Dyslexia Fast Facts


What is dyslexia?

  • It is neurobiological in origin. Simply put, individuals who have dyslexia use different areas of their brain to process language than non-dyslexic individuals.
  • It involves an unexpected discrepancy between an individual’s cognitive ability and reading ability.
  • Is marked by challenges with speed and accuracy of word decoding.
  • Poor spelling and comprehension are also often associated with dyslexia.
  • There are multiple theories of dyslexia but the most widely accepted theories implicate phonological processing and rapid automatized naming (RAN).
    • phoneme is an individual unit of sound (eg: /c/, /sh/).  Phonological processing includes the ability to isolate and manipulate units of sound.
    • Rapid automatized naming is as it sounds: the ability to rapidly identify objects, letters, etc.


How common is dyslexia?

Dyslexia has a prevalence of 5-17% in the general population (Ozernov-
Palchik, Yu, Wang, & Gaab, 2016).

The prevalence is higher (50%) for individuals with a first degree relative (parent or sibling) with dyslexia (Vogler, DeFries & Decker, 1985).


Can dyslexia be diagnosed before a child is old enough to read?

  • Dyslexia is neurobiological and, as such, indicators of risk can be present regardless of a child’s age or literacy progress. Pre-literacy diagnoses are not common, but researchers such as John Gabrieli and Nadine Gaab are expanding the research in this area.


Can intervention begin before a child is old enough to read?

Yes! Intervention can and should begin prior to literacy!


Why is early intervention so important?

Language development happens in what is referred to as a “sensitive period.” This can be thought of a ‘window of opportunity.’  Although neuroplasticity enables brains of all ages to continue to change and develop, the most ‘bang for your buck’ happens during a sensitive period.

Think about a child who learns to speak two languages as compared to someone who learns a second language as an adult.  Both the child and the adult are capable of learning another language, but the child, who is still in the sensitive period for language development, will be able to speak this second language without an accent, whereas the adult will not.

The sensitive period for language goes until roughly the end of second grade.  Thus, the more intervention that can be given prior to that, the more long-lasting and far-reaching the intervention will be.  It’s important not to wait for a post-literacy diagnosis before beginning intervention because, by that time, the child will be through or nearly through the sensitive period for language development.  When in doubt, intervene, and intervene early.


Who should receive early intervention?

  • Children who have first degree relatives (parents or siblings) with dyslexia. In communication with Dr. Nadine Gaab, she has indicated that for such children she would begin intervention even before warning signs emerge or testing has been done.  This allows for maximum intervention during the sensitive period of language development.
  • Children who have difficulties with sounds of language as indicated in typical preschool interactions (eg: rhyming, identifying words with the same initial sounds, etc.)

As indicated in the prior question, early intervention is essential.  Thus, if in doubt, intervene!

  • Ultimately, rapid automatized naming (RAN) is the best predictor of future reading (Wolf, p. 179) and is helpful for indicating who should receive early intervention.  Difficulties in RAN can be visible at a young age (Wolf, p. 181, suggests three years old).  Unfortunately, determination of RAN skills requires testing and is not visible organically through typical parenting or teaching.

A useful resource for identifying children who are at risk for dyslexia (due to low RAN or other deficits) is the DIBELS test.  It is free and is available online here.


What should early intervention entail?

This is a bit difficult to generalize.  Dyslexia can occur due to any of multiple deficits, and within those deficits, there are multiple sub-types.  Dyslexia interventions need to address each student’s specific needs, although there are specific, overarching areas that should be included.

“Intervention for children with dyslexia should address the development of each of reading’s contributing components–from orthography and phonology to vocabulary and morphology–their connections, their fluency, and their integration in comprehension.”

Wolf, p. 195

In general, the more language exposure a child has, the better.  For a pre-literate child, one can’t go wrong with practices such as the following:

  • Practice anything that relates to the sounds. Eg: rhyming, identifying words that begin with the same initial sounds.
  • Segmenting words into sounds.  (Do this with sounds only, not letters.  Once sounds are mastered, then the concept of letter-sound connections can be explored.) eg: What sounds are in cat?  /k/, /ă/, /t/.  How many sounds do you hear in box?  Four: /b/ /ô/ /k/ /s/.
  • Expose the pre-literate child to print. Anything that can help the child begin to understand that there is a connection between sounds and letters is beneficial.  Ultimately, the child will need to understand that words are made of letters and letters represent sounds.
  • Expose the pre-literate child to books. Reading to young children helps develop understanding of concepts like the directionality of print, that books have a right-side-up and an upside-down, and that pages are turned once words are read.
  • Intentionally use rich vocabulary and explicitly teach vocabulary words to the child.  Don’t water down vocabulary or use made-up words for children.

The importance of exposure to literature, of having others read to the child, of seeing others read, and so on, really cannot be understated.  Home literacy practices can play an important role in mitigating the risk of dyslexia (Dilnot, Hamilton, Maughan, & Snowling, 2016; Powers, Wang, Beach, Sideridis, & Gaab, 2016).

Post-literacy intervention is also complex, but this page offers a helpful and brief synopsis.  Interventions should involve systematic and explicit teaching of phonological processing and sound-letter connections (Wolf, p. 175).

Where can I read more?

The International Dyslexia Association is a great resource for current, reliable, and accessible information.  Their fact sheets are nice for a quick look at specific topics, and this handbook entitled Dyslexia in the Classroom: What every teacher needs to know is great!

For an overview of the neuroscience of reading and dyslexia, I recommend Proust and the Squid: The story and science of the reading brain by Maryanne Wolfe.  (See more information about this book in this previous blog post).

For connection with others who “aim to raise dyslexia awareness, empower families to support their children and inform policy-makers on best practices to identify, remediate and support students with dyslexia,” see if your province or state has a branch of Decoding Dyslexia.



Dilnot, J., Hamilton, L., Maughan, B., & Snowling, M. J. (2016). Child and environmental risk factors predicting readiness for learning in children at high risk of dyslexia. Development and Psychopathology,29(01), 235-244. doi:10.1017/s0954579416000134

Ozernov-Palchik, O., Yu, X., Wang, Y., & Gaab, N. (2016). Lessons to be learned: How a comprehensive neurobiological framework of atypical reading development can inform educational practice. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 10, 45-58. doi:10.1016/j.cobeha.2016.05.006

Powers, S. J., Wang, Y., Beach, S. D., Sideridis, G. D., & Gaab, N. (2016). Examining the relationship between home literacy environment and neural correlates of phonological processing in beginning readers with and without a familial risk for dyslexia: An fMRI study. Annals of Dyslexia, 66(3), 337-360. doi:10.1007/s11881-016-0134-2

Vogler, G. P., DeFries, J. C., & Decker, S. N. (1985). Family History as an Indicator of Risk for Reading Disability. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 18(7), 419-421. doi:10.1177/002221948501800711

Wolf, M. (2008). Proust and the Squid: The story and science of the reading brain. New York: Harper Perennial.



Proust and the Squid: The story and science of the reading brain – Book Review

After having heard about this book in a couple of my classes at HGSE last year, and having read a chapter as a reading assignment there, it most definitely made it onto my reading list for future reading.  It’s taken a bit but I have finally read it and am so glad that I did!

Maryanne Wolf, the author of Proust and the Squid: The story and science of the reading brain, conducts research on the neuroscience of dyslexia at Tufts University in the greater Boston area.  I read some of her research last year and was consistently impressed, and reading the book only furthered my respect and appreciation for her work.

Proust and the Squid: The story and science of the reading brain is a comprehensive but accessible overview of the current understandings of reading and reading disorders, as discovered through neuroscience research, as well as an overview of the history of reading –  a pertinent consideration for providing context for neuroscience research findings.

I recommend this book for anyone who is interested in developing a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the neurological processes of reading, as well as for those interested in learning more about what underlies dyslexia.  A small portion of the book might be a bit too thickly science-based for some people’s preferences, but don’t let this deter you from picking it up.  That small portion of the book can easily be omitted without suffering a distortion of the message of the remainder of the book.

Rather than summarize the book in general, I have chosen here to highlight a few of the points that grabbed my attention.  Some of these are things of which I am well aware, but Wolf managed to articulate in such a clear way that they can’t be overlooked.  Others are points that extended my own knowledge and which I wish to remember for my own future work.

Teaching children to read early is not necessarily advantageous

Wolf cites a study by Goswami, which found that “Children who were asked to begin to learn to read at age five did less well than those who began to learn at age seven” (p. 96).  Wolf ties this in to physical maturation in the brain and the specifics of myelination.  Of course, there are always exceptions and one ought to be careful to avoid the effects of sweeping generalizations, but certainly this is something for educators and parents to know.

“Children who were asked to begin to learn to read at age five did less well than those who began to learn at age seven” (Wolf, p. 96).

As an aside, it is also worth nothing that many studies show the benefits of early literary awareness in general (Dilnot, Hamilton, Maughan, & Snowling, 2016; Powers, Wang, Beach, Sideridis, & Gaab, 2016).  So keep in mind that while later reading instruction might be appropriate, this does not negate the need for early language awareness development through phonological processing exercises (eg: rhyming, identifying sounds, etc.).  Another note of caution is that for a child who is persistently delayed not only in reading but in the accompanying developmental milestones that can be indicative of dyslexia, early identification and intervention is crucial.

Wolf’s main takeaway here is to allow the early reader to read early, but not to rush children to learn to read before their brain has reached the appropriate maturation point for such endeavours.  She states that “there are excellent biological reasons why reading comes in its own good time” (Wolf, p.97).

We are failing our students in reading instruction

This one is straight-forward, but jarring.  Wolf cites information from the National Reading Panel, which indicates that “30 to 40 percent of children in the fourth grade do not become fully fluent readers with adequate comprehension” (Wolf, p. 135).  I am not sure what the statistics on this are in Canada, but I would suspect that they are at least somewhat similar. Considering that most schools give little reading instruction after fourth grade (this is a typical point of shifting expectations from learning to read to reading to learn), this is a troubling statistic.

“30 to 40 percent of children in the fourth grade do not become fully fluent readers with adequate comprehension” (Wolf, p. 135).

We can and must do better, and the onus for this is on us as educators.  Wolf states that “those of use who work with children want them to realize that although they may learn differently, each one of them can and will learn to read.  It is our job, not theirs, to find out how best to teach them” (p. 210).  I would also argue that more responsibility for these statistics needs to be held by teacher education programs.  Wolf indicates frustration with this as well, and writes that “too few teachers know much about the history of dyslexia, and fewer still are aware of current trends” (p. 193).  A large body of research substantiates a) the feasibility of early diagnosis b) that early intervention is possibly and c) that early intervention is crucial.  We need teachers who are well-equipped with knowledge of what to look for and have access to necessary resources to intervene early and to intervene well.

Dyslexia is not a visual problem

This is a common misconception which continues to be propagated but is false.  In new-to-me evidence of this statement, Wolf cites a study by Liberman and Shankweiler which involved testing children who were profoundly deaf (p. 173).  Their reading deficits were similar to what is present in children with dyslexia, where phonological processing skills are implicated.

Wolf also addresses the misconceptions that letter reversals are a) indicative of dyslexia and b) point to it being a visual issue (p. 174).  She cites a study by Vellutino, who connected letter reversals with non-visual breakdowns in processing.

She indicates that “there are now hundreds of phonological studies demonstrating that many children with reading disabilities do not perceive, segment, or manipulate individual syllables and phonemes in the same way as average-reading children do” (p. 174).  Wolf, like many researchers in the field, insists on the importance of explicit, sequential, phonics-based intervention for struggling readers, focusing specifically on the development of phoneme awareness and grapheme-phoneme connections (p. 175).

A simple one-size-fits-all solution does not and will not exist.

There are different subtypes of dyslexia and there are different deficits that can be present in dyslexia (Wolf, p. 188-189).  As such, there is no one, singular approach to intervention that is going to work for all children (Wolf, p. 209).  Dyslexia intervention programs and tutoring can be very costly and the last thing one wants to do is invest in something that doesn’t work.  Be wary of a program or approach that claims to be a ‘catch-all’.

For once and for all, could we please stop perpetuating the belief that people with dyslexia are lazy, stubborn, or unintelligent!

I love the way Wolf addresses this:

“Children with any form of dyslexia are not ‘dumb’ or ‘stubborn’; nor are they ‘not working to potential’–the three most frequent descriptions they endure.  However, they will be mistakenly described in these ways many times by many people, including themselves.  It is vital for parents and teachers to work to ensure that all children with any form of reading problem receive immediate, intensive intervention, and that no child or adult equates reading problems with low intelligence.  A comprehensive support system should be in place from the first indication of difficulty until the child becomes an independent, fluent reader, or the frustrations of reading failure can lead to a cycle of learning failure, drop-out, and delinquency.  Most important, the considerable potential of these children will be lost to themselves and to society.” (Wolf, p. 195-196)


There are many, many more gems in Proust and the Squid: The story and science of the reading brain.  It’s a great book and I recommend it to anyone involved in teaching reading or Language Arts or overseeing those who do.

Proust and the Squid

Sound Chaining: A tool for phonemic awareness development



In her book, Proust and the Squid: The story and science of the reading brain, Maryanne Wolf (p. 194) states that intervention for readers with dyslexia should address:

  • orthography
  • phonology
  • vocabulary
  • morphology

Phonology can be divided into further categories, one of which is phonemic awareness.  According to Birsh, phonemic awareness is “awareness of the smallest units of sound in the speech stream and the ability to isolate or manipulate the individual sounds in words” (p. 713).

Phonemic awareness skills can be further subdivided into the following categories:

  • blending
  • segmenting
  • isolating
  • deleting
  • manipulating

Sound chaining can involve each of these subskills.

Sound chaining must be done only verbally, with no writing or reading component, if it is to truly address phonemic awareness.  It involves manipulation of words to arrive at new words.  It’s a lovely tool to have in one’s arsenal because it is easy to plan and it requires little time and no materials to execute!

Here’s an example of a sound chaining exercise.  Note that the letters in slashes represent sounds as opposed to letters.  No letter names are given in this exercise.

Example 1 (initial and final sounds):
Say teeth.
Now say teeth, without the /th/.
Say tee.
Now say tee, but change the /t/ to /s/.

Say see.
Now say see, but add a /p/ to the end.
Say seep.
Now say seep, but change the /s/ to a /l/.
Say leap.
Now say leap, but change the /p/ to a /f/.

In Example 1, the initial and final sounds were altered.  The difficulty can be decreased by using compound words and removing one word (eg: say couwboy without cow) instead of initial or final sounds.  Alternately, the difficulty can be increased by altering interior word sounds (see below).

Example 2 (initial, final, and interior word sounds):
Say freeze.
Now say freeze, but drop the /r/.
Say fees.
Now say fees, but change the /f/ with a /br/.
Say breeze.
Now say breeze, but drop the /r/.
Say bees.
Now say bees, but change the /s/ to a /ch/.
Say beach.
Now say beach, but change the /b/ to a /t/.




Birsh, J. R. (2011). Multisensory Teaching of Basic Language Skills. Baltimore: Brookes Publishing Co.

Wolf, M. (2008). Proust and the Squid: The story and science of the reading brain. New York: Harper Perennial.


Dear Friend with Dyslexia

An audio file of this post is available here.

Dear Friend with dyslexia,

I am not an expert on dyslexia – nothing of the sort – but I did recently attend a summer institute on the neuroscience of reading.  The institute was primarily focused on dyslexia.  I’d like to pass along to you some of the information that was shared.  I hope that much of this is information that you already know.  I think, however, that it might feel good to hear someone else validate it and to remind you of the presence of legitimate research to support the information.

Let me begin with one of the most crucial pieces of information: In no way does having dyslexia indicate compromised intelligence.  You already know that, don’t you?  I hope, dear Friend, that you haven’t been fighting against that truth for years, but unfortunately some of you carry with you the scars of comments and stigmas of untruths surrounding this.

Let me elaborate a bit.  Those working in the field of dyslexia have little agreement as to the criteria for establishing whether someone has dyslexia.  The most agreed upon criteria, however, is a gap between intelligence and reading ability.  More simply put, the very fact that you have dyslexia indicates that your intelligence is just fine, but that your reading ability does not match what one would expect for your intelligence.

Dyslexia is not related to intelligence.  What it is related to, however, is the way that your brain works.  Neuroscientists are doing some really interesting work with people with dyslexia.  They are able to have them go in an MRI scanner, have them complete a task while in the scanner, and then see what parts of their brain they are using to complete the tasks.  This generates a picture of the individual’s brain, and the parts of their brain that they are using light up in the picture.  When the same tests are done on people without dyslexia, it becomes very apparent that people with dyslexia use entirely different parts of their brain to complete reading and reading-related tasks.  This is crucial information for you to know.  It means that your reading deficits are not related to effort.  Your reading deficits are not related to the reading instruction you received or didn’t receive.  We’ve already established that your reading deficits are not related to intelligence.  Your reading deficits exist because your brain is wired to work differently than people without dyslexia.  Regardless of how hard you try or how much instruction you receive, your brain can’t be rewired to process reading differently.  There are certainly things that can be done to help make reading be less difficult for you, but your brain will still use alternate systems to read.

When people without dyslexia read, they are primarily using the back areas of their brain.  The front area of the brain, which is the thinking area, is not utilized during reading for those without dyslexia.  This is rather convenient.  It means that, while reading, a person can be using the thinking area of the brain to be thinking about what they are reading: connecting it to their life, asking questions, making predictions, and so on.  This is part of what makes reading be so engaging and enjoyable.  In contrast, when you read, one of the dominant areas of your brain that is being used for the reading process is this front area of the brain.  This is unfortunate.  It means that your thinking area is dominated by the act of reading and thus it isn’t readily available for you to be thinking so much about what you are reading.  There are other areas of your brain that you use when you read, too.  In fact, you use more areas of your brain to read than people without dyslexia.  Your brain is working much harder to complete the reading.  Again, this is a fact that you already know, at least to some degree, don’t you?  Reading is tough for you.  It’s tough because your brain doesn’t use the areas that are most efficient at reading and processing language.  It’s tough because you use more of your brain to read than people without dyslexia – this shows, in concrete form, that it takes much more effort for people with dyslexia to read than it does for people without.  It’s tough because your thinking area is so occupied with the process of reading that you don’t have the luxury of interacting with your reading in the same way that non-dyslexic readers can.  Reading is tough for you, and science backs this up: your brain lights up light a light bulb on the MRI scanner when you’re reading.

There is good news in this, though.  One of the great things that science shows us is that our brains have a lot of plasticity.  Plasticity is the ability to change and develop.  We would expect this of a child’s brain, but the adult brain shows no less plasticity than a child’s.  What this means is that we can continue to grow and develop our brains.  We can establish more connections within our brain, thus allowing brain systems to work more efficiently.  The simple message from this is: don’t give up.  You always have the capacity to continue to learn and develop, even in terms of reading.  Though you can’t rewire your brain, you can continue to develop ways to compensate and make the reading systems that you use work a little better for you.

There’s other good news, too.  When our brains have deficits in one area, they often make up for it in other areas.  You have probably heard stories of people who lack one of their senses but another sense is incredibly strong as a result.  For example, perhaps they can’t see but they have an incredible sense of hearing.  Have you considered that the same principle applies to you?  When your peers were learning to read and were growing and developing the areas of their brain that typically process reading, you were probably growing and developing another area of your brain.  Perhaps you have an incredibly powerful memory.  Or maybe you’re very skilled in music, art, or another area of fine art.  Memory and/or fine arts are often areas that, for whatever reason, end of being extra developed in people who have reading deficits.  Your skills in this area have likely developed to this degree because you have dyslexia.  They are an important part of what makes you be you – and they certainly need to be celebrated.

You should probably be aware of the fact that dyslexia has been shown to have some heritability to it.  This means that there is some likelihood that your children will have dyslexia as well.  The important thing to know with this is that research indicates that the earlier that reading interventions are given, the more helpful they will be.  So, if you are aware of the fact that your children stand a chance of having dyslexia as well, you can be proactive in seeking out supports for them early.  There is continuing work being done in the area of finding early identifiers for dyslexia and hopefully in the foreseeable future children will be given reading interventions before they fail to develop reading skills, rather than after.

Another thing to consider with regard to your children and the fact that they, too, might journey with dyslexia, is the fact that 25-40% of students who meet the criteria for ADHD also meet the criteria for dyslexia.  If your child receives a diagnosis for ADHD, given that and the fact that they have a parent with dyslexia, be aware that their chances of having dyslexia would then be quite high.  Advocate for them and get them access to the supports that they need so that, if they do indeed have dyslexia, they can reap the benefits of early intervention.

Having dyslexia isn’t inherently desirable, but we all have our limitations and deficiencies.  Just as those of us with vision issues can’t squint harder or tell our brains to process our sight more clearly, so too, sheer willpower or determination won’t rewire your brain to not have dyslexia.  Unfortunately many people still attribute dyslexia to laziness, but this is a stigma that needs to die.  You and I know that it has nothing to do with effort.  Neuroscientists can show you all sorts of pretty brain pictures indicating how, when you read, your brain looks much different than non-dyslexic readers.  It’s a brain thing.  It’s not an effort thing.  It’s not an instruction thing.  It’s not an intelligence thing.  It’s a brain thing.

We all have areas where our brain excels.  We all have areas where our brain has limitations.  The beautiful thing is that where one person’s brain is limited, another person’s excels.  And where that person’s brain is limited, someone else’s brain will excel.  There is deep beauty and richness in this.  It has been dubbed ‘neurodiversity’.  We each bring our own unique flavour into this world.  We each contribute our piece of individuality to the beautiful mosaic of humanity.   And that, dear Friend, is something to celebrate.


So today, I celebrate you.  I celebrate your uniqueness.  I celebrate your persistence.  I celebrate your ability to overcome.  I celebrate the fact that you have developed ways of compensating for your dyslexia.  I celebrate your bravery.  I celebrate your resiliency in light of the scars that you bear from the stigmas you fight.  I celebrate your incredible effort.  I celebrate your intelligence.  I celebrate your unique skills that have been developed as a result of your dyslexia.  I celebrate the uniqueness and diversity that you contribute to humanity.

Dear Friend with dyslexia, I celebrate you.

Related Posts:
The Neuroscience of Reading – Part 1
The Neuroscience of Reading – Part 2
The Neuroscience of Reading – Part 3

The Neuroscience of Reading – Part 3


Theories on the Causes/Effects of Dyslexia

On the third day of the Learning and the Brain: Neuroscience of Reading summer institute, Dr. Gabrieli shared some other theories about presenting causes/effects (it’s very difficult to determine which is a cause and which is an effect) of dyslexia.  One of these was that of rapid auditory processing.  In the English language, many of the letters, and in fact, even entire words are nearly identical in the sound waveforms that they produce.  For example, the waveforms for the words “stay” and “say” are identical, other than a 100 millisecond silent gap in “stay”.  We are so attuned to miniscule variations that we can identify such a difference and use it to inform our comprehension.  Gabrieli referenced a study that showed that non-dyslexic readers were able to distinguish rapid sounds much better than readers with dyslexia.  Those with dyslexia increased their accuracy significantly when there was more of a gap between the delivery of each sound stimulus.  There is a strong correlation between reading ability and ability to pick up these incredibly subtle differences in sound.

Gabrieli also spoke of the anchoring hypothesis.  This was a study that showed that non-dyslexic readers were able to identify and use tonal anchors in speech essentially as a landmark from which they could reference other sounds.  When the same test was given to readers with dyslexia, they were unable to use the anchor tones in this way.  Gabrieli suggested that it could be that this is an issue related to learning rather than perception.  The control students were not told to use the anchor tone.  In fact, they were not even told that there was an anchor tone.  Regardless, they were able to learn a cue and use it essentially as their own scaffolding and then further build their learning from there.  Children with dyslexia, however, were unsuccessful in identifying or using the anchor tone to guide their learning.

Another interesting study was conducted to investigate magnocellular processing.  A study on this found a 27% reduction of size of magnocellular cell bodies in the lateral geniculate nucleus of those with dyslexia (Livingstone and Galaburda, 1991).  This is significant because this is the part of the brain that is sensitive to visual motion.  When people with dyslexia are shown a series of moving dots, they had an abnormal brain response.  This is surprising, since reading doesn’t involve motion, but perhaps it is connected to the fact that our eyes are constantly moving as we read and to the fact that many dyslexic readers have difficulties with visual tracking.  Research suggests that practicing reading makes a very significant impact on the development of the motion area of the brain.

There was also evidence presented from multiple studies that suggests that those with dyslexia have much more difficulty identifying anomalies in visual cues than those without dyslexia.  Again, this is not surprising since one would expect strong readers to be able to pick up to slight visual cues, just as they would pick up slight auditory cues.

Reading Interventions for Students with Dyslexia

Gabrieli began this lecture with an apology.  The fact of the matter is that neuroscience does not have much to offer in terms of data here.  There is very little data from neuroscience regarding the ‘how’ of intervention.  He stated that the question of ‘now what’ – what can we do to better serve students than we did before – really remains to be answered.  This is due to many reasons, one being the logistics of conducting a major study requiring students to receive fMRIs, given that MRI machines are not at all portable.  Another reason for the difficulty in studies in this area is that one of two options has to be pursued: 1) a control group is deprived of the interventions given the test group.  This seems rather unethical – to take struggling readers and intentionally deprive them of the supports that they need. 2) Give the intervention to the control group slightly after it has been given to the test group.  This allows the initial research to be done while not depriving either group of the intervention that they need.  The problem with this, however, is that there no longer is a control group to be used in longitudinal studies.

It is necessary, when examining reading intervention programs, to note the difference between programs that are based on research, and programs that have themselves been researched.  The former is fairly common but the latter is incredibly rare.

The research has consistently and clearly demonstrated the plasticity of our brains.  Adult brains exhibit no less plasticity than children – both are capable of incredible growth, change, and development.  As was stated in an earlier post (The Neuroscience of Reading – Part 1), I am grateful that the data shows such a propensity towards brain growth and development because it marries so well with the work that Carol Dweck is doing on growth mindset.

The simple summary here is that neuroscience does not tell us what interventions to use, but it does indicate a couple of things:

  1. It very strongly supports the practice of using interventions in general.
  2. It supports the use of interventions as early as possible. The earlier the intervention, the better it seems to work.  By grades three-four range, the type of interventions that work well for the younger students really don’t have the same effect anymore.
  3. It also indicates, as Gabrieli stated, that there is a pretty big diversity of students who need a pretty big diversity of help.  A one-size-fits all approach to reading intervention is not going to work and the neuroscientific data certainly agrees with that.

Additional Considerations

 One consideration that I’d like to share is something that came up over and over through the duration of this course.  It is that of the importance of practicing reading.  The research that was presented to us showed that regular reading helps develop multiple areas of the brain.  It was really clear from the research that the benefits of reading on brain growth and development cannot be overstated.  Unfortunately, for those with reading disabilities, they tend to get stuck in a cycle: reading is difficult so they do less of it, but not reading does not help make it be any easier.  The less reading they do, the more the ability gap widens between them and their non-dyslexic peers.  Likewise, for those who enjoy reading, the more they enjoy it the more they read; and the more they read, the more they develop their reading skills.  Thus, the reading ability gap continues to widen in each direction.  Gabrieli shared that in grade five, a good reader may read as many words in two days as a poor reader does in a year.  Again, this speaks to the importance of early intervention.  If we can intervene early so that readers with dyslexia can learn how to compensate early, we might be able to reduce that ability gap at least somewhat.

Also in light of the increased effectiveness of early intervention, it seems prudent to consider how we might be able to be proactive rather than reactive in our approach to reading interventions.  Typically it is only after a child fails to develop reading skills that we intervene.  What could we do to intervene before they fail?  In the future, this might be an area where neuroscience could play a role.  In the meantime, the best predictors of future reading difficulty in prereaders are deficits in phonological awareness, rapid naming, and letter knowledge.  Additionally, there are multiple predictive indicators that relate to a child’s ability to rhyme.

Another role that neuroscience can play is to simply show the differences in brain function of a typical reader and a reader with dyslexia.  To see the very visible differences in brain function can be very empowering to a struggling reader and their family.  To know that the deficits are not due to a lack of intelligence, a lack of effort, or any other such factor, but rather due to a very legit brain difference – that is powerful knowledge.

Related Posts:
The Neuroscience of Reading – Part 1
The Neuroscience of Reading – Part 2
Dear Friend with Dyslexia

The Neuroscience of Reading – Part 2

The second day of Learning and the Brain’s “Neuroscience of Reading” summer institute was a continuation of great learning.  The majority of the lecture time was spent examining what’s going on in the brain of regular readers and those with reading disorders, specifically dyslexia.

What is Dyslexia?

Both Gabrieli and Christodoulou firmly established that there is very little agreement as to the diagnostic criteria for dyslexia.

  • The one dominant and widely accepted criteria is that there is a discrepancy between intellect and reading ability.
  • The other fairly readily (but not entirely consistently) agreed upon criteria is that of a limitation in phonological processing.
  • The often cited criteria of letter or word reversals is not inherent in dyslexia. Some readers with dyslexia will have reversals show up as a presenting issue, but many will not.  Word and letter reversals can also be present without having dyslexia.  It seems to be pretty much a non-issue in terms of diagnosis, although the explanation as to why such reversals happen is pretty interesting.

When considering the issue of diagnosis, it is worth noting that there is a high comorbidity between dyslexia and ADHD, although it seems that often the dyslexia component is present without diagnosis in many children with ADHD. There is a 25-40% comorbidity rate between ADHD and dyslexia.  It is easy to see that difficulty in reading could certainly cause a person to be/appear to be unfocused.

Why do children struggle with letter reversals?

Both Christodoulou and Gabrieli indicated that humans are programed to be able to identify any given object regardless of its orientation.  If any type of transformation is applied, confusion does not ensue.  For example, if you see a chair lying on its side, you still know it’s a chair.  If you see your cat lying in a new position, you still know it’s your cat.  Written letters and numbers seem to be the only exception to this rule.  They are the only instance when seeing it from a different perspective no longer renders it as that object.  Think of the letter ‘b’, which, under a variety of transformations, could be a ‘d’, a ‘p’ or a ‘q’.  So with that, we are to render the differences as significant, and yet we are expected to view any particular letter, written in any conceivable font, or handwriting, as the same.  It is on this premise that letter reversals occur.  Children must override the innate rule that teaches them that objects seen from different perspectives are still the same object, and teach themselves that letters and numbers are exceptions to this.

When breaking down the process of reading, it becomes apparent that it is an incredibly complex task on a neurological level.  Thus, it is of little surprise that there is capacity for brain processing issues in one or more areas of this process, which in turn may present as reading disabilities.  With any area of ability, there is possibility of disability.  The more complex the task, the more potential areas there are in the breakdown of employing that task.

What does our brain do when we read?

Reading is a complex task that requires employing various skills in tandem:

1. Auditory and visual neurological functions:

Gabrieli points out that we are designed as visual and auditory people.  There are large sections of our brains that are devoted to each of these tasks.  Reading, he notes, is something that was developed after the existence of humanity and is not a task for which we have an innate ability.  We have an innate ability to see and we have a visual processing area of the brain.  We have an innate ability to listen and we have an auditory processing area of the brain.  Likewise, we have an innate ability to speak.  What we don’t have, however, is an innate ability to read or a specific ‘reading’ part of the brain.  Reading involves many areas of our brain.

2. Orthography and phonology:

Orthography is the way that words look and phonology is how they sound.  In an ideal world, there would be one phoneme (sound) for every grapheme (letter symbol).  This would greatly simplify the reading process and would enable people to learn to read with much greater ease.  The problem, however, is the number of letters that have multiple sounds as well as the number of rule exceptions that exist.  There is no language that has a 1:1 ratio of graphemes to phonemes.  Italian has a 33:25 ratio, so it is quite close.  English, on the other hand, has a 1120:45 ratio.  It should come as no surprise, then, that Italian-speaking children, on average, learn to read in a year, whereas English-speaking children take three years to accomplish the same task.  Gabrieli spoke of a study that compared the ability of dyslexic readers and non-dyslexic readers to identify letters and sounds.  The study shows that regular readers very often activated the brain’s areas for processing of sound and letters simultaneously, but the brains of the readers with dyslexia very rarely activated both neural processing areas at the same time.  This is important to note because it makes a distinction between being developmentally behind in reading as opposed to having a brain that processes reading in an atypical manner.

Gabrieli explained another study that illustrated exactly this fact.  Children with dyslexia were compared with non-dyslexic readers who were a number of years younger but read at the same level.  The study quite clearly showed that the children with dyslexia were using a different processing method to accomplish the same reading as their ability-matched peers.

3. Listening comprehension and decoding

Christodoulou spoke of the “reading equation”.  She stated that reading comprehension = listening comprehension + decoding.  Both of these processes must be working at the same time as well.  The listening comprehension refers to being able to contextualize and make meaning of the words that are being decoded.  If you were given a sentence of nonsensical words, you would be able to decode them, but you would have no listening comprehension as to the meaning of those words, thus reading comprehension would be non-existent.  The opposite is also true, if a student can understand and make meaning of words but does not have the ability to decode, obviously they will not have reading comprehension either.  Perhaps here it is worth mentioning yet another study, which illustrated the fact that children with dyslexia use a far greater amount of their brain when they read than those without.  To accomplish the same task, they must work much harder.

Other complexities of reading:

Another interesting fact regarding the complexity of reading is that it requires the children to go backwards in a process with which they are very familiar.  A pre-reading child can converse about a great deal of topics.  They can speak of the chair in the room, and the word ‘chair’ has meaning.  There is nothing that they need to do to unleash that meaning.  When they begin to read, however, their ability to gain meaning from words is compounded by the addition of many extra steps.  They now must simultaneously employ all of reading skills that were previously mentioned, just to get meaning from the word ‘chair’.

I suppose that the strongest thing that was reiterated for me in this day’s session was that dyslexia does not simply mean that students are behind in their reading.  Rather, it means that their brain uses quite a different process to read than most.  It seems that there would likely be many families that would benefit from seeing some of the fMRI pictures which show this with great clarity.  Dyslexia is not related to intelligence.  Dyslexia is not related to effort (in fact, there is much evidence that readers with dyslexia exhibit far greater effort than the average reader).  Dyslexia is a term that is applied to brains that respond in a very unique way to print on a page.  As teachers, we’re not going to be able to change the way the dyslexic brain functions.  We can only hope to to intervene in meaningful ways to make the dyslexic child’s method of processing work for them in the best possible way.

Related Posts: 
The Neuroscience of Reading – Part 1
The Neuroscience of Reading – Part 3
Dear Friend with Dyslexia

The Neuroscience of Reading – Part 1


The course location: the Stata Center at MIT

I currently have the privilege of attending a Learning and the Brain summer institute on the Neuroscience of Reading with Dr. John Gabrieli and Dr. Joanna Christodoulou on the MIT campus in Cambridge.  My goal through this course will be to gain a better understanding of how the neuroscience of reading can directly inform our practices at the classroom level. *Disclaimer: I am using this blog post (and the ones that follow) as a means of processing and making meaning of the material that I am learning at this course.  Although I will make every effort to ensure that my statements are accurate, I am sure that there will be areas of my understanding that contain inaccuracies or are not fully developed.  As with the beginnings of learning anything, we tend to begin with areas of inaccuracies and the more we learn, the better we can self-identify and correct our misunderstandings. Today was an introductory day.  We didn’t really delve into the depths of reading (that will come tomorrow) but it was fascinating nonetheless.  We went to the neuroscience area of the MIT campus and were exposed to two of the dominant research methods that are utilized in educational neuroscience: fMRIs and EEGs.


Watching data be generated as a participant undergoes fMRI testing.

fMRIs (functional magnetic resonance imaging) are similar to regular MRIs and are conducted in the same type of machine.  The difference is that a regular MRI highlights structure whereas and fMRI shows what the brain is doing.  For an fMRI, the participant is asked to engage in a specific task or is exposed to specific stimuli.  As the brain responds to the task or stimuli, it uses energy in that area of the brain.  The energy that that part of the brain utilizes needs to be replaced, so there is an increased blood flow to that area to deliver oxygen and glucose.  The oxygenated blood that is coming into that area has a lower concentration of iron due to a higher concentration of oxygen.  Iron has magnetic properties and thus can be detected by the magnets in the MRI machine.  Thus, the machine is able to indicate areas where there is a change of concentration of iron, and therefore a change in the level of oxygenated and deoxygenated blood.  There also are some structural changes to the activated area of the brain in terms of its actual volume and such, but those are technicalities that we didn’t really go into.  The MRI machine at MIT is a three million dollar machine of great importance in the world of educational neuroscience. They have an MRI-safe baby cradle that is used to conduct MRIs on 6-8 month babies.  For the older children, a training room is utilized for them to learn to be comfortable with the machine and to learn to lie still.  The children go into the practice machine and are shown a movie, but a special camera attachment in this set-up detects motion and when/if they move their head, the video turns off, and when they lie still, it turns on again.  This is used to help train the children to lie still so that a higher percentage of useable data will be generated.

The MRI-safe baby cradle.

The MRI-safe baby cradle.


The MRI training room for children.

A participant is prepped for an EEG.

A participant is prepped for an EEG.

We also were shown how EEGs work and looked at the benefits and limitations of fMRIs as compared to EEGs.  EEGs are cheaper to administer and are less intimidating than MRIs.  They give nearly instantaneous data (data appears within milliseconds of the brain processing), however they don’t locate the specific region of the brain that is being activated.  fMRIs give much more specific information regarding the area of the brain that is activated, however the lag time between the brain activity and the generation of data is longer.  It takes time for the blood to travel to the activated part of the brain so there is a lag before the activation is visible. Armed with this information about the research methods used, Dr. Gabrieli gave a presentation showing various data that have been collected and what was learned from the data.  There was much of interest in what he shared but a few things in particular were noteworthy for me.

Thinning of the cerebral cortex through childhood and adolescence: Gabrieli showed data to indicate that the cerebral cortex is very thick in babies and then thins out over the childhood and adolescent years.  He provided some staggering statistics about the rate of cortex growth:

  • it is estimated that during the seventh week of embryonic development, 500,000 neurons develop per minute
  • at its peak growth, the brain develops 1.8 million synapses per second

and some staggering statistics about its thinning:

  • we lose 20 billion synapses per day into adolescence (therefore it’s not surprising that things can go awry).

A sophisticated method of selection determines which neurons are useful and will stay and which are not useful and will go. Gabrieli shared some seemingly contradictory findings about the natural, expected process of cortex thinning but some correlations between desirable situations (high test scores and high socio-economic status) and thicker cortexes.  I will be interested to continue to follow this area of study as further research unfolds in this area.  I’m curious as to the practical implications of cortex thinning and neuron death and how/if that factors into education.

Brain plasticity: Another finding that was of particular interest to me was that of the capacity of the brain to structurally change.  He shared of a well-known study on taxi drivers in London, England.  Becoming certified to drive a taxi there is an intense and complex undertaking and requires developing a detailed mental map of the city.  The study showed that these drivers developed a larger hippocampus than the average person.  This seems not to be an issue of correlation but of causation – it seems that the enlarging of the hippocampus happened as a result of the development of the mental map of London, since the enlarged hippocampus was not evident prior to the internalizing of the map. This finding is quite intriguing to me.  I did not realize that the brain had such an ability to structurally change.  That it not only has such an ability but can do that as expertise is developed in a certain area is incredibly promising in the area of education.  This corresponds very strongly with the notion of growth mindset (Carol Dweck) and speaks to the fact that we can, in fact, physically develop areas of our brain so as to expand our abilities to carry out specific skills.  This has huge implications in the classroom and very much validates Dweck’s message.

Co-responsive brain activation A third area of interest was learning that the brain can be activated by indirect stimuli.  Gabrieli shared how viewing loved ones in pain activates the same areas of the brain as when we experience our own pain.  Likewise, imagining an event activates the same areas of the brain as experiencing that event.  (MIT recently published some findings on the implications of this in the treatment of depression).  It seems to me that this would have significant implications in empathy training in children and in character/moral education.  This is another area that I’ll have to note for further reading.

Ethics The last area that I will highlight is that of ethics.  All science has ethics embedded into it, and sometimes it’s in areas where one might not expect.  Gabrieli shared how we can artificially manipulate the brain so that the individual can learn much more effectively.  My understanding is that this (at least currently) is quite an invasive thing but it begs the question about the ethics behind that.  Ethics in science tend to pose the question of “does the fact that we can mean that we should?” Artificially manipulating a person’s capacity to learn sounds like playing with fire to me. Earlier in the day, Dr. Christodoulou was speaking about some of the ethics of pre-diagnosing, treating, and thus eradicating some neurological conditions.  If we could eradicate such things as dyslexia and autism, would that be beneficial?  It goes without saying that there would be enormous ethical implications with that.  For further reading, check out the concept of neurodiversity.  John Elder Robinson explains it well here.

In summary, the brain is an amazing and complex organ which still contains much to be discovered.  There are many implications of neuroscientific research in the world of education and this is an area that needs to continue to be developed and studied.  Teachers need to ensure that they are aware of the world of research that is happening in this area and work towards using that data to better inform instruction.  I’m looking forward to learning much more on this in the subsequent days of this course, and then to continuing to further develop my own understanding of educational neuroscience through my own continued self-study.

Related posts:  The Neuroscience of Reading – Part 2  The Neuroscience of Reading – Part 3 Dear Friend with Dyslexia