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New research in neuroplasticity shows that the brains (and therefore the minds) of children, youth and young adults are plastic and that they are structurally affected (physically changed) by targetted and sustained interventions.  A huge database is building, which includes studies that show we no longer need to accept that learning disabilities, developmental delays or disorders, or even low cognitive ability cannot be changed or at least improved to some degree.

Advances in research and best practices in the area of improving brain function and learning outcomes have been reported in Journals of Psychology, Neuroscience and Education for more than three decades.

Most particularly, advances in thinking about Neuroplasticity and the ability of the brain to heal and improve in response to specific interventions have been highlighted in the last half decade by advances in brain imaging technology that allow us to look at the living, thinking and even growing brain.  This has provided evidence of the positive effect of these interventions on the physical brain, even when seriously injured or disabled due to trauma, disease or genetic factors.

At the Vancouver Learning Centre we have understood this for more than three decades.  We have been involved in developing and delivering changed outcomes for hundreds of clients, one by one by one.  Now the research is coming out that not only validates what we have been doing all this time, but also shows how the brains (and therefore the minds) of children, youth and young adults are physically changed by the kinds of targetted and sustained interventions used in programs at the Vancouver Learning Centre.

Two disciplines, Education and Neuroscience, are beginning to collaborate on projects that use brain-imaging technology to measure the role that education experiences play in shaping the specific functional circuits in the brain that give rise to complex cognitive skills such as Reading or Math.

These interdisciplinary studies tackle questions that stretch beyond the boundaries of what either discipline could do alone.  For example, this research is beginning to explore the earliest brain activity and activity changes associated with reading instruction.  This allows researchers to compare the effect of different methods of teaching, and even to compare them to children’s normal school experience.

Dr. Bruce D. McCandliss, Department of Psychology, Vanderbilt University, Nashville TN, speaking at the Brain Development and Learning Conference, in Vancouver, BC in August 2010 said: “The early years of a new discipline in Educational Neuroscience is now emerging.”

Some of the following research reports are indicative of the flood of research that will now surely follow.

 

The Study
Brem et al. PNAS, May 4, 2010 (vol 107, no 18).

The Findings 

A repeated-measures fMRI (pre and post tests with Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Technology)  of kindergarten children showed that 8 weeks of playtime(3.6 hours total) with an educational computer program using a letter-sound (phonics) graphogame produced observable changes in neural activity within brain regions associated with reading.

[These changes included increased blood oxygenation levels dependent responses in the left occipital temporal cortex and in the scalp recordings of ERPs].

No such changes in these special regions were observed in children randomly assigned to playing a number-math educational computer game.

Remarkably, although these children had real world educational experiences (classroom exposure) with letters before the study, no such letter sensitivity in brain activity was observed in the pretest in the brain regions under consideration.

Commentary

“This study provides the strongest evidence to date linking specific educational experiences to specific changes in brain activity in young children….

“Further it raises interesting issues at the heart of educational Neuroscience about why some forms of educationally scafolded experiences (hierarchically structured) lead to dramatic changes, whereas others apparently lead to little or no change.

“Was the process of learning to link letters to their corresponding speech sounds (learning phonics) a key factor in driving these changes, as the authors suggest?”

Bruce D. McCandliss
August 2010

 

The Study
James K.H (2010), Developmental Science (vol 13 pp. 279-288)

The Findings

This MRI study of preschool children contrasted two educational experiences in the brain region associated with recognizing letters.  James investigated the hypothesis that specific educational experiences performed with letters, rather than just visual experiences with letters, are key factors in changing brain responses.  He said that “Sensori-motor experience with letters leads to changes in visual processing in the developing brain.”   

 James concluded that, “Such findings highlight the potential of educational Neuroscience to examine the critical factors in effective instructional design.”

 

The Study
Neuron, December 10, 2009 (vol 64, no 5)

The Findings

Psychologists from Carnegie Mellon University used tensor imaging to measure the quality of white matter connections in the brains of below average readers aged 8-12.    The researchers assigned 35 poor readers to an intensive 6-month remedial reading program, and 12 to a control group who received normal classroom instruction.  They found that after 6 months the readers in the intensive program showed significantly higher quality connections in the brain region associated with reading while the control group did not.

 

The Study
Yale University School of Medicine study reported on www.wrightnewsletter.com

The Findings

Researchers compared 49 reading-disabled children with 28 controls using fMRI.  In this study, 37 of the 49 disabled readers were taught phonics, the remaining 12 were taught the regular program in the public schools.

After one year the phonics instructed children brain scans showed significant improvement in the brain structures related to reading, as well as significant improvement in reading.  The control group did not show improvement.

 

Conclusions and Implications

The studies reported show significantly improved connectivity in the brain regions associated with Reading when children are taught phonics in a systematic way. While these studies are still in the preliminary stages, the results measured real effects from which implications may be more widely drawn.

The general implications of the studies cited are that when the subject under consideration is specifically and systematically taught in a targetted manner, the brain itself is changed in the areas that produce increased competence in what is being taught.

The results are surprisingly consistent.  Although they are still in the laboratory of the universities, the implication for the educators of the world is huge, namely, that structured, targetted (to the subject) and intense interventions produce the long-term effect of changes in the brain that result in improved performance in the specific skill targetted.

Over the next decade these findings will move from the universities to the public schools in larger and larger studies until the flow of new information will make it impossible to prevent whole system change.  For example, school systems will no longer be able to support whole language approaches to teaching reading if the phonics methods of teaching of sound-symbol association shows itself to be the best approach, as these reported studies show.

In the meantime, the Vancouver Learning Centre has three decades of experience in targetted and intensive programs that work and they can be delivered now.

Reading with understanding is the core-learning tool at this time.  Even electronic communication depends on this fast and accurate central ability.

Concerned parents need to ask if their child has difficulty in:

  • Learning to read
  • Decoding words phonetically (child will guess at words rather than decode phonetically)
  • Understanding written material clearly (reading comprehension)
  • Reading for pleasure
  • Reading activities that require reading aloud
  • Understanding written instructions
  • Learning Math
  • Written expression quality or output
  • Spelling
  • Language skills, especially understanding word meaning precisely in grade level texts and instruction
  • Self-esteem
  • Appropriate behaviour
  • Willing enthusiasm to go to school

Perhaps the child has an IEP that simplifies or modifies learning experiences, so that grade appropriate competence does not grow year by year.  It should be noted that a child can become a better reader at any age, if given the right stimulus and instruction.

If your child, youth or young adult has any of the difficulties identified above, the Vancouver Learning Centre can help.

 

This process includes:

  1. A free interview or telephone conversation (604-738-2277) or e-mail response from andrew@vancouverlearningcentre.com  is available to determine if the VLC is the right choice.
  2. If you decide to proceed, an assessment date is established to do the Neuropsychological and Educational Assessment to design a targeted and intense program specifically for your young person.
  3. Within the week the Neuropsychological and Educational report and the program is available for your consideration.
  4. If you decide to go ahead, a schedule and a teaching team to deliver the program is available.
  5. The program fits your young person like a glove.  It is targetted in terms of brain function weakness, skills across the curriculum and it is set to deliver a personal best performance.

To start this process, here are the steps to follow to secure an assessment for your child:

  1. Read the website.
  2. Call Andrew Taylor to discuss your child at 604-738-2277 or write an e-mail to andrew@vancouverlearningcentre.com.
  3. If you are prepared to proceed with an assessment, if it is suitable for your child or youth, you may wish to book a free appointment with Andrew to speak with Dr. Geraldine Schwartz.
  4. If after this discussion, which may include the child or youth or young adult, it is agreed by all the participants that an assessment is appropriate, you will be given an appointment.
  5. This is a witnessed assessment (one parent sits in to observe for children and may choose to sit in with the agreement of the youth or young adult).
  6. The report is usually available within a few days.  The report, which includes the program, is presented as a proposal to the family.  If it is considered appropriate, a school collaboration and a school visit can be arranged.
  7. If the decision is to proceed, VLC teachers are assigned and a schedule to begin is provided.
  8. All this takes place in an easy, fluid, comfortable and professional manner.  Answers are provided in a timely way and the program to remediate the problem can be set in place, within ten days.

Geraldine Schwartz PhD

 







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