Learning to read can be torturous for many children.
Among a raft of other personal or individual difficulties children may have, English is such a hard language to learn, even for native speakers.
Partly it’s because many words are borrowed from other languages, but also partly because some of it, well, just doesn’t make sense.
Try explaining to a non-English speaker how it is that it’s perfectly reasonable to chop down a tree and then chop it up.
But semantics, or meanings, are only one thing. Simple pronunciation is another.
Say this list aloud as quickly as you can.
Bar, car, far, jar, mar, par, tar, war.
Why do they all rhyme, except for ‘war’? And that’s not even allowing for ‘ear’, and then ‘oar’ which, in fact, rhymes with war.
And lest we forget, remember trying to remember which ‘ough’ sound you had to use, when there are up to 10 variations?! Maybe you’ve seen this before: A rough-coated, dough-faced, thoughtful ploughman strode through the streets of Scarborough; after falling into a slough, he coughed and hiccoughed.
Learning all of this is daunting, particularly when you consider the gymnastics the brain has to do to manage it all. Just how complex it is might surprise you.
If you don’t want to be surprised, hop down to the section If only there were things to make it easier. Number 1.
No wonder it’s hard
For example, recent research out of USC Brain and Creativity Institute shows that different components of reading are located in different parts of the brain, and each relates strongly to the amount of gray matter (the amount of individual neurons) in those parts.
Postdoctoral research associate Qinghua He looked at three facets:
- phonological decoding ability (the ability to sound out printed words);
- form-sound association (how well subjects could make connections between a new word and sound);
- naming speed (how quickly subjects were able to read out loud).
MRI analysis demonstrated that
- Phonological decoding ability was strongly connected with gray matter volume in the left superior parietal lobe (top/rear of the brain)
- Form-sound association was strongly linked with the hippocampus (a pivotal memory structure deep inside the temporal lobe) and cerebellum (the “little brain” sitting underneath the brain at the top of your neck).
- Naming speed lit up a variety of locations around the brain.
Former colleague and collaborator, Gui Xue, points out that reading is really a set of independent capacities, supported by discrete neural systems, which are independent of general cognitive abilities.
An implication of their work is that an MRI scan may reveal why someone struggles to read and suggest therapies for them targeted at a particular brain region.
And then we have to put it all together
But these skills, distinct though they may be, are basically mechanical, and still require integration for reading and, especially, for comprehension. Writing is a way of communicating meaning. Consequently, readers need to be able to comprehend what they read in order to draw that meaning from the text.
Integration requires that we link words together over time, keeping them in the right order, with their right meanings, in memory, so that we can then make sense of the phrase, the sentence, the paragraph, and the story. Much of this relies on your working memory, and something you’re doing right now as you read this.
Julia Mossbridge, a research associate in psychology at Northwestern University, along with co-authors Marcia Grabowecky, Ken A. Paller and Satoru Suzuki of Northwestern, have shown recently that this integration is a higher level, frontal lobe function. Moreover, there is a distinct neural pattern for people who are good comprehenders, which differs markedly from those who are weaker at comprehension, even if they can manage the mechanics of reading perfectly well.
So although nearly all kids learn to speak perfectly well, picking up rules of grammar swiftly, and learning the exceptions as they go, it’s no wonder they find reading harder. Spelling is yet harder again.
Fair enough then that parents, tasked with the primary responsibility of teaching their children to read, struggle along with them, particularly those with limited access to books or text, or for whom reading is difficult.
If only there were things to make it easier. Number 1.
So here are two simple, effective and inexpensive strategies, which carry a number of added benefits.
Work published by Dr Nina Kraus, Northwestern University, highlights that auditory working memory (a subset of the memory you’re using to read right now), such as the ability to hear, remember and execute instructions while on a task, is an important part of musical ability. What’s remarkable she notes, is how strongly musical ability is linked to verbal memory, and literacy, in childhood.
Her team discovered that weaker readers had diminished neural response in the brainstem (at the top of your spine going into the brain) to rhythmic, rather than random sounds, when compared to good readers. A good score on the acoustic test correlated highly with musical ability, especially rhythm, and reading ability. Additionally, a good auditory working memory score related to stronger reading and rhythmical musical ability.
Dr Kraus explained, “Both musical ability and literacy correlated with enhanced electrical signals within the auditory brainstem. These results add weight to the argument that music and reading are related via common neural and cognitive mechanisms and suggests a mechanism for the improvements in literacy seen with musical training.”
More specifically, when testing high school students, Kraus recognized the inherent importance of rhythm to music and language. Rhythm is essential to understanding speech, for it imparts meaning, along with differentiating certain sounds.
“Musicians have highly consistent auditory-neural responses,” notes Kraus. “It may be that musical training—with its emphasis on rhythmic skills—can exercise the auditory-system, leading to less neural jitter and stronger sound-to-meaning associations that are so essential to learning to read.”
If only there were things to make it easier. Number 2
The other tip is perhaps even simpler, and is really a slight twist on something you might already do.
It’s long been a tenet of education that readers can learn the rules of phonics when words are presented differing in only one sound
University of Iowa researchers would disagree. Their recent work, published in “Developmental Psychology” highlights that particular types of variation in words may help early readers learn better. When kids see the same phonics regularities, such as the ‘ai’, located in words with more variation, such as ‘paid’ and ‘hair’ rather than ‘paid’ and ‘maid’ , they may learn these critical early reading skills better. What might seem at first to be more difficult, facilitates better learning.
Their research showed that variety was better, regardless of the student (boys, girls, weak readers, strong readers etc).
And here’s how to do it
When you pair the variety with good delivery, you’re onto a winner. Most certainly, reading with your children is bedrock behavior; we simply must do it as a foundation for learning. And here’s the secret sauce that makes it even better
Naturally, kids love cuddling up to a parent to read, and it’s fantastic bonding time. Dr Thea Cameron-Faulkner and Dr Claire Noble from The University of Manchester, have shown that reading to kids, from simple or complex stories, is hugely beneficial, and not just for bonding and language.
The key for language, they say, isn’t in the text, but in having a complex conversation about the story. Both types of books produced more complex language than a free play situation, such as when a parent and child played with a toy kitchen.
Dr Cameron-Faulkner, adds “It’s pretty well established that sharing books with young children improves their vocabulary and literacy development, and that language skills are linked to academic attainment generally – including maths.
“Recent studies indicate that one of the key predictors in children’s mathematical skill is early language experience, and so the rich linguistic experience associated with shared book reading may have benefits above and beyond language development.
“Our research shows quite clearly that books are a valuable source of language input: the language used when sharing books contains more complex, structurally rich constructions than everyday child directed speech. And because a simpler book is just as valuable as a more complex one, this is good news for parents who may struggle with their reading.”
Researchers from the University of Washington, Temple University, and the University of Delaware show us that it’s the responsiveness of the interactions that’s crucial. When we respond to children in timely and meaningful ways, they learn.
So here’s the take home bit
Rhythm and music can be taught and encouraged from a very early age, long before reading becomes an issue. A child with a strong sense of rhythm , and good musical training, is more likely to grasp reading more easily, and become a strong reader. We’ve seen in other posts that reading is an important function for brain fitness, and the benefits of learning to play music can far outlast the playing itself.
Read to your kids, engaging them in complex conversation about the story or picture, for this is how they’ll learn language the best. Because kids’ books are often repetitive, use the opportunity to teach phonics through variety, either in the text, or in your conversation.
Note, too, that engaging with your child through music, to learn rhythm, also provides opportunity for complex conversations.
Worth a try?
Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat
Phonological decoding ability, form-sound association, naming speed,
What do you think?
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