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Education Reporter

Brain Scans Prove Phonics Works Best
Phonics-based remedial reading instruction works best, according to a "landmark study" led by Yale University medical researchers. Not only do children tutored in phonics end up better readers, but their brains are stimulated to respond to written material in the same manner as the brains of good readers. The investigation also concludes that non-phonics-based remedial instruction fails to improve reading skills or to ignite activity in areas of the brain that have been linked to effective reading.

The investigators administered reading tests and functional magnetic resonance imaging scans at the beginning and end of the school year to three volunteer groups of children, aged 6 to 9. The scans were taken as each pupil tried to identify written letters that matched spoken letters.

Illustration from Turbo Reader

One group consisted of 37 below-normal readers who were tutored for 50 minutes each day on how to recognize sounds represented by individual letters or groups of letters. A second group of 12 below-normal readers were tutored using standard (non-phonics) remedial techniques employed by their school systems. The third group of 28 above-average readers received regular classroom instruction.

At the end of the year, the poor readers tutored on phoneme recognition significantly improved their reading skills, while the other group of poor readers did not. The brain scans showed a marked increase in activity in the part of the brain associated with reading skills among the pupils tutored in phonics - almost matching the neural activity of pupils who were already good readers. No such increased activity occurred in the brains of the below-average readers who did not receive phoneme-based tutoring.

"Good teaching can change the brain in a way that has the potential to benefit struggling readers," concludes researcher Sally Shaywitz, a pediatrician at the Yale School of Medicine. The study was published in the May issue of Biological Psychiatry. Neuroscientist Bruce D. McCandliss of Cornell University called the report a "landmark study" that builds on similar findings by other research teams tracking much smaller numbers of poor readers given phonological instruction. (Science News, 5-8-04)

The reading instruction given in elementary grades to several generations of American children has relied on methods other than phonics, including "whole language." At least one in five U.S. schoolchildren of average or above-average intelligence suffers severe difficulties in learning to read. These problems stem mainly from a child's difficulty in recognizing the correspondence between spoken sounds and written letters, a panel of educators and scientists (including Dr. Shaywitz) convened by Congress concluded in 2000.

In spite of the mounting evidence, school districts have resisted the use of systematic phonics instruction in the first grade. The new Yale study should be a catalyst for change.

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