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The Developing Child
An Interview with Bigelow Professor Kurt Fischer

Harvard Graduate School of Education
October 1, 2003

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Bigelow Professor Kurt Fischer
Bigelow Professor Kurt Fischer
(Karlyn Morissette photo)
Bigelow Professor Kurt Fischer is a student of human development from birth through adulthood. His work focuses on the organization of behavior and the ways it changes. His dynamic-skill theory approach provides a framework for combining the many organismic and environmental factors that create the rich variety of development and learning across and within people, including both cultural and individual variation.

Q: Can you explain some of the biological processes that are involved in the brain development and learning of children? When do these processes come to completion?

A: Some of our most interesting research has produced evidence that brain growth does not end in childhood, but rather continues through adolescence and well into the twenties. Certain types of growth persist throughout adulthood. This may result from the fact that the brain grows not as one piece but in differential fits and starts for its diverse regions. As we consider ongoing brain development and processes, it is important to recall the cyclical nature of these changes, as well as their continuation from infancy well into adolescence and adulthood.

Learning to read is also strongly social, especially in the preschool years, where it is typically part of a close interaction with a parent or other caregiver.

As we consider the similarities between children and adults with regards to brain growth, the question of learning becomes important. Both children and adults learn and solve problems on a daily basis by moving down to low skill levels and building up new skills to higher levels. Learning a new skill involves backwards development, which entails moving down to a level that is far below normal functioning and then gradually building up a more complex skill through repeatedly reconstructing it with variations in context. Children and adults have a natural mechanism that motivates this kind of variable repetition and skill mastery and potentially makes learning more spontaneous and effective.

Q: What factors are necessary for a child to learn to read successfully? What, if anything, can be inferred from children who learn to read at an early age?

A: Many different learning components need to click together for a child to be able to read. In the standard pathway to learning to read, children must coordinate the meaning of a word with its sounds and its orthography (visual-graphic components). It is this standard coordination that lies at the heart of good early reading. Learning to read is also strongly social, especially in the preschool years, where it is typically part of a close interaction with a parent or other caregiver.

Some of the few children who learn to read at a very early age do not seem to rely on the social processes (interactions with parents or caregivers) in the same way that most children do as they learn to read. Later, of course, the components of reading change. For example, reading requirements shift around grade four, and children need to read to learn in addition to learning to read. The academic demands and the consequent level of learning, therefore, increase sharply at this age.

You can learn very little from when an individual child learns to read. Many early readers become very bright, a few become autistic or idiot savants, and others become normal adults. On the other hand, many seven year-olds who struggle with reading turn into smart, very accomplished adults. One of my former students and collaborators, Rosalie Fink, has studied many very successful adults who experienced serious reading problems in early school, to try to portray their developmental pathways.

Q: How can brain development and learning be linked to the experiences of children who are diagnosed with dyslexia?

A: In our research, we are tracing the developmental pathways that result in dyslexia. We have found and analyzed the previously mentioned pathways in early reading, and these paths can differentiate skilled reading from reading problems. This work is consistent with the extensive research demonstrating that children with reading problems have difficulty integrating the concepts of sound, sight, and meaning in reading. With our techniques we can highlight children's distinctive developmental pathways. Skilled readers show the integration of sound, sight, and meaning to form a single linear pathway. But readers with problems show separate branches for each of these aspects of reading. Instead of a single pathway, they have one branch for the development of sound analysis of words, a separate branch for reading visual (that is, written) words, and another separate branch for spelling the same words, with no integration across the branches.

For More Information
More information about Kurt Fischer is available in the Faculty Profiles.

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