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November 1, 1998
Vol. 56
No. 3

Perspectives / Making Connections

      Former President George Bush's manner of speaking has always resonated with me. Once, for example, he said to his guests at a gala party, "Welcome to this wonderful recession." He meant "reception." I share with Bush the penchant (or is it proclivity?) for using the wrong word when I speak. When I write, I have the time to search for the "right" word that lurks in my mind and, editor that I am, often try several before I choose the one I like best.
      Last spring, at a Smithsonian Symposium on the Mind/Brain Connection, Dr. Sally Shaywitz, a pediatrician and neuroscientist from the Yale Center for the Study of Learning and Attention, shared new insights about the way the brain works. The phenomenon of searching your mind and not finding the word you want may be related to a more problematic condition, dyslexia, she said. A child with dyslexia might, for example, look at the word "volcano" and read "tornado." That child might be able to explain the concept of volcano in detail, yet still be unable to summon the word while reading.
      In 1994, Shaywitz, along with her husband, Dr. Bennett A. Shaywitz, began a study of 200 children and young adults. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), they observed what happens in the brain when individuals perform cognitive tasks. They found, for one thing, that when most people do phonological processing (sound out written words), a part of the brain—specifically, the inferior frontal gyrus—activates.
      Despite often having strengths in higher-level capabilities like reasoning, more than 20 percent of those in the study had a defect in their language processing system that impaired their decoding of words. When 80 percent of the readers sounded out words, their fMRIs showed rapid metabolic changes in the part of the brain dedicated to decoding. When the other 20 percent of the study participants attempted to sound out words, their fMRIs showed activity in other parts of the brain, but not so much in the frontal gyri. When these participants were successful at decoding words, the process often took longer than average.
      Although girls were as likely as boys to have this "signature of dyslexia," girls were more often able to compensate for it because—as the Shaywitzes' research confirms—females often use both the left and right sides of the brain for a number of cognitive tasks. In males, phonological processing usually activates only the left inferior frontal gyrus.
      The researchers have used several interventions to help their subjects learn to read. Interestingly, some of the interventions sound like phonics, and others suggest whole language. Those with dyslexia continue to find rote memorization and rapid word retrieval difficult (or they need more time to do these tasks), but they do find direct phonics instruction helpful and often grasp meaning from context and from "big picture" models. Although they retain their signature brain activity, those who learn to compensate for their deficit can excel at comprehension and thinking tasks.
      What remarkable findings of an ongoing research study! And, as our authors note in this issue, dozens of such studies have taken place in the last decade. New technology has enabled scientists to see the functioning inside our living brains, whereas previously we have had to rely primarily on observations of human behavior to interpolate how the brain works.
      Findings from some of these new studies no doubt will corroborate some classroom practices and call others into question. But how do educators know which practices the new research supports? Even as neuroscientists warn us that not all facts are in—indeed, we are just beginning to understand how the brain functions—educators know that learning about this research is important. Faced with children who need instruction now, educators rely, as they always have, on a mixture of cognitive research, trial-and-error observations, tested strategies, and intuitive understanding of their students.
      There is obviously something else we need to do—and that is to continue to learn new information from science. We hope this issue of Educational Leadership will assist in that process and perhaps produce that "aha!" experience when you make your own connections between mind and brain, education and science, personal experience and research. Let the dendrites grow!
      End Notes

      1 Shaywitz, S. E. (1996, November). Dyslexia. Scientific American, 275(5), 98–104.

      Marge Scherer has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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