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reading difficulties

Bridging Brain Research and Dyslexia Awareness

Blog Type:  Learning Disabilities Date Posted:  Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Submitted by Nadine Gaab, PhD., and Elizabeth Norton, PhD.

As scientists who study reading difficulties and developmental dyslexia, we hope that one day, we will be out of business. That is, we hope that one day, we will all understand the causes of reading difficulties, be able to identify children at risk early, know how to best diagnose a reading difficulty, and know which remediation strategy is best for every single child. Most importantly, we hope that one day all children will enjoy learning to read and reading to learn. We are not there yet, though.

Parents and teachers often ask us how our research can be translated into practice. We can promise you that we are working hard but we need more time to answer all your questions. So far, our research has given us some promising clues. For example, we have shown that preschool children who have a parent or an older sibling with dyslexia already show differences in their brain structure and function, even before they receive any reading instruction. These changes can also be seen in children who struggle with letters and certain pre-reading tasks in kindergarten. These findings suggest that children with dyslexia may have characteristic brain changes either from birth or that develop very early in life. This fact only underlines that identification and intervention need to happen as early as possible. In another area of research, our colleagues have shown that the brain basis of reading is the same whether or not there is a discrepancy between an individual’s IQ and reading ability. This will hopefully inform diagnostic criteria, and allow more children who have trouble reading to get intervention. These are just two of the areas we are learning more about through our research, and we always have more to learn.

In addition to continuing our research, we are working hard to share all the knowledge we have with the families, teachers, principals and the volunteers who work with us in these studies. We are creating an open dialogue that has mutual benefits for the research and the participating families, as well as informs clinical and educational interests. We are not researchers that waltz in to a school, collect data, and then return to an ivory tower. We are involved with our partner schools, teaching professional development sessions for the staff and brain awareness days for the children. We set up information booths at community events and frequently speak with parent groups and advocacy organizations. For families who participate in our studies, we provide reports of their child’s reading assessments and when necessary, referrals to schools and organizations that work with individuals with reading difficulties. We are doing our best to inform, to communicate, to translate and to disseminate our knowledge, and we will keep going until every child reads well.

Learn more: The Gaab Lab at Boston Children’s Hospital: The Gabrieli Lab in the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT:

nadine gaab headshot

Nadine Gaab, PhD., is an assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the Boston Children’s Hospital/Harvard Medical School, Principal Researcher at the Gaab Laboratory, member of the faculty at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and faculty adjunct at Brandeis University.

elizabeth norton headshot

Elizabeth Norton, PhD., Gabrieli Lab in the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, READstudy and former Landmark School science teacher.

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Tags:  Boston Children’s Hospital brain structure and function Brandeis University developmental dyslexia dyslexia Elizabeth Norton Gaab Laboratory Gabrieli Lab in the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT Harvard Graduate School of Education Harvard Medical School IQ kindergarten Landmark School Nadine Gaab PhD pre-reading professional development reading ability reading assessment reading difficulties READstudy research siblings

Beyond Gold Stars: Fostering Intrinsic Motivation in Struggling Readers

Blog Type:  Teaching Date Posted:  Friday, July 14, 2017 Byline:  By Abigail McFee

three girls looking at book

Every summer, struggling readers in first through fourth grade participate in Tufts University’s Summer Reading Program for a month of remediation—and empowerment. Some skip through the door, seemingly filled with mirth at the idea of their alternative “summer camp.” Others are hesitant. They have just been told that the skill that presents them with the most difficulty is going to be their sole focus for the entire month of July.

"A significant body of research indicates that incentives are not only damaging to students' internal motivation to learn, but also negatively impact cognitive processing."

This hesitation often carries over into the classroom. It makes sense that, when confronted with the daunting puzzle of a word-filled page, many children shut down. In order to coax sounds out of the reluctant reader’s mouth, some educators use gold stars and prizes as an incentive for participation—but they do so at a cost. A significant body of research indicates that incentives are not only damaging to students’ internal motivation to learn, but also negatively impact cognitive processing.

Practice is essential for children with reading difficulties; it’s the only way to improve their abilities and prevent regression. According to one study, students who are motivated to read spend 300% more time reading than students who lack motivation (Wigfield & Guthrie, 1997). So how can we foster this internal motivation to read? At Tufts, we use research-based motivational strategies that are centered on four themes:

  1. Autonomy: We give children the opportunity to make choices in the texts they read and the assignments they complete. When these moments of freedom are built into a curriculum, students develop a sense of ownership over their learning experiences.
  2. Belonging. Group instruction can be a powerful tool, especially when teachers foster a sense of community among a group of students. In our summer program classrooms, students construct a class constitution, engage in team-building exercises, and give peer-to-peer compliments. Teachers work together with students to create an environment in which every student feels connected, valued, and important.
  3. Competence. In order to embrace reading, children first have to understand that they are capable—that they can experience success when they confront the page, not just fear and failure. We provide children with literary activities that allow them to succeed, but we also give them tools for coping with challenges.
  4. Meaning. We aren’t just trying to build readers who can power through a page without difficulty; we are striving to build learners who can connect deeply with what they read. We weave exercises into our daily lessons that allow children to relate even the most basic tasks to their larger aspirations, thoughts, and questions about the world.

Using these strategies, our program has not only improved literacy skills but also significantly reduced reading-related task avoidance—without a gold star in sight.

About the Author

Abigail McFee is program assistant at the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.

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Tags:  cognitive process learning differences learning strategies motivating students reading reading difficulties reading motivation
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