Addressing the reading failure epidemic
Paula Tallal
October 22, 2019

In US schools, there is an epidemic of reading failure. Despite increased funding through Title I and IDEA, according to the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress, millions of students lack rudimentary reading skills essential for academic or occupational success. 

Over the last few decades, research has allowed us to make significant progress in our understanding of the neurobiological and environmental factors that lead to reading failure, as well as interventions that can lead to improved reading outcomes.

Precursors to reading failure

There is ample research that demonstrates that the factors that ultimately cause reading failure begin well before a child enters kindergarten. This research has shown that in infancy and early childhood the precursors to reading failure can be identified in the form of slow, inconsistent auditory processing. This auditory processing constraint cascades over the early years of life, disrupting the development of distinct phonological representations in the brain, oral language, and ultimately, reading. 

Processing the individual sounds (phonemes) inside of words is the fastest thing the human brain has to do. To learn to read, a child must become aware that words are made up of individual sounds, and it is these sounds that the letters represent. This process is called “phonological awareness.” Decades of research on dyslexia have demonstrated that lack of becoming phonologically aware is at the heart of reading failure. To use an analogy, when it comes to auditory processing (listening) skills, children with language-based learning problems are operating on “dial-up speed” while those with good language skills are operating on “high-speed internet.” 

Risk factors leading to skill deficits 

Numerous genetic, neurobiological, and environmental factors can predispose a child to have deficits in phonological awareness and subsequent reading failure. Unfortunately, many struggling readers have more than one of these risk factors that further compound their struggle. 

One risk factor is being born into a family that already has one or more individuals with a history of language-learning impairments (LLI). Babies with a positive family history of LLI are significantly slower in processing simple auditory tone sequences than babies with a negative family history, and 50% of these family history positive babies are at increased risk of developing a language-based learning disability.

Another risk factor is linguistic impoverishment, which has been shown to accompany socio-economic poverty. Linguistic impoverishment deprives a child of receiving the essential auditory neural stimulation required to establish distinct phoneme representations, build vocabulary, and develop age-appropriate oral language skills. Furthermore, longitudinal research has shown that even when children are equated in reading ability at age 5, by age 13 children who had low oral language development when they entered school are more than five years behind in reading compared to their peers with high oral language skills. 

Recent research by Kimberly Noble and colleagues has demonstrated how socioeconomic disparities are associated with structural differences in the brain, with the largest influence observed among the most disadvantaged children. These differences include regions in the brain associated with language, reading, executive functions, and spatial skills. 

English language learners are also at great risk of becoming struggling learners. Not only does oral language comprise upwards of 80% of the school curriculum, many of these children have not had sufficient language stimulation in English to set up the distinct phonological representations for English phonemes that are required for phonological awareness in learning to read English.  

A failure to address root causes of reading struggles

Given the substantial body of research that has consistently shown that learning to read requires a solid foundation of auditory processing skills and oral language skills (specifically phonological awareness), why have so many schools failed to focus on improving these skills in struggling readers?  

While a wide variety of reading curricula are available to schools, the vast majority presuppose that a student has already established sufficient spoken English language skills as well as the distinct neural firing patterns for phoneme representations that are required to become phonologically aware and, hence, benefit from traditional reading instruction. Thus, traditional tools for teaching reading, regardless of how expertly and how often they are applied, will not work for most struggling readers until these more foundational skills are remediated.

Not providing educators with evidence-based tools to explicitly build these skills is equivalent to demanding that a builder construct the third floor of a school without having the tools to build a sufficiently strong first and second floor, and then wondering why the school keeps collapsing.

Changing the brain

Throughout life, but especially early in life, the brain is literally shaped by experience. This experience-driven organization of the brain is called “neuroplasticity.” 

Decades of neuroscience studies have identified what variables are needed to most efficiently and effectively drive neuroplasticity to improve the weak perceptual and cognitive systems shown to predispose a child to become a struggling reader. These variables include: 1) frequent, intense input (repetition), 2) adaptive training (moving from easier to harder items, based on individual performance), 3) sustained attention, and 4) timely reward (timed to trigger neurochemical signals in the brain that indicate, “that was a good one, save it!”). 

Over the last 25 years, both behavioral and neuroimaging studies have demonstrated that the foundational auditory processing and language skills known to lead to reading failure are highly modifiable and can be brought into the normal range over a few months, using intensive neuroplasticity-based training exercises disguised as computer games. 

Translating research into education practice

Children who have not acquired sufficient foundational processing, cognitive, and language skills require explicit training or “catch-up” interventions in these areas before traditional reading instruction can be effective. Once a child develops these skills, only then are they ready to succeed with explicit reading instruction.

While failing to learn to read is not life-threatening, it can be life-destroying. By taking action to harness the power of neuroplasticity-based training programs to develop the foundational skills that are the building blocks for reading, we can improve the prospects of millions of children with reading impairments for decades to come.

Paula Tallal, Ph.D., is the co-founder of the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey and a Research Scientist at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego.  She is a co-founder of Scientific Learning Corporation, makers of the neuroscience-based Fast ForWord® program.

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