Not Every Reader Faces the Same Difficulties

Every reader has their own unique set of challenges and struggles when it comes to reading. Some people may struggle with decoding and recognizing individual words, while others may have difficulty with comprehension and understanding the meaning of what they read. Additionally, some readers may struggle with focusing and staying engaged while reading, while others may have physical challenges that make it difficult to read for extended periods of time. It is important to identify and understand each individual’s specific struggles in order to provide the appropriate support and resources to help them become better readers.

Neuroscientists have discovered that the brain signatures of reading difficulties in students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds differ from those of students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds who struggle with reading. Many children struggle to learn to read, and studies show that students from lower socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds have greater difficulty than those from higher SES backgrounds.

MIT neuroscientists have discovered that the types of reading difficulties experienced by lower-SES students, as well as the underlying brain signatures, differ from those experienced by higher-SES students who struggle with reading.

Researchers discovered that when students from higher socioeconomic 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, in a new study that included brain scans of more than 150 children as they performed tasks related to reading.

When students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds struggled, differences in their ability to quickly name words or letters, a task associated with orthographic processing, or visual interpretation of words and letters, were best explained. Brain activation during phonological and orthographic processing confirmed this pattern.

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.

Rachel Romeo

According to the researchers, these differences suggest that different types of interventions may be required for different groups of children. The study also emphasizes the significance of including a diverse range of socioeconomic 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,” says Rachel Romeo, the study’s lead author and a former graduate student in the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology. “If we only look at these nonrepresentative samples, we can get a skewed picture of how the brain works.”

Romeo is now an assistant professor in the Department of Human Development and Quantitative Methodology at the University of Maryland. John Gabrieli, the Grover Hermann Professor of Health Sciences and Technology and a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT, is the senior author of the paper, which appears today in the journal Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience.

Not every reader's struggle is the same
Not every reader’s struggle is the same

Components of reading

For many years, researchers have known that children’s reading scores on standardized tests are related to socioeconomic factors such as school spending per student or the number of children at the school who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Phonological awareness, or the understanding of how sounds combine to form words and how sounds can be split up and swapped in or out to form new words, is the aspect of reading that children who struggle with reading struggle with the most, according to studies conducted primarily in higher-SES environments. “That’s a critical component of reading, and difficulty with phonological processing is often one of the hallmarks of dyslexia or other reading disorders,” Romeo says.

The MIT researchers wanted to investigate how SES might affect phonological processing as well as orthographic processing, another important aspect of reading. This is more about the visual aspects of reading, such as the ability to identify letters and read words.

The researchers conducted the study by recruiting first and second-grade students from the Boston area, making an effort to include students from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds. For the purposes of this study, SES was calculated using the parents’ total years of formal education, which is a common measure of a family’s SES.

“We went into this not necessarily with any hypothesis about how SES might relate to the two types of processing, but just trying to understand whether SES might be impacting one or the other more, or if it affects both types the same,” Romeo says.

The researchers first administered a battery of standardized tests to each child, measuring either phonological or orthographic processing. The children were then subjected to fMRI scans while performing additional phonological or orthographic tasks.

The initial battery of tests enabled the researchers to determine each child’s abilities for both types of processing, and the brain scans enabled them to measure brain activity in areas of the brain associated with each type of processing.

The findings revealed that differences in phonological processing ability accounted for the majority of the differences between good and struggling readers at the higher end of the SES spectrum. This is consistent with the findings of previous reading difficulty studies. The researchers also discovered greater differences in activity in the parts of the brain responsible for phonological processing in those children.

When the researchers looked at the lower end of the SES spectrum, the results were quite different. The researchers discovered that differences in orthographic processing ability accounted for the majority of the differences between good and struggling readers. These children’s MRI scans revealed greater differences in brain activity in areas of the brain involved in orthographic processing.

Optimizing interventions

According to the researchers, there are numerous potential reasons why a lower socioeconomic background may cause difficulties with orthographic processing. It could be a lack of exposure to books at home, or a lack of access to libraries and other literacy-promoting resources. Different types of interventions may benefit children from this background who struggle with reading more than those used for children who have difficulty with phonological processing.

Gabrieli, Romeo, and colleagues discovered in a 2017 study that a summer reading intervention focused on helping students develop the sensory and cognitive processing necessary for reading was more beneficial for students from lower-income families than children from higher-income families. These findings also support the idea that tailored interventions for individual students may be necessary, according to the researchers.