOS Biology.

Early intervention could help children develop their auditory processing skills, said senior author Nina Kraus, director of Northwestern’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory.

The new study used an EEG to directly measure the brain’s response to sound, attaching electrodes to children’s scalps and recording the patterns of electric activity as nerve cells fired. The youngsters sat still to watch a video of their choice, listening to the soundtrack in one ear while an earpiece in the other periodically piped in the sound “dah” superimposed over a babble of talking.

The 30-minute test predicted how well 3-year-olds performed a language-development skill and how those same youngsters fared a year later on several standard pre-reading assessments, the team reported.

In tests of older children, the EEG scores correlated with their reading competence.

Dyslexia is linked to voice recognition

Dyslexics have trouble recognizing voices, say MIT researchers in a study published in last week’s Science. That suggests the reading problem also is a “problem with how the brain processes speech and puts together words from smaller units of sound,” reports the New York Times.

Adults listened to recorded voices speaking English or an unfamiliar language, Mandarin.  Non-dyslexics matched voices to English-speaking avatars 70 percent of the time and to Mandarian-speaking avatars half the time.  Dyslexics matched voices half the time in both English and Mandarin.

(Cogntive scientist John) Gabrieli said the findings underscored a critical problem for dyslexic children learning to read: the ability of a child hearing, say, a parent or teacher speak to connect the auditory bits that make up words, called phonemes, with the sight of written words.

If a child has trouble grasping the sounds that make up language, he said, acquiring reading skills will be harder.

The research shows that spoken language deficiencies persist even when dyslexics learn to read well. The study subjects were mostly “high-functioning, high-I.Q. young adults who had overcome their reading difficulty,” Dr. Gabrieli said. “And yet when they had to distinguish voices, they were not one iota better with the English-language voices that they’ve heard all their life.”

Reading involves a “circuit, the ability to have all of those components integrated absolutely automatically,” said Maryanne Wolf, a dyslexia expert at Tufts University. “One of the great weaknesses in dyslexia is that the system is not able to integrate these phoneme-driven systems” with other aspects of language comprehension.