Children learn to read at varying speeds, and reading is taught at different ages around the world. Given this diversity, are there ways for neuroscientists to help educators better support children? To understand more about how literacy develops and what effect it has on other skills, researchers are investigating what happens in the brain both before and after kids learn to read.

Kaja Jasińska, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto in Canada, looks at the neurobiology of language and literacy to understand the various environmental contexts that shape how children learn to read and subsequent differences in the brain. For example, she and her colleagues examined literacy levels of children in Côte d’Ivoire, where the age of access to formal education varies, in an effort to understand how children are affected when they don’t learn to read until they are 10 or older.

“There’s a reason why the age at which we learn to read matters.”

The team used a form of non-invasive brain scanning called functional near infrared spectroscopy to measure the areas of the brain that were more active when 10- to 12-year-olds were reading or trying to read.

They found that when looking at actual words, rather than scribbles, children who were able to read words showed more activity in brain areas associated with language processing. The team’s work, currently still in preparation, shows that brain activity was different in children who struggled to read individual letters. This group showed more activity in the left prefrontal cortex, which is important for language, when looking at scribbles than when looking at words.

It is interesting to note that the pattern of brain activity is different in younger children who are at a similar stage of learning to read letters. Six-year-old children show more activity when viewing scribbles than when looking at words, but only in the occipital cortex, which is associated with visual processing. This suggests, Jasińska explains, that the brains of later readers may be working harder to differentiate between real letters and scribbles and to interpret printed materials. More competent readers are quickly able to comprehend what is written language and what is not.

“There may be an ideal age by which children should have learned to read.”

There’s a reason why the age at which we learn to read matters. Older children tend to have superior memory skills, which support reading, but their brains have less neural plasticity for reading – less ability to adapt and change – than the brains of younger children. “When you’re 10 to 12, you might have a little less plasticity for reading,” says Jasińska. “There’s something about being older that makes the process of learning to read different. We’re not sure yet why, but we think the linguistic and cognitive processes that lead to successful reading are different, and the balance [of how the brain connects] is different.”

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The research suggests that there may be an ideal age by which children should have learned to read; later on, it is more difficult because crucial connections have not been fully established. The brain’s reading network involves several areas that work together, and the connections between these areas are strengthened as children learn to read. If that process happens later, the relevant pathways may not be connected in the same way.

Finding out what these pathways respond to could help researchers learn how to strengthen them, thereby promoting literacy. The main takeaway, Jasińska explains, is that some types of experience can strengthen the brain networks needed for reading. Activity in these brain networks predicts future reading ability. It’s already clear that certain activities are helpful in this context – reading to children, speaking with them from birth, and singing nursery rhymes, for example. “We know these things matter. We know that kids who have rich experiences with language tend to fare better.” Exposure to quality verbal interactions from birth is beneficial for the brain areas that are important for language and reading.

“Exposure to quality verbal interactions from birth is beneficial for the brain areas that are important for language and reading.”

The next question for Jasińska’s team is how to support older children who are struggling with literacy. “We don’t have all the answers yet, but we do know that certain practices in the classroom are useful in supporting those kids,” such as extra support with all areas of literacy. “Optimising such practices will be key,” says Jasińska. This will enable classrooms to focus on helping children who need extra support in gaining the skills they need for successful reading.

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