MRI shows kids learn words in isolation

VANDERBILT (US) — Children who struggle with reading may benefit from being taught new words in isolation, rather than in the context of a sentence, a new study shows.

Researchers are studying how people learn new words in hopes of determining the best interventions for children who find reading difficult.

Published in the journal Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, the study on reading and plasticity in the brain could lay the foundation for more targeted investigations of what types of training may work for particular readers.


Lead author Laurie Cutting, associate professor of special education, psychology, radiology, and pediatrics at Vanderbilt University created a tool to mimic learning in order to identify the differences in neurological response to two types of teaching methods: implicit teaching—which uses words in a sentence, and explicit teaching—which teaches the words in isolation.

Study participants were taught the pronunciation and meaning of pseudowords, artificial words that resemble real words but do not actually exist. Half of the pseudowords were taught implicitly (used in a sentence) and half were taught explicity (in isolation).

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Cutting and colleagues observed the differences in brain activity to the two approaches to word learning and found that in spite of learning the pseudowords equally, there were differences in neurological response based on the level of the reader.

Readers identified as “excellent” did not demonstrate notable differences in brain function between the implicit and explicit approaches, but readers considered “average” showed significantly less efficient neural networks when the pseudowords were learned by the implicit method.

“While the benefit of explicit instruction over implicit instruction may seem obvious, it was surprising to find such differences in brain function between groups of a very narrow range of reading skill,” says Cutting.

Although this study was conducted with adults, Cutting says the research implies that readers may look the same in the classroom but the manner in which they process words and respond to instruction may be different.

“Whether these differences in efficiency of brain networks have predictive value remains to be seen,” Cutting says. “However, such an approach may ultimately be useful for predicting which types of instruction will result in sustained reading growth.”

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