Deep Understanding

I currently have the pleasure of taking a course with Tina Grotzer, a cognitive scientist and educator at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  One of the assigned readings was a piece that she wrote on deep understanding back in the nineties.  Although much time has passed since then, it is still a concept that is met with much resistance in some respects.

For example, in 2010, Alberta introduced a new math curriculum.  Seven years later, parent groups and a political party still take issue with many aspects of the curriculum and put out a steady call to go ‘back to the basics’. (As a side note, this is a concept that always intrigues me in the education realm.  We would be quite distraught if our medical professionals ‘did things the way they always did’ rather than have them advance their practices as knowledge and technology advances.  Why do some people hold opposite expectations for education and not want practices in this field to advance as our knowledge about teaching and learning advances?)  One of the components that was a source of frustration in the 2010 curriculum was that it reduced the number of concepts that were required to be taught, and the assumption was that this would lead to less learning.  In her article, “Understanding Counts!: Teaching for Depth in Math and Science”, Tina explains why this is not true.  She builds a strong argument for deep learning and explains why teaching fewer concepts with greater depth is more beneficial than teaching many concepts superficially.   I believe that this is the intent of Alberta’s 201 0 math curriculum.  Yes, there were problems (particularly that the roll-out of the curriculum was poorly done and that teachers, who themselves lacked deep understanding because they had been taught superficially, were therefore ill-equipped to foster deep understanding in their students), but the curriculum’s intent at deepening students’ understanding of math is not one of those problems.

Tina has graciously allowed me to post the pdf of her booklet.  Take ten minutes to read it through and see why deep understanding matters!

Grotzer: Understanding Counts!: Teaching for Depth in Math and Science (shared with permission from Tina Grotzer)

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Two Common Misuses of Rubrics

Rubrics are not a new concept in education.  Their benefits have been touted for by many and a quick Internet search reveals large amounts of literature on the topic for anyone interested in learning more.  Likewise, one does not have to look far to find examples of rubrics or websites that will create rubrics.  Given this familiarity, it seems a bit surprising that they are still used incorrectly.  While the benefits of rubrics are significant (see information under “Why use instructional rubrics” here), these benefits are not harnessed when they are used incorrectly.

There are two major misuses of rubrics that I see in action on a regular basis and I would like to take a moment to address them:

  1. Rubrics are not assessment checklists.

Itemized lists with point values, like this, are not rubrics:

non rubric

(Source: studenthandouts.com)

One of the dominant benefits of rubrics is that it forces the teacher to have a very clear understanding of exactly what the student did well and what they would need to do to improve and this information is communicated to the student.  If a rubric is used well, the student will have a very clear understanding of what they need to do to improve in each category and will not have any need to ask the infamous, “why did I get this mark” question for any item on the rubric.

Rubrics, then, should have a descriptor for each level of achievement.  On the above example, if neatness is a category on a five point scale (assessing neatness to determine if students know a social studies concept is a whole other topic for discussion), students should have a clear explanation of what category five neatness looks like, what category four neatness looks like, and so on.

In her article, “Using Rubrics to Promote Thinking and Learning”, Heidi Goodrich Andrade provides the following example of a rubric:rubric example

In contrast to the non-example rubric, Andrade’s rubric has clear explanations for each level of achievement.  There is still some degree of subjectivity within the descriptors (as will typically be the case), but it is far more clear how each level of achievement is attained.  Thus, the student knows what must be done to arrive at the next level of achievement for each category and can use this to inform his/her work from this point on.  This is how rubrics become tools for learning.

     2.  Rubric grades and descriptors need to match

Rubrics are often written into a scale of four or five levels of achievement.  Mathematically speaking, five levels of achievement would mean that each category on the rubric is calculated out of five.  If percentage grades are given (another assessment issue that is yet another topic that needs to be addressed), that would mean that the categories compute to the following percentages:

  • 100% (5/5)
  • 80% (4/5)
  • 60% (3/5)
  • 40% (2/5)
  • 20% (1/5)

The problem with this is that the descriptors for the rubric can often be generalized into something like this:

  • 5/5 – great work.  No improvement needed.
  • 4/5 – really good work.  Just a slight tweak needed somewhere.
  • 3/5 – pretty good work.  A bit of a misunderstanding or oversight is present.
  • 2/5 – beginner stages.  On the right track, but at the very beginning of the road.
  • 1/5 – not there yet.  Shows significant lack of understanding, or no evidence of understanding, or this component of the assignment was not included in the project.

The problem here is the disconnect between the descriptor and the grade.  If a 2/5 reveals that a student is in the beginning stages, can we confidently assign a failing grade of 40%?  It seems more logical to assign a grade that is at the lower end of the spectrum of a passing grade.

Just because something can be computed mathematically, does not mean that it should.

The lesson here is that, when designing a rubric, the numeric grades sometimes need to be skewed.  Again, if reporting is done in percentages, the teacher needs to look at the descriptors of the rubric and determine an appropriate percentage equivalent that matches the descriptor, rather than assigning a percentage based on a mathematical computation.  For example, a 90% might be more appropriate for a 4/5 on a rubric, rather than the computational score of 80%.  Just because something can be computed mathematically, does not mean that it should.  When using a rubric, it is often necessary to give each level of achievement a grade that is not mathematically derived.

As a side note, there really is no need to put an actual numeric score on a rubric.  In fact, many would argue that that actually reduces the instructional component of a rubric.  When a numeric grade is written on a rubric, students tend to look at the numeric grade and derive their sense of achievement from that, rather than having to read the descriptors to learn how they did and what they could do to improve.  Putting a word descriptor for each level of achievement (rather than a 5-4-3-2-1) will be more informative for students and parents and will allow the teacher to assign a value for each level of achievement that better matches the descriptors than a grade out of five.

 

Rubrics can be incredibly effective tools to use to assess students, to teach them, and to show them where they are at and where they are heading, but it is necessary to ensure that our rubrics clearly communicate each level of achievement and are calculated in a manner that is fair and accurate.

 

 

What Can Neuroscience Teach Teachers about ‘Aha!’ Moments?

Photo credit: pixabay.com

Photo credit: Pixabay.com

I love it when I can read about research and immediately see some direct implications of that research in my teaching practice.

For the results to be legit, researchers must surrender control of the outcome.  Due to this, sometimes scientists devote a chunk of their life to a project that didn’t reveal what they thought it would, or didn’t reveal what seemed useful.  What a terribly frustrating thing, yet inherently necessary due to the very nature of research.

Gabrieli referred to such unusable research as “file drawer research”. Interestingly, he stated that there are issues with this.  No one wants to publicize research that they’ve done that didn’t work, or that didn’t cultivate useful data, yet if they did, it would contribute to the greater field of knowledge.  At the very least, it would enable others to ensure that they didn’t repeat the same research, but it also would contribute to the pool of studies.  If data reveals that ‘all studies showed X results’, but in reality there were studies that didn’t show those results but they weren’t published, then the full story is not being revealed.

But, I digress.  My point is that sometimes research doesn’t seem to work.  Other times, it generates data but it’s not immediately apparent how that data is useful.  Again, this makes sense given the nature of research.  In light of this, it feels like a treat when there is research done and shared that contains workable, useable data.  I enjoyed such a treat when I read this article about the ‘Aha!’ moments of insight, summarizing some of the work of cognitive neuroscientist John Kounios.  Here is some of the useable knowledge I pulled out of it:

  • Finding: prior to that moment of enlightenment, or sudden ‘knowing’, our brains have been processing the information but at a subconscious level. Thus, it feels like a sudden state of enlightenment but our brain has actually been thinking about it for a while.
    Application: that dreaded “blank stare” that students give when they have no idea what we’re talking about, does not necessarily mean that they are not taking in any of the explanation that is being given.  They might be processing on a subconscious level.  Persevere through those blank stares – they might just be the precursor to sudden insight.
  • Finding: a surge of brain activity happens immediately before sudden insight. One of the changes in the brain during this time is a sudden burst of alpha waves visible on EEGs.  This is interesting because alpha waves inhibit the visual system – the higher the amount of alpha waves, the more the visual system is inhibited.  It seems, from what Kounios shares, that the brain essentially dials down its use of visual stimulus to allow for greater use of other brain activity for that short moment of time.
    Application: teachers often struggle with the concept of ‘wait time’.  It can feel uncomfortable and unproductive to have moments of silence during conversation with a student.  Watching a student’s eye movements could help encourage effective use of wait time.  If a child is looking away, it’s probably a good idea to help with their brain’s attempt at reducing stimulus.  Stay quiet, let them think, and see if a moment of insight arises as a result.
  • Finding: Those who are prone to have moments of insight show different brain function (even when not having ‘Aha!’ moments) than those who have fewer such moments.  Kounios is working on developing “different type of thought exercises” that can be administered to further develop the areas of the brain that are activated for sudden insight, but even with his existing research, there are some implications for teaching.
    Application: Kounios himself gives some application here:
    – He speaks of the importance of having a positive mood. For more learning on developing this in the classroom, a great place to start is to read Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset (#growthmindset on Twitter) or follow the culture of learning chat (#COLchat) on Monday evenings on Twitter.
    – He also speaks of the benefits of large rooms with high ceilings (most classrooms) or, more ideally – the outdoors.
  • Finding: ‘Aha!’ moments cause an emotional rush. It doesn’t matter if the outcome of the problem that was solved has a positive or negative connotation to it, simply solving a problem through sudden insight creates this rush.
    Application: This indicates the importance of working within a child’s zone of proximal development (if you’re not familiar with this concept, I highly recommend reading more on this important work by Vygotsky).  If we give students work that is consistently too difficult or too easy for them, they will not have opportunities for such sudden insights and that emotional rush of learning will not be something that is accessible to them.

Throughout the article, Kounios references his book eureka factorThe Eureka Factor” and explains that it contains much more information about his work (written in lay terms) and many more ideas for the practical applications of it.  The positive feedback loop of reward from sudden insight is something that I greatly value in my teaching – it’s a large piece of what makes the job both meaningful and rewarding.  If there is some way that I can further cultivate such moments in my classroom, I’m all for it.  I’m looking forward to ordering his book and learning more about this.

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.

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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