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Maryanne Wolf on the Science of Reading
by Leslie L. Woodward

Reading may be an essential skill in our modern age, but there is nothing "natural" about it, said Tufts University neuroscientist and author Maryanne Wolf speaking at NCBIDA's March 14th event in Palo Alto. Reading is an invention, a cultural phenomenon that has arisen only within the last 5,000 years with the development of the earliest scripts. Before the advent of reading, there was no such thing as the impairment we know as dyslexia. Indeed, the brain differences that make someone a dyslexic reader could have had advantages in a preliterate society.

"Children with dyslexia, by and large, think differently," said Wolf, who is the parent of a dyslexic son. Those different thinking skills may give individuals with dyslexia advantages in other areas. Studies suggest, for example, that a high percentage of entrepreneurs are dyslexic.

Building reading circuits 

To read, each individual has to set up a complex brain circuit to handle the task, forging new neural connections between areas of the brain that have evolved for other skills such as visually recognizing an object or understanding speech. In the simplest terms, expert readers have fast reading circuits, whereas dyslexic readers have slower, less efficient circuits.

The title of Wolf's best-selling book on the science of reading, Proust and the Squid, highlights the spectrum of elements that go into expert reading. The basic element of brain circuitry is represented by the squid. Scientists in the 1950's studied the long central axon that makes up this creature's nervous system to understand how neurons fire and transmit signals to each other. A brain that can read expertly has organized its neural circuitry to handle even the most demanding texts, like those written by Marcel Proust, the French author known for his layered prose. Expert readers can navigate complicated works like those of Proust with an ease that leaves them time to think their own thoughts about what they have just read. Wolf is an unabashed fan of the ability to be such a "deep reader." "You become different based on what you are reading," said Wolf. 

Imaging studies have shown that brain circuitry can arrange itself in many ways to read. Different areas of the brain are activated when reading different languages, for example, depending on the structure of that language. The brains of dyslexic individuals activate in a different pattern than non-dyslexic readers. Dyslexic readers typically have much more right hemisphere activation than normal readers, who rely more on the left hemisphere. 

Building reading skills

Developing rich language skills in young children is important to their reading success. According to Wolf, the number of times you hear a word helps the neural clusters in the brain form clear "representations" of words. The more you know about a word's phonological, orthographic, semantic, morphological, and syntactic processes the faster you will read and comprehend it. Many intervention programs do a good job with the phonological component, but may neglect other aspects. A strong intervention program, said Wolf, integrates them all. 

Reading in the digital age

Wolf voiced some concerns about the effects of on-line reading on the development of reading skills. There are not yet any studies examining the issue, but she is concerned that the traits that digital, Internet-based reading encourages, such as continuous partial attention, and demand for immediate information, may interfere with the development of the "deep reading" skills that expert readers need. Instead, the digital age may be forging a different kind of brain circuitry. As Wolf said at the close of her talk, "We are both what we read and how we read." 
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The Science of Reading