Children from any background can struggle with reading, but new research by University of Maryland and MIT neuroscientists has found that those from a lower socioeconomic status (SES) background—who more frequently have reading problems—also tend to struggle in a different way, as measured by their underlying brain signatures.
The study included brain scans of more than 150 first- and second-grade children as they performed tasks related to reading. Researchers found that when students from higher SES backgrounds struggled with reading, it could usually be explained by differences in their ability to piece sounds together into words, a skill known as phonological processing.
But when students from lower SES backgrounds struggled, it was best explained by differences in their ability to rapidly name words or letters, a task associated with visual interpretation of words and letters, known as orthographic processing. This pattern was further confirmed by brain activation during phonological and orthographic processing.
These differences suggest that different types of interventions may be needed for different groups of children, the researchers say. The study also highlights the importance of including a wide range of SES levels in studies of reading or other types of academic learning.
“Within the neuroscience realm, we tend to rely on convenience samples of participants, so a lot of our understanding of the neuroscience components of reading in general, and reading disabilities in particular, tends to be based on higher-SES families,” said lead author Rachel Romeo, an assistant professor of human development and quantitative methodology at the University of Maryland College of Education who worked on the study while a graduate student in the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology. “If we only look at these nonrepresentative samples, we can come away with a relatively biased view of how the brain works.”
John Gabrieli, the Grover Hermann Professor of Health Sciences and Technology and a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT, and Joanna Christodoulou, Associate Professor of Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at the MGH Institute of Health Professions, are the co-senior authors of the paper, which appeared on Nov. 15 in the journal Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience.
There are many possible reasons why a lower SES background might lead to difficulties in orthographic processing, the researchers said. It might be less exposure to books at home, or limited access to libraries and other resources that promote literacy.
In a 2017 study, Gabrieli, Romeo and others found that a summer reading intervention that focused on helping students develop the sensory and cognitive processing necessary for reading was more beneficial for students from lower-SES backgrounds than children from higher-SES backgrounds. Those findings also support the idea that tailored interventions may be necessary for individual students, they said.
“There are two major reasons we understand that cause children to struggle as they learn to read in these early grades. One of them is learning differences, most prominently dyslexia, and the other one is socioeconomic disadvantage,” Gabrieli said. “In my mind, schools have to help all these kinds of kids become the best readers they can, so recognizing the source or sources of reading difficulty ought to inform practices and policies that are sensitive to these differences and optimize supportive interventions.”
Gabrieli and Romeo are now working with researchers at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education to evaluate language and reading interventions that could better prepare preschool children from lower SES backgrounds to learn to read. In her new lab at the University of Maryland, Romeo also plans to further delve into how different aspects of low SES contribute to different areas of language and literacy development.
“No matter why a child is struggling with reading, they need the education and the attention to support them,” Romeo said. “Studies that try to tease out the underlying factors can help us in tailoring educational interventions to what a child needs.”
This story first appeared in Maryland Today and was adapted from an article by MIT News.