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UW Study Shows How Quickly Kids’ Brains Change As They’re Learning To Read

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The Real Estreya
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Flickr

Scientists have been trying to tease out what happens in the brain when a kid is learning something new. At the University of Washington, researchers have just published their findings on what happens to children with dyslexia when they get intensive help with reading.

Dyslexia is a common condition that makes it hard to decode and spell words. Kids who have dyslexia often need specialized reading instruction.

Elizabeth Huber, a UW postdoctoral researcher, and her colleagues had 24 kids who struggled with reading receive eight weeks of intensive instruction. Then at regular intervals, the UW scientists conducted MRI scans to track changes in the white matter of the kids’ brains.

Jason Yeatman, an assistant professor at UW’s Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences and the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, is one of the authors of the study. He said white matter is like the wiring of the brain, carrying signals between different regions.

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Credit Mark Stone / University of Washington
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University of Washington
Jason Yeatman is an assistant professor at UW and one of the authors of the study.

“One of the most surprising findings is just how quickly the white matter changes,” Yeatman said. “These children enter this intensive learning environment and within just a few weeks, we already start to see changes in the cellular structure of the white matter.”

They found the kids developed more white matter in their brains as they became better readers.

Yeatman said one hypothesis is that the additional tissue allows signals to travel through the brain more efficiently, helping kids read faster.

One of the takeaways from this research, he said,  is that when teachers are helping students learn new skills, it’s physically changing how the kids’ brains are structured.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.
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