Brain Scans Predict Reading Skills

In Brain imaging, Brain studies, Education on Wednesday, 21 November 2012 at 13:42

Brain Scans Predict Reading Skills

New research shows that the growth of long-range connections between brain regions predicts how well a child will learn to read.

By Dan Cossins | October 9, 2012

Our ability to read depends on the communication between distant areas of the brain, such as those involved in vision, hearing, and language. Research published this week (October 8) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reveals that the growth pattern of connections between these areas can predict how a child’s reading skills will develop—a finding that could lead to teaching strategies most appropriate for kids at different stages of development.

Neuroscientists at Stanford University in California studied the reading skills of 55 children, aged 7 to 15, over a 3-year period. They also took MRI scans of the children’s brains at least 3 times during that period to visualize the growth of two major white-matter tracts—bundles of nerve fibers that connect brain regions. They found that differences in the growth of these tracts predicted variations in reading ability.

White-matter growth is governed by two processes: pruning, in which extraneous nerve fibers and neuronal connections are eliminated, and myelination, in which nerve fibers in the tracts are surrounded by fatty tissue that increases the speed with which they transmit electrical signals. Both are in part determined by experience, so they happen at different times in different people.

“We think the relative timing of pruning and myelination differs between strong and weak readers,” Stanford’s Jason Yeatman, one of the study authors, told Nature. “In good readers, both processes are unfolding together at an even rate. In poor readers, the two processes are out of sync. You have rapid, early growth, and the tracts develop before [the children] even start learning to read.”

Yeatman added that in future it might be possible to see when pruning is taking place, a period in which children may find it easier to learn to read, and tailor lessons accordingly.

Retrieved from: http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/32776/title/Brain-Scans-Predict-Reading-Skills/

Development of White Matter and Reading Skills

Jason D. YeatmanRobert F. DoughertyMichal Ben-Shacharand Brian A. Wandell

White matter tissue properties are highly correlated with reading proficiency; we would like to have a model that relates the dynamics of an individual’s white matter development to their acquisition of skilled reading. The development of cerebral white matter involves multiple biological processes, and the balance between these processes differs between individuals. Cross-sectional measures of white matter mask the interplay between these processes and their connection to an individual’s cognitive development. Hence, we performed a longitudinal study to measure white-matter development (diffusion-weighted imaging) and reading development (behavioral testing) in individual children (age 7–15 y). The pattern of white-matter development differed significantly among children. In the left arcuate and left inferior longitudinal fasciculus, children with above-average reading skills initially had low fractional anisotropy (FA) that increased over the 3-y period, whereas children with below-average reading skills had higher initial FA that declined over time. We describe a dual-process model of white matter development comprising biological processes with opposing effects on FA, such as axonal myelination and pruning, to explain the pattern of results.

This article contains supporting information online at www.pnas.org/lookup/suppl/doi:10.1073/pnas.1206792109/-/DCSupplemental.

Retrieved from: http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2012/10/04/1206792109.abstract


  1. i think it is part nature/nurture, yes, but SO many other factors (and the literature supports that school factors, i.e. what the school and teachers can do, has a smaller effect than individual factors (stewart, 2007). things such as: the individual’s learning style. how the material is being taught. nutrition. sleep. parental involvement. peer groups. motivation. self-concept and self-efficacy. academic readiness, just to name a few. but, i do think SES is a big determinant of academic achievement and, unfortunately, no matter how much teachers ‘teach to the test’ (in this era of value-added, pay-for-performance, etc.), one of the most contributing factors is something completely out of control of the school and teachers. if the pressure to raise scores and do well on some random standardized test was NOT of utmost importance to those that aren’t in the schools, but sit in their offices and decree policy, teachers COULD really teach. good old fashioned socratic dialectic, experiential learning, hands on, etc…i believe THIS is one of the greatest factors related to academic achievement…to be able to TRULY teach…that would help kids. not testing and retesting. but…teachers are told their jobs are in jeopardy if they do not show improvements on these measures. i know so many wonderful teachers who are stifled in their love of subject and creativity because of “the test.” i have been in classrooms where, a kid asks a question (maybe tangentially related to the topic) or something happens that could allow for a truly teachable moment but, the teacher, being afraid of not “covering” (or depositing a’la freire) feels he or she must stop the conversation/discussion/etc. from going on to “get back to the lesson” (i.e. cover that part of the ‘wonderful,’ new and improved (because we’ve never heard that before, right NEW MATH???) common core curriculum and learn what is going to be on “the test.” just read “pedagogy of the oppressed” or peter mclaren’s work to realize the banking method of education is wholly inferior to true learning and, in fact, stifles any chance for dialectic. i can recall, in my own primary educational experience, that those “tangents” our classes often went off on were, in fact, when i learned the most.

    as a friend once said, ““If you could lead through testing, the U.S. would lead the world in all education categories. When are people going to understand you don’t fatten your lambs by weighing them?”-Jonathan Kozol

    sorry, robert, i realize that wasn’t your original question. i am sure you realize from reading my blog that i still tend to the tangential. on another vein, i am gong to post an article on math and chocolate. hope you like it!

    what are you grateful for? practice gratitude.


    Endya B. Stewart

    School Structural Characteristics, Student Effort, Peer Associations, and Parental Involvement: The Influence of School- and Individual-Level Factors on Academic Achievement

    Education and Urban Society January 2008 40: 179-204, first published on June 29, 2007 doi:10.1177/0013124507304167

  2. I wonder if there is something analogous with the development of math skills. Some of the high school students I teach have extreme difficulties conceptualizing math concepts except for very concrete, relatively simple applications. With regard to the studies it’s a nature and nurture issue. So many low income kids simply don’t have an environment at home that encourages reading. It makes it real tough for them in school. Interesting articles. Thank you.
    Happy Thanksgiving!

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