Reading Program Helps Out Students
April 23, 2004

NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) -- The brains of poor readers bloom with new connections that improve reading ability when teachers use an intensive, scientifically based reading program, a new study shows.

Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine used MRI scanners to track the progress in children's brains as they worked through the intensive reading lessons. The parts of the brain that regulate reading skills showed permanent improvement, even a year after the lessons ended.

The poor readers started to catch up to classmates who were good readers from the beginning, especially in their reading fluency and comprehension, said Dr. Sally Shaywitz, an author of the study and a national expert on reading disorders.

"I think this is a very, very hopeful finding, because it shows not only do children improve in their reading, but their brains can reorganize. It should encourage educators, parents and people who formulate public policy to know that if this can happen, every child should be eligible to get this kind of evidence-based reading intervention," Shaywitz said.

The study followed 77 children between the ages of 6 and 9 in the New Haven and Syracuse, N.Y., areas. Forty-nine of the children were poor readers, and the rest were good readers.

Three-quarters of the poor readers received intensive lessons based on recommendations that came out of the National Reading Panel, which Congress appointed in 1997. The lessons use a systematic, phonics-based plan to tutor children.

The rest of the poor readers got the standard help that was available in their schools.

Previous research has shown that poor readers have disruptions in two systems in the backs of their brains that handle language skills and reading, Shaywitz said.

When the good readers were asked to read while being scanned with an MRI, those centers of their brains activated. In poor readers, the proper regions in the backs of their brains were not geared up.

"The question was, are these systems malleable?" Shaywitz said. "If we gave a proven reading instruction system to struggling readers, could you not only improve reading, but also reorganize the child's brain?"

In this study, the children who got intensive reading lessons showed much more progress than those who got the standard lessons. And, MRI scans of their brains showed new pathways in the parts of their brains that were not activating before.

"We know that at least one year after intervention ended that the brain systems for reading are intact and look the same as for readers who have no problem reading," said Dr. Bennett Shaywitz, who worked with his wife on the study.

The children were asked to read through a periscope-like device with a screen as they were scanned in the MRI. Researchers projected words onto the screen, and the children held buttons in each hand to indicate their answers to questions.

One test, for example, flashed two words onto the screen. The child was asked to indicate whether the words rhymed. If they rhymed, he hit the button in his right hand. If not, he pushed the button in his left hand.

The study was funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, which is part of the National Institutes of Health. It is published in the May issue of the journal Biological Psychiatry.

"This study represents the fruition of decades of NICHD-supported reading research," said G. Reid Lyon, chief of the agency's child development and behavior Branch. "The findings show that the brain systems involved in reading respond to effective reading instruction."

Sally Shaywitz was one of the experts appointed to the National Reading Panel.

The reading panel recommended that children be taught to read first through phonemes and phonics -- learning about sounds of spoken language and how letters represent sounds.

Then, the panel recommended teachers work on fluency, comprehension and vocabulary development.

"Children need to learn this not randomly or in a fragmented way, but in a comprehensive and systematic way," Shaywitz said.

The study backs up what teachers see in the classroom, said Gwenette Ferguson, a reading specialist and middle school principal in Houston who served on the National Reading Panel.

Children are better readers if they are read to at a young age and if they are motivated and encouarged, Ferguson said. But for children who read far below their grade levels into middle school, something medical appears to hamper them.

"My personal opinion is there may be something medically that is a deterrent that is required to them getting the necessary reading skills," Ferguson said. "Teachers do everything they can to assist students."