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A "High Wire Balancing Act"

A "High Wire Balancing Act"Learning to read is among the most complex challenges children experience, a Tufts expert told PBS, and millions have to "remodel" their brains to do it.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [01.30.02] While reading may seem like a basic and routine process, it is actually one of the most complex cognitive functions the brain ever performs. And for millions of children, learning to read requires them to "rewire" their brains to accomplish the task, a leading Tufts expert told PBS.

"The ability to read is a gift that not all children receive equally," PBS reported during its five-part series The Secret Life of the Brain. "Millions are dyslexic, unable to translate the squiggles on the page into sound and meaning."

According to Tufts' Maryanne Wolf -- an expert on child development and reading disabilities -- the process is so complex that there are many places where it can go wrong.

"We've got 17 different regions [of the brain] that are all involved in reading," Wolf -- who directs the Center for Reading and Language Research -- told PBS. "One of them can easily go awry."

Just because many children experience difficulties learning to read, Wolf said they aren't any less intelligent.

"Dyslexia is the inability to learn to process written language despite adequate intelligence, adequate sensory, adequate exposure," she told PBS. "You have adequate everything and yet your system has been differently wired."

For example, scientists have discovered that the brains of some dyslexic children have trouble breaking down words into basic sounds.

"That fundamental ability to take the speech stream and get it into its tiny sound parts is pivotal in reading," Wolf said. "Otherwise the teacher is up there saying B-a-t and the child has no idea what she's doing."

Reading, the Tufts expert explained, requires a series of behaviors to be linked together.

"It's letter naming, it's letter perception, it's word perception, it's recognizing words, it's comprehension," Wolf told PBS. "In all of those behaviors we utilize different parts of the brain, whether we're talking about a single letter or whether we're talking about reading a passage of Proust."

Vision, judgement, hearing and memory all must come together at the same time, reported PBS. The result is "a high wire balancing act, a performance by the brain that demands a sophisticated coordination of many parts."

As scientists like Tufts' Wolf collect more information about the ways the brains of dyslexic children work differently, they hope to gain a greater understanding of how their brains "rewire" themselves to read.

For Wolf, the brain's ability to remold itself -- often called plasticity -- is fascinating.

"I think the brain must be having a great time as a child because it's all plastic," she told PBS. "If there's any one word for development in learning, it's plasticity. And plasticity, I believe, can be lifelong."

Images courtesy of The Learning Connection

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