The brain reads sound by sound Research: Scientists can now watch what goes on in children's brains as they read. When the lights go on, it confirms an old theory: We learn to read by linking letters with sounds.

NEW HAVEN, CONN. — NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- A gigantic white magnet fills the room and a small blond boy lies very still inside it. A great ping-pinging noise, like the sonar echo of a submarine, begins as the magnet goes to work, taking pictures of the boy's brain.

Words flash on a screen before the child. He is asked to decide whether the words rhyme and push a button. Computers whir madly, processing the brain pictures and the boy's responses.


Together, the magnet, the computers and a team of scientists and doctors are working to solve one of the great mysteries of humankind.

They are watching the brain read.


With the cutting-edge technology of the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) device - commonly called "the magnet" - scientists at Yale University's Center for Learning and Attention have found a window on the brain. Through this high-tech porthole, they can see what their predecessors had deduced by studying children in classrooms: The brain reads by breaking words into sounds.

The scientists, led by Yale physicians Sally and Bennett Shaywitz, have identified the parts of the brain used in reading. ,, By observing the flow of oxygen-rich blood to working brain cells, they have found that people who know how to sound out words can rapidly process what they see.

These readers, asked to imagine "cat" without the "kah" sound, readily summon "at." And the MRI photographs show their brains lighting up like pinball machines.

When the brain gets it, the light bulbs really do go on.

Conversely, the brains of people who can't sound out words often look different on MRI pictures. There is less blood flow to the language centers of the brain and, in some cases, not much activity evident at all. Scientists are not sure why this is or what it means.

But simply put, without the ability to sound out words, the brain is stumped.

The Yale research offers more high-powered ammunition for the argument that beginning readers should be taught to discern the individual sounds within words.

It builds upon millions of dollars of research, conducted over the past 20 years under the aegis of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, that has documented similar conclusions: Children need to understand the sounds of the English language and sound-letter relationships - known as "phonics" - before they can learn to read. For some, this comes naturally; others must be taught.


What's more, NIH-sponsored studies are finding that at least 95 percent of even the poorest readers can learn to read at grade level if they are given early and proper instruction in sound-letter relationships.

By contrast, as many as 40 percent of school-age children remain poor readers, with half of them having serious trouble. In Maryland, two-thirds of the third-graders aren't meeting the state's standard in reading.

A key reason for this huge gap is that for years scientific research has been ignored by educators.

"The gap that exists between the level of knowledge and what we have implemented of that knowledge all across the board I is absolutely awful and sad," says Sally Shaywitz, a pediatrician-scientist involved in reading research for almost two decades. "It would be a tremendous tragedy if, knowing what we know about how children learn, [that knowledge] were not put to work."

But in the academic arena, science has been no match for fad and fashion, infused with politics and religion. Since the 1970s, school districts across the country have abandoned phonics for enticing "whole-language" programs that promise to teach children to read by immersing them in literature.

The battles over the two reading methods have been ugly, and the casualties have been children.


Millions of children today read poorly or not at all because, as mounting scientific and academic evidence proves, they could have been taught better. While the pendulum is swinging back toward more phonics in many school districts, a generation has been damaged.

"When children don't learn to read, there's not much accountability," says G. Reid Lyon, a neuropsychologist in charge of the NIH's reading research. "People blame the kids, the teachers, the parents, the socioeconomic background, all kinds of things except the instructional procedures being used."

Two methods

Phonics or whole language? The methods derive from educational philosophies that are as different as night and day.

Pure phonics instruction is meticulous and begins with baby steps. Children are first taught the 44 basic sounds in the English language and how those sounds are formed by combinations of the 26 letters of the alphabet. Then they learn how to sound out or decode the words. Sentences, stories and books come linked to these particular skills.

At City Springs Elementary in Baltimore, which has adopted a rigorous phonics-based reading program, first-graders progressed in the first month of class from a review of sounds they learned in kindergarten to simple stories that employ limited sets of sounds, such as one titled, "Lots of Pots."


In one City Springs class, first-graders were recently asked to circle the words on a work sheet that matched pictures. Most of the children were confused by a drawing of a jar with grapes on the label. Told that the picture was of "jam" - for many little children it's all jelly - several children were able to sound out the word quickly and select "jam" from look-alikes "gem" and "jab."

Their experience illustrates, phonics advocates say, that once children learn the rules, they can figure out words they've never seen. Meaning comes in time.

By contrast, whole language approaches reading instruction from the opposite direction. It holds that children learn to read by reading. Once exposed to literature and taught to love language, children will become readers.

Whole-language classrooms use books filled with broad vocabularies and more complex stories than the simple texts given to beginning phonics readers. When children come across unfamiliar words - rather than being encouraged to sound them out - they are often told to guess or look at an accompanying picture for clues.

In a first-grade classroom at Centennial Lane Elementary School in Ellicott City, for example, students recently were reading "The Best Dressed Bear" - a 3-foot-tall book on display in front of the room.

Before opening the cover, teacher Christina Haris asks students to predict what will happen based on the title of the book. Some suggest the bear will be going to a wedding. Others suggest the bear will enter a contest.


As Haris and the students read aloud together, she asks the students what strategy they're using to figure out words they don't know.

"The pictures," comes the reply.

"That's right. You're using the picture," Haris says. "The pictures tell the whole story themselves."

Reading research

About half of all children will eventually learn to read at their grade level, whether they're taught to sound out unfamiliar words or to look at pictures.

But for almost as many children - those who do not seem to have a natural ability to sort out the sounds within words - learning to read can be excruciating. The most severely challenged are often labeled dyslexic because, despite their often high intelligence, they have great difficulty deciphering the words on a page.


"You can have an IQ of 145, be a great reasoner and still be a poor reader," says NIH neuropsychologist Lyon. "Some of these bright kids can't get through a story, but if you take the book away and read them the story, they'll talk about it all day long."

Over the past 15 years, Lyon and his NIH colleagues have observed more than 10,000 children and have published more than 26 books and 2,000 articles in their quest to discover why some children read with ease and others do not.

They have launched clinical trials involving almost 5,900 children in 10 cities to determine which methods work best for teaching children with reading problems. They've learned to predict, even with kindergartners, which children will later have troubles based on their early inability to hear and repeat subtle sounds, identify letters and write their names.

And they have studied the ways that children learn, using pure phonics, pure whole-language programs and combinations of both.

Their conclusion: Children learn to read best if they're first given "phoneme-awareness" training in the sounds of the English language and then taught the letter-sound relationships of traditional phonics. All along, teachers should also expose children to literature by reading to them and giving them interesting books to read as in the whole-language method.

"To read the English language, there is no way to get around the fact that you have to decode it," Lyon says. "The key is the right mix and that you start early."


Once children have learned the code, Lyon says, they need to develop speed and accuracy so that they can comprehend what they are reading.

Particularly encouraging are classroom studies involving 3,000 children in Houston, Tallahassee, Fla., and Albany, N.Y., which have shown that all but the most severely disabled can learn to read at grade level. All but 5 percent of the poorest readers - regardless of income and race - can achieve average test scores after a year of intensive teaching 30 to 45 minutes a day in kindergarten and first grade.

For many children, even the first step is very difficult: hearing the distinct sounds within language.

Lyon plays a videotape of young children in a classroom in Boston. Their teacher tells them to think of a zoo animal that rhymes with "miger."

"Giraffe!" a little girl says.

"That child," Lyon says, "is going to have trouble learning to read."


The child has difficulty comprehending the sounds of language. And scientists increasingly believe it is the brain's inability to process what it hears - not what it sees - that causes dyslexia.

Because dyslexics frequently confuse "b" and "d," they originally were thought to have vision problems. Scientists now believe that dyslexics confuse the two letters because they sound alike.

Dyslexia has been the focus of the MRI studies at Yale and four other sites. The Shaywitzes, co-directors of the Yale Center for -- Learning and Attention, wanted to see what was - or wasn't - happening within the brains of dyslexic children.

A functional MRI machine, a type that requires no injection of dye and is safe and painless, takes thousands of pictures of the brain, at rest and as it processes information. When brain cells go to work, oxygen-rich blood rushes to fuel their activity, much as gasoline fills the engine of a running car. Because this oxygenated blood has different magnetic properties, MRIs can discern it.

The MRI pictures are then color-coded by a computer. In the Yale study, for example, resting brain cells are blue. Blood rushing glucose and oxygen to brain cells at work is yellow and red.

The brains of people who have difficulty reading show a more diffuse blood flow, Lyon says.


By asking people to perform different tasks - identify single letters, pick out rhyming words or signal whether two words belong to the same category - researchers have been able to pinpoint the discrete sections of the brain used in reading.

One part of the brain, the extrastriate cortex, identifies letters. Another part, the inferior frontal gyrus, identifies the sounds associated with those letters. And a third section, the superior temporal gyrus, reaches for meaning.

Yale researchers see this difference explicitly when they show research subjects made-up words, such as "joat" and "mote," and ask them to signal whether they rhyme. To do so, they have to be able to sound out the words.

People who can't sound out words appear to have lighter blood flow to the language regions of their brains, Lyon says.

"We apparently don't get as much flow and volume in those regions of the brain" in dyslexics, Lyon says. "But it's very important to point out we don't know exactly why. All we know is there are brain differences in people who do not read well if

they're dyslexic."


In February 1995, the Shaywitzes announced a major finding. They had identified and mapped the sections of the brain that process language. In so doing, they had discovered that men generally use only half of their brains for these tasks while women use both lobes.

As headlines around the globe trumpeted the "Battle of the Brains," the importance of the Shaywitzes' discovery about the brain's language processing was all but obscured by the popular appeal of the gender differences.

Much quieter but perhaps more significant has been their research into the ways that the brains of dyslexics differ from those of normal readers. The Shaywitzes are also beginning a trial with Syracuse University researchers to determine whether intensive training can improve the way dyslexics process information.

The Shaywitzes are reluctant to discuss unpublished findings, and they caution that it is still far too early to draw conclusions. But they say they hope one day to be able to demonstrate physical differences in the brain of a dyslexic.

"One reason we are so excited is that we do think we will be able to produce concrete evidence of this person's disability," says Sally Shaywitz. "It would be like an X-ray of a person's broken arm, something you could actually see. Reading disabilities for so long have been a hidden disability."

Jack Pikulski, a University of Delaware reading professor and president of the International Reading Association based in Newark, Del. - an organization that has promoted the whole-language approach - says the NIH research offers valuable insights. But he cautions against drawing conclusions from it about the general population and reading.


"Be careful. I They concentrated on the 20 to 25 percent having difficulty," Pikulski says of the studies. "We shouldn't generalize about what is happening with the broader population."

Pikulski says he is working to bring balance to the reading debate. Whole-language proponents, he says, have been misled their success with children for whom reading comes easily, incorrectly deducing that learning to read is as natural as learning to speak.

On the other hand, he also fears that the NIH research with children having serious reading problems will lead to intensive phoneme training and phonics instruction for children who don't need it. "We have to be careful," Pikulski says, "that we don't say that everybody needs 20 minutes of phoneme-awareness training."

But Lyon disputes that the NIH studies' conclusions are restricted to poor readers: "Normal readers require phoneme awareness and phonics and whole language just as lousy readers do. ... We're finding that normal readers benefit as well."

Reading war

What leaves the scientific laboratory as a scholarly debate becomes a bare-knuckles brawl on the schoolyard.


"Brain dead!" Siegfried Engelmann of Oregon, creator of the phonics-based Direct Instruction program, calls proponents of whole language.

"This magic show that suggested that kids would learn to read if you immersed them in language!" he explodes. "I mean that is total, unmitigated b's'."

In turn, Kenneth Goodman, author of "What's Whole About Whole Language," labels phonics a "flat-earth view of the world."

"To be opposed to phonics," says Goodman, who introduced whole language to U.S. schools, "is to be a kind of an anti-Christ. Phonics is surrounded by evangelical fervor."

Caught between the religious right and the humanist left, phonics has been sprinkled with holy water and splattered with mud - to the horror of scientists.

Liberal educators and humanists have been turned off by the perception that where there is phonics, Bible-reading in the classroom cannot be far behind. As described by its foes, phonics is taught by modern-day Cotton Mathers who would drill little minds into submission.


Meanwhile, phonics proponents cast whole language as an illogical, scattershot approach that would be laughable if its consequences were not so tragic.

"In hindsight, whole language seems just bizarre," says Alice R. Furry, an administrator with the Sacramento County Office of Education, who helped change the California school system's curriculum from exclusively whole language to one that includes phonics. "The fact that we've taken this long to realize phonics is essential reading instruction is scandalous."

No one, phonics advocates note, would expect a beginning piano student to be able to play Chopin's "Minute Waltz" after simply listening to the composer's music. Scales, arpeggios and years of practice come first.

Yet, as Barbara Ruggles, a Chicago teacher and member of the American Federation of Teachers, testified last summer before Congress, that is essentially what advocates of whole language expect children to do: "If we are not teaching letter-sound relationships, blending, sounding out words I then we are not giving our children the start they need to become fluent, independent readers," she said.

But even those who support phonics emphasize that not everything labeled phonics works. Children may turn away from reading if all they receive is drill. "If phonics had solved all the problems of the '70s," says Robert E. Slavin, a leading educational researcher at the Johns Hopkins University, "whole language wouldn't have dominated."

The moderates in the debate - and they risk being trampled by both sides - argue that the best reading instruction comes from a careful pairing of phonics and literature.


"Everyone wants to focus on the reading wars - whole language vs. phonics," Lyon says. "But there is no debate. At a certain stage of reading, phonics is necessary. Then children need literature to read. Why we polarize it is a mystery to me."

Little new

For all the dirt kicked up in the reading war, there is little new about phonics. American schools have taught children to read by sounding out words, off and on, for more than a century.

Studies compiled over the past 80 years have supported phonics as the best introduction to reading. Even the contentious 1984 Commission on Reading, formed by the equally divided National Academy of Education, came down on the side of phonics.

"Thus the issue is no longer, as it was several decades ago, whether children should be taught phonics," the commission wrote, but "how it should be done."

Even so, phonics instruction has been supplanted by one method after another, from the Dick-and-Jane "look-say" approach of the 1930s to the 1970s to the whole-language


movement of the 1980s and '90s.

In his 1955 best seller, "Why Johnny Can't Read," Rudolf Flesch attacked American schools for abandoning phonics. Twenty-six years later, Flesch fired a second volley with "Why Johnny Still Can't Read."

While Flesch was hostile to educators - and lost some credibility - Jeanne S. Chall, professor emeritus at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and one of the nation's most respected reading experts, was measured and thorough.

Her 1967 book, "Learning to Read: The Great Debate," examined educational research going back to the beginning of the century and found that children who have difficulty learning to read have trouble making letter-sound connections. She endorsed systematic phonics.

"If you stress meaning at the beginning, you get just the opposite," Chall says. "If you stress reading words at the beginning, they get the meaning later."

Now, having spent her career trying to impose fact over fancy, Chall is writing a book on why the education world disregards research. "You have an accumulation of evidence and research," she says. "Then someone gets an idea. All of the research is ignored."


Recently, Lyon wrote to tell her that she ought to be pleased that NIH research argues for the pro-phonics findings she published 30 years ago.

"I'm not sure I feel so good about it," Chall says. "It's very unfortunate all this was known and ignored."


Phonics -- which stresses teaching children the sounds of words -- dates to the 1700s. Since then, it has been eclipsed from time to time by the whole-language approach.

1700s -- mid-1800s: Children are taught to read through memorization of the alphabet. Primary text: the Bible.

1783: Noah Webster publishes "The American Spelling Book," used for almost 100 years.


Mid-1800s -- early 1900s: McGuffey Readers prevail. Very phonics oriented.

1910 -- 1920: Ginn and Co.'s Beacon Readers, an "efficient and intelligent sequence of systemic phonics."

1955: "Why Johnny Can't Read," by Rudolf Flesch, attacks look-say instruction, urges a return to phonics. "We've thrown 3,500 years of civilization out the window," he writes.

1967: Jeanne S. Chall's "Learning to Read: The Great Debate," endorses direct instruction in phonics.

1981: Twenty-six years after "Why Johnny can't Read," Rudolf Flesch publishes "Why Johnny Still Can't Read."

1984: The federal commission on reading issues "Becoming a Nation of Readers." "The issue is no longer, as it was several decades ago, whether children should be taught phonics," the commission said.


1995: California's "ABC" laws require instructional materials to include "systematic, explicit phonics, spelling and basic computational skills." North Carolina and Ohio follow suit.

1995 -- 1997: "Word Identification" programs in most Maryland school systems include phonics.

About this series

Yesterday: Many children aren't learning to read properly, and it doesn't have to be that way.

Today: Research backs reading instruction that begins with teaching the sounds that make up words.

Tomorrow: Among school districts, schools and even classrooms within the same school, methods of reading instruction often vary widely.


Wednesday: Most teacher-training colleges don't prepare their graduates to teach beginning reading.

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Pub Date: 11/03/97