A recent article published in Brain in the News describes research suggesting that babies’ attention to relevant sounds predicted “both how well they would speak at at age 2 1/2 as well as their phonological awareness at age 5” (written by John Higgins, The Seattle Times, September 21, 2104). How do babies learn these crucial differences between relevant and irrelevant sounds? What might parents and teachers of young kids do to encourage this development? The researchers suggest directing a baby’s attention to “what’s important with lots of warm, loving, face-to-face talk using that kind of singsong voice that dips and rises and stretches out vowel sounds.” Reading aloud to kids, conducting meaningful conversations, and engaging in dialog that helps develop vocabulary are all important interactions which make it more likely that a child will be a successful reader. The researchers indicated that just one adult engaging in quality connections can make a huge difference, regardless of family income or education.
Another feature of their research was the use of online instruction to provide specialized instruction for kids who had already shown evidence of dyslexia. Using magnetic resonance imaging, researchers can see how the brains of learning disabled kids activate differently from typical learners during reading tasks. After specialized instruction, those brain difference often disappeared and the kids’ reading and writing skills improved. Again, the researchers emphasized that intervention before five years of age was especially important. As Higgins wrote, “brain chemistry becomes harder to change as children get older. So it’s better to get it right the first time, when efforts to strengthen weak connections stand their best chance for success.” However, the window of opportunity persists, as many of us who teach special needs kids can attest. One parent, also a professor at the University of Washington, enrolled her daughter in the study because dyslexia ran in her family and her ten-year old was struggling to read. Systematic instruction opened the door to effective reading skills; her daughter happily reports that she is now reading Harry Potter books.
Interested in learning more? Check out the Dana Foundation for the latest in brain research.