Reading to Rewire

For children at risk of dyslexia, early reading at home may reroute the brain's networks, building new capacity

September 18, 2017
Illustration of a mother reading to a child; over their heads, a shooting star connects a constellation on the left side with a constellation on the right side

Reading with parents and caregivers — key to building literacy skills and a love of reading in every child — may be particularly valuable for children at risk for developing dyslexia. New research reveals that strong home literacy practices may actually reshape the brains of such children by creating new neural pathways for reading. With family support, these children may be able to develop alternative networks that help them decode and comprehend words on a page.

The Research 

Dyslexia, the most common reading disability, affects between 5 and 10 percent of the population. It’s largely hereditary; about half of kids with a familial risk (an older sibling or parent with dyslexia) develop the disorder. The question for neuroscientist Nadine Gaab and her team at Boston Children’s Hospital is why do only 50 percent develop it — and are there ways to lessen that percentage even further?

Strong home literacy practices may help to create a detour for the brain's reading network, from the left hemisphere to the right, providing resiliency for young readers with a family history of dyslexia.

In a recent study, the Gaab Lab examined how family literacy practices play a role. The researchers looked at the brain activation of 50 soon-to-be kindergartners during a phonological processing task — where the kids were asked to think about whether certain words started with the same sound (for instance, “goat” and “gorilla,” or “bird” and “ant.”). Twenty-nine of the children had a familial risk of dyslexia and 21 did not; none had begun reading yet.

Gaab and her team looked at these neuroimaging scans alongside descriptions of each child’s home literacy environment. Parents reported the number of books in their homes; how often and for how long they read to their child; how often they discussed the alphabet; and how often the child looked at books by his or herself. The researchers controlled for each family’s socioeconomic status and parent education level.

Crossing the Neural Divide

The networks that govern our phonological processing skills, which are necessary for reading, usually exist primarily in the left side of our brains, and the researchers saw activation in that area for the children without a familial risk of dyslexia. But children with a sibling or parent with dyslexia and strong home literacy practices also activated the right side of their brains (specifically, the right precentral gyrus) to think about words and sounds.

It’s unclear why this shift occurs — whether the right-side reading network is innate, or whether family reading practices help create it. The Gaab Lab has collected data showing that children with a reading network in the right hemisphere also have a stronger corpus collosum, which is the white matter that connects the two cerebral hemispheres. “It may be that part of the reason why we’re seeing this activation is that starting from birth these children are less ‘lateralized,’ meaning they’re in general processing information more in both hemispheres,” says Gaab, who is a faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Harvard Medical School.

But family practices likely play a role as well. Gaab also theorizes that children who are born susceptible to dyslexia have atypical brain development in the left hemisphere, which makes it difficult for them to develop components of the language and reading network there. But neural networks are incredibly malleable. She thinks that strong environmental factors, such as listening to parents read, singing the alphabet together, and making connections between stories, may enable a detour of the reading network across the corpus collosum to the right side of the brain, in order to make up for that genetic influence.
 

What Parents Should Know
  • Home literacy is important for all children.
  • For young children with a familial risk of dyslexia, the benefits go further.
  • Reading at home from an early age may also encourage the development of a neural detour from the left to the right hemisphere of the brain, compensating for the genetic influence.

Other research supports the idea of a detour to the right hemisphere. A 2011 study from MIT showed that children with dyslexia who used the right hemisphere of their brains for reading later improved their reading skills over two years in middle school. And a forthcoming study from the Gaab Lab reveals that children with a familial risk of dyslexia who don’t develop the disorder use more of the right hemisphere for phonological processing, a strong precursor to reading. 

Reinforcing Home Literacy

  • A strong family literacy environment may literally reshape the brains of kids who are predisposed to dyslexia.
  • Every parent needs to read to their young children and talk about sounds, words, and stories — but this may be especially important for parents who have dyslexia, or who have an older child with dyslexia. And while these practices may feel uncomfortable for adults who have struggled reading themselves, every bit helps, says Gaab. (See resources below.)
  • Preschool teachers and daycare supervisors can support strong literacy practices at home by encouraging all parents, including those with a familial risk of dyslexia, to read to their kids at home.
  • Teachers and parents can introduce students with a familial risk to music lessons at a young age, because playing a musical instrument may facilitate a less lateralized processing of sounds and language.
  • Previous research has shown that the earlier children at risk of dyslexia get specialized support and interventions, the better their reading outcomes will be. Reading at home is a valuable way to begin that process.

“The takeaway for parents is that home literacy is really important for all children,” says Gaab. For young children with a familial risk of dyslexia, “it’s not just that home literacy gives you a very important basis for learning to read — oral comprehension, vocabulary, etc. It may also facilitate the development of a detour — a compensatory resilience network in the right hemisphere.”

Illustration: Wilhelmina Peragine

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Early Childhood Language and Literacy Mind and Brain Parenting and Community Students with Disabilities

Usable Knowledge is a trusted source of insight into what works in education — translating new research into easy-to-use stories and strategies for teachers, parents, K-12 leaders, higher ed professionals, and policymakers. Usable Knowledge is produced at the Harvard Graduate School of Education by Bari Walsh (senior editor) and Leah Shafer (staff writer). Contact us at uknow@gse.harvard.edu.