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Learning and the Brain


Q. Has science been able to help educators teach better, by finding out more about how the brain works?


Brain research is helping us more and more in efforts to make school as productive for each individual child as possible, and to guide and direct each child to the career or calling that will make the best use of his or her "hard-wiring" in the neuroscientific sense.


Wise parents will stay tuned in to the clues that a child gives off and share their observations with teachers - and, at a certain age, the child himself or herself - to try to tweak the learning experience so that it will be the best it can be.


For example, a child with high academic aptitude who did not get good grades often used to be labeled "lazy" or "rebellious." But with brain research, we know that there are fixable problems such as memory deficiencies that can be compensated for with simple strategies such as making a "word picture" to help store concepts in the memory more efficiently.


Similarly, a child who might have been labeled "impulsive" in the olden days now can be taught problem-solving skills to help with organization and planning. Or one who doesn't appear to be able to concentrate long enough to complete a math assignment might simply be sleep-deprived, and neither the parents nor the child even know it. But there are simple solutions for that problem, too.


One of the most exciting pieces of brain research came out of Yale University, when researcher Dr. Sally Shaywitz used magnetic-resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans to show where the oxygen-rich blood was flowing as people read text. She showed that people who read well know how to sound out words, and when they read, they actually are decoding the "phonemes," or sound-symbol correspondences, such as the sound /b/ that the written symbol "b" stands for. The brain scans of the able readers "lit up like a pinball machine" as the scientists tested the use of letter sounds as a decoding tool. But the brain scans of dyslexic readers remained dark, as if their minds were "stumped."


The conclusion is that our brains process one sound at a time - unbelievably fast, but still, separating the sounds each letter makes - and our brains "hear" each word as we process what our eyes see into understanding the meaning of the text. It may look to the naked eye as if a reader is processing a whole word at one time, in one fell swoop, which is what the "Whole Language" philosophy of reading instruction is based upon. But the brain scans show that each individual component sound of each word is being processed separately, and then the able reader's intelligence and existing vocabulary can come into play to decode the word and grasp the context. Dyslexics, who lack the phonics basis of reading comprehension, are blocked from the initial process of decoding because they don't know the sound-symbol correspondences. But, the research shows, once they are instructed in phonics, THEIR brain scans light up like pinball machines, too!


That's a scientific "smoking gun" for the use of phonics-only reading instructional methods in early grade school. People learn to read the same way they learn to talk - one sound at a time. With speech, at first, it's slow and halting, but very quickly, sounds are flowing at astronomically fast speeds out of those little toddler mouths. And it can be the same way with young readers and fast, accurate text decoding, if they are taught to read with phonics-only methods.


So yes, brain science is very helpful to educators these days. The sky's the limit for ways that neuroscience can help educators and children, and it will be fun to watch this relatively new field continue to grow and contribute.


Homework: For a window into the way that education is utilizing brain research in its newer methods and practices, see


By Susan Darst Williams Ages & Stages 123 2008


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