How to develop brain-based reading programs

“I hate reading!” How many times have we heard students say that in elementary school — and then in middle and high school?

Students who struggle with reading can feel discouraged and frustrated and then internalize those emotions. When a struggling reader says, “Maybe I’m just dumb,” that’s painful to hear.

Research shows that students who are not reading proficiently by the end of third grade are more likely to leave school without a diploma than those who are proficient readers. Poverty intensifies the problem. This has far-reaching consequences because 51% of all students in US public schools are from low-income families.

A quick glance at the National Assessment of Educational Progress demonstrates that giving students “more of the same” is not working. On the 2017 NAEP, only 35% of students were at or above “proficient” in fourth-grade reading.

The question is, why do so many students struggle despite years of interventions? Here are five reasons why your reading intervention program may be failing your most vulnerable students.

1. It fails to address equity at your school.

Many reading programs are designed to help students achieve one year of academic growth per school year. For many children who are economically disadvantaged, that’s not enough. In a healthy environment, a child’s chronological age matches his or her developmental age. In a high-risk environment, research shows that while a child’s chronological age is 5 years old, his or her developmental age is closer to 3 years old. This “poverty gap” impacts school readiness and performance. Left untreated, it can cause difficulties for years to come.

Neuroscience research is shedding light on why so many schools with high poverty rates are unable to close the achievement gap. In a 2015 Nature Neuroscience article, Dr. Kimberly G. Noble and colleagues described links between family income and brain structure, especially in regions of the brain associated with language, reading, executive functions and spatial skills. The largest influence was observed among the most disadvantaged children.

When poverty is the problem, equity is the solution. That means giving every child what they need to succeed. It starts with building the “academic” brain.

2. It doesn’t build students’ cognitive capacity.

There is a persistent misconception that struggling readers aren’t exerting enough effort. It’s not about “trying harder”; it’s about getting the brain to work more effectively and efficiently. Cognitive capacity is a core skill — and without building cognitive capacity, students have no chance of catching up.

Another challenge is that many interventions don’t work quickly enough. To close the poverty gap, students need to make at least 1.5 to 2 years of academic progress for each school year. The good news for educators is that the influence of poverty on learning and achievement can be mediated, and the best place to start teaching cognitive capacity is with reading. Learning to read requires a wide range of skills including attention, phonological processing, processing speed and working memoryBy improving the underlying cognitive skills associated with the reading struggle, students do make rapid improvement.

3. It isn’t adaptive.

One-size-fits-all core reading programs cannot address the needs of every learner. At the same time, there aren’t enough hours in the day for teachers to give every learner the individualized instruction and attention they need to close gaps and achieve growth.

With adaptive learning technology, however, the method and pace of instruction can be customized to fit each student’s needs across the five domains of reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension. An effective intervention should know when a student is struggling and provide instruction as soon it’s needed. It should present skills with increasing challenge and complexity to help them grow. Students’ brains also need quality error-correction and rewards at just the right moment to reinforce and maximize their learning. Then, once a student gets something right, practice is needed to make it stick.

4. It doesn’t provide deliberate practice.

Struggling readers need 10 to 30 times more practice to catch up to their grade-level peers. Deliberate practice is, in fact, what changes the brain and creates new connections. The best practice requires learners to be attentive to their errors or weaknesses so they can consciously work to remedy them and establish neural pathways that will lead to success.

With deliberate practice, changes in the brain can happen fast. For example, the impact of working memory training on gray matter can be seen in as little as five days. In a single school year, working memory training can yield gains equal to 1.5 to 2.5 years of progress.

5. It isn’t evidence-based.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) emphasizes the use of evidence-based interventions to help schools choose and implement programs that improve student outcomes. Interventions that are supported by higher levels of evidence are more likely to improve student outcomes because they have been proven to be effective. According to ESSA, for an intervention to be supported by strong evidence, there must be at least one well-designed and well-implemented experimental study on the intervention.

The What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) uses rigorous standards to review evidence of effectiveness on a wide range of interventions, and it lists several under the topic of “Literacy.” For example, the Fast ForWord program is a neuroscience-based intervention that has 21 studies that meet WWC evidence standards for beginning reading, adolescent literacy and English language development. Here are a few questions to consider when researching interventions: Is the intervention supported by evidence? Does it have positive effects on student outcomes? How is success measured? Will the potential impact of the intervention justify the costs? What are the costs to students and staff if the intervention is not implemented?

Closing the gap

When students struggle year after year, “more of the same” isn’t the answer. Students’ brains can change when interventions address the root causes of their difficulties. With an individualized, evidence-based approach to intervention, students can grow into better readers — and better learners in all of their classes. Real equity happens when students get what they need to become great learners.

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