Dec. 25 - Researchers at Stanford University have developed a method to predict a child's ability to learn to read. By studying MRI scans to track brain development, the researchers say they can identify struggling students earlier and offer the help they need to improve. Ben Gruber reports.
STORY: (UPSOUND - CHILDREN READING NUMBERS FROM A BOOK 1, 2, 3) It's reading time at the Lehrman Day School in Miami Beach. The toddlers are just starting to develop their reading skills and it's too early for their teachers to tell if any of them will have difficulties going forward. Across the country at Stanford University, researcher Jason Yeatman is developing a method that may one day give teachers a look into the future…a way to predict child's reading ability. (SOUNDBITE) (English) JASON YEATMAN, RESEARCHER, STANFORD UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "So what we would really like to be able to do is to be able to predict who is going to struggle before they start struggling and then develop an intervention basically to target their brain development before they actually started showing behavioural symptoms." Yeatman says a child's ability to read can be predicted by studying the development of the connections within their brain. He says reading requires different parts of the brain to work together. So he, along with Professor Brain Wandell, conducted a study using MRI scans to track and map brain development. (SOUNDBITE) (English) PROFESSOR BRAIN WANDELL, STANFORD UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "People had been looking at activity in the brain for a long time but the thing that we could do that was a little unique and pretty much for the first time was study the properties of the wires as they develop in the brain." (SOUNDBITE) (English) JASON YEATMAN, RESEARCHER, STANFORD UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "We can make measurements of different brain regions, regions that we understand quite well and look at the properties of those connections and use those to actually predict how well a given child is going to learn to read." But Yeatman admits, measuring brain development is easier said than done. The team needed to find a way to keep track of how quickly the essential neural connections needed for reading were maturing. He says it came in the form of water... (SOUNDBITE) (English) JASON YEATMAN, RESEARCHER, STANFORD UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "We are measuring the rate at which water molecules are moving through the brain. And this is really fascinating because, as you know, the brain is filled with water and the water is constantly bumping into the local environment. By knowing how water diffuses in a given region we infer a lot about how cells are organised, how densely packed they are, how coherently organised they are." And by knowing how well these neural pathways are developing, the researchers can tell if a child will struggle with reading and, Professor Wandell says, even more importantly, give teachers other options to educate their students. (SOUNDBITE) (English) PROFESSOR BRAIN WANDELL, STANFORD UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "So if you know sooner that this child was not going to do well at reading, this child is going to need help, you might do stuff like try to get them the information they need to know using something that doesn't involve a lot of reading, using sound, using images, using other methods." (UPSOUND - TEACHER READING TO CLASS) Yeatman and Wandell are now looking to develop behavioural tests to collect data needed to predict reading ability. They hope that in the future, science will ensure that when it comes to reading, no child is left behind.