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, its a whimsical game. To researchers, its 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.
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 doesnt have to sound out each
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 Wolfs 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
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.
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
The children with the most severe disabilities are dyslexic. People generally
think of dyslexia as reading words backwards, but it is far more complex
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 dont 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 childs 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.