Journal Archive > 2001 > September

Center for Reading uses science to help kids succeed in the classroom

A group of animated fish floats languidly along a computer screen, each with a word printed on its side. The child at the keyboard hears the word “bat,” and just as she clicks on the fish that reads “bat,” she hears “great job!” When she is able to identify 80 percent of the words on the slowly moving fish, the game continues, but faster.

To the child, it’s a whimsical game. To researchers, it’s a tool to help children with severe reading disabilities increase the rate of their recognition. Soon the child is learning to read harder words with the same internal patterns, such as “brat” and “drat,” and then words with the same patterns but with different endings, such as “batting” or “batted.”

© Bronwyn Kidd

“We are training the eye of a child,” said Maryanne Wolf, “to perceive the most frequent letter pattern chunks in the language and to recognize them so quickly that when an unknown word is encountered, the child sees the known patterns and doesn’t have to sound out each part.”

The game is called “Speed Wizard” and is only one component of a multi-faceted project taking place in three cities. Wolf is a professor in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development and director of Tufts’ Center for Reading and Language Research. Since 1995, she and two colleagues, Maureen Lovett and Robin Morris, who coordinate programs at the Toronto Hospital for Sick Children and at Georgia State University in Atlanta, have been learning more about how the brain works to help children overcome severe reading difficulties.

In September, the three-city program will receive a $5.5 million grant from the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) to fund research for the next five years. Started in 1995 with a $3.6 million NICHD grant, the programs at the center have blossomed. The center not only conducts cutting-edge research, but its various offshoots offer programs in community service to nearby schools, including a summer school and an after-school program directed by Tufts alums Katharine Donnelly and Terry Joffe. The center has entered into a collaboration with the mayor of Malden to work with teachers and children in that city. It also has established the Tufts Literacy Corps, under the direction of alumna Cindy Krug, in which Tufts undergraduates provide tutoring for at-risk readers in the Medford and Somerville public schools.

“The goal is to apply cognitive and neuroscience research findings in the classroom,” said Wolf. Based on Wolf’s research in these areas, she and her colleagues developed a program called RAVE-O (Retrieval, Automaticity, Vocabulary Elaboration and Orthography). The importance of this program, she said, is that it goes beyond the conventional emphasis on decoding to address reading fluency and comprehension.

With the first grant, the three city centers tested several programs to help children read better. RAVE-O has turned out to be the most successful in helping children attain fluency and better comprehension. This work will be highlighted in two PBS films that will be broadcast in the next year.

The new grant will allow the program to develop a two-year version of RAVE-O and integrate additional material from two other programs used at the other centers, using the best elements of the three.

© SW Productions

“There is no magic bullet in dyslexia intervention,” said Wolf, “but the intensity [of instruction] for some children, the new emphases in the program, and the small ratio of teacher to children make striking progress possible.”

The children with the most severe disabilities are dyslexic. People generally think of dyslexia as reading words backwards, but it is far more complex and heterogeneous.

“Every child makes reversals, like ‘b’ and ‘d,’ ” said Wolf. “Dyslexic children learn to recognize letters but more slowly; along the way, they are somewhat more vulnerable to reversing letters, but it is hardly their most interesting characteristic. Dyslexia represents a continuum of disorders that reflects the complexity of the reading process itself. The ‘typical’ child with dyslexia has average to superior intelligence but is unable to acquire reading and spelling proficiency at the same rate that other children do.”

RAVE-O, the experimental program that is helping these children, is based on changing how quickly the brain can process visually presented information and connect it to language process. Wolf explained that during learning, the brain forms a network of neurons. With practice, this pattern of neurons becomes activated like a single unit. Thus when adults see the word “the,” she said, we don’t see the separate letters ‘t’ ‘h’ ‘e’ because the network recognizes the full word. Yet a child who first sees a ‘t’ sees a line and the slash of the t.

“We want to help the child’s brain become more efficient in forming and activating these networks,” said Wolf. “To do so we need to address multiple operations from the visual perception of letter patterns to the more rapid access of meaning in those words. Further, we need to help all these underlying processes connect to the more fluent comprehension of written text. In other words, we want to make more automatic all the underlying perceptual, linguistic, cognitive and motor processes used in reading.” In the near future Wolf and other researchers hope to conduct MRI brain imaging studies to understand how the brain processes reading before and after these processes become automatic.

In addition to helping children with the most serious reading problems, the center has something to offer every level of the university. Undergraduate and graduate students receive training; doctoral students and faculty have access to ever-increasing databases; and the university is contributing to its neighboring communities.

Some of the funding for the Tufts Literacy Corps comes from the University College of Citizenship and Public Service through the Omidyar Foundation, established by Tufts alumni Pierre and Pam Omidyar. The foundation helps programs like these and other public service programs at Tufts.