[AAACE-NLA] Neuroscience and Adult Literacy
albertd at witcc.edu
Thu Jul 5 17:33:27 EDT 2007
I have read the book on dyslexia by Dr. Sally Shaywitz, over a year ago, along with several other texts on the subject. Since that time, our literacy program acquired funding, or which we used to buy instructional materials/resources suggested by Dr. Shaywitz to be used with learners who have dyslexia. These include the computer software Lexia SOS, the text Starting Over: A Literacy Program (Knight, Joan 1990), and the Wilson Language Reading System. The latter we just recently acquired, and are in the planning stages of using. The previous have been in use for 6 months now, and some success is starting to manifest with learners who use the software and Starting Over text. We will need another 6 months before we can give a more definite assessment of their effectiveness in teaching adult learners to read.
If I may, I have two questions for you. First, is the work by Dr. Shaywitz and other taking hold in the adult literacy community? Second, what other literacy programs are showing success or otherwise in using her 'instructional program' recommendations, such as those we have acquired? Thanks!!
WITCC Adult Literacy Coordinator
712-274-8733 or 1-800-352-4649
albertd at witcc.edu
>>> tsticht at znet.com 7/3/2007 8:16 PM >>>
July 3, 2007
Neuroscience Trends and Adult Literacy Education
International Consultant in Adult Education
Trends in neuroscience (brain science) and cognitive science have relevance
for understanding the importance of adult education for sustaining
cognitive functions across the lifespan and across generations. Some of
these trends are discussed below in a chronological sequence of three
important publications which relate to the importance of brain science in
adult literacy education.
(1999) Brain Development in Children and Adults.
One of the beliefs in our culture is that the brain and its intellectual
capacity is developed in early childhood and that " as we age our brain
cells and synapses begin to whither away" (Clinton, 1996, pp. 57-58). Given
these beliefs about the development of the brain in early childhood and its
fading in older age some might argue, "Why should we invest in adult
literacy education? Lets put our money into early childhood programs. An
ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!"
But now trends in both brain science and cognitive science have converged to
bring about revisions to these ideas from the conventional wisdom. For over
a decade and a half, the James S. McDonnell Foundation in St. Louis has
supported extensive research in neuroscience. In the late 1990s, John
Bruer, President of the Foundation wrote articles and a book to explain the
findings of brain science and their relevance, or lack thereof, for early
childhood and in-school education (1998, 1999). Following is a brief
summary from the 1998 article of what Bruer regards as major misconceptions
that educators have of brain science.
(1). Claim: Enriched early childhood environments causes synapses to
multiply rapidly. Bruer states, "What little direct evidence we have * all
based on studies of monkeys - indicates these claims are inaccurate.
...Early experience does not cause synapses to form rapidly. Early enriched
environments will not put our children on synaptic fast tracks" (1998, pp.
(2). Claim: More synapses mean more brainpower. Bruer states, "The
neuroscientific evidence does not support this claim, either. ...Synaptic
densities at birth and in early adulthood are approximately the same, yet
by any measure adults are more intelligent, have more highly flexible
behavior, and learn more rapidly than infants" (1998, pp. 14-15).
(3). Claim: The plateau period of high synaptic density and high brain
metabolism is the optimal period for learning. Bruer states, "The
neuroscientific evidence for this claim is extremely weak. We do not know
what relationship exists between high resting brain metabolism and
learning, any more than we know what relation exists between high synaptic
numbers and ability to learn...." (1998, pp. 15-17.
Bruer goes on to say that, "Truly new results in neuroscience, rarely
mentioned in the brain and education literature, point to the brains
lifelong capacity to reshape itself in response to experience" (1998, p.
(2003) Brain Science, Dyslexia, and Teaching Reading
Four years following Bruer's 1999 book, in 2003, Sally Shaywitz, a
pediatrician, published a book entitled "Overcoming Dyslexia." The book
presents an interesting history of dyslexia and an overview of recent brain
research on dyslexia using functional brain imaging techniques. What
impressed me the most however was not the neuroscience, but rather the
recommendations for practice, that is, for teaching dyslexics to read.
For instance, in reviewing programs suitable for dyslexic students Shaywitz
recommends programs referred to "*generically as Orton-Gillingham (after
Dr. Samuel Orton and his associate, Anna Gillingham, an approach developed
as a tutorial program for struggling readers."(p. 266). These programs now
have a history that is almost a century long, and have little or nothing to
do with the "modern study of reading and reading disability" as discussed
in Shaywitz's book. So rather than leading to innovations in the teaching
of reading for struggling readers, the neuroscience research Shaywitz
reviews seems to be more confirmatory of what has long been known as useful
(2006) "Brain-Based" Learning: More Fiction than Fact
In the Fall 2006 issue of the American Educator, the magazine of the
American Federation of Teachers, Daniel Willingham, cognitive scientist,
reviews a number of studies of the brain using functional magnetic
resonance imaging and other techniques for studying the brain in action. He
discusses research on such issues as left-right brain functioning, gender
differences in brain activity, early childhood brain science and other
topics of interest to educators and the general public as well.
In his review of this research Willingham gives an example of two types of
information that a teacher might receive and considers which would be most
useful for teaching. He says, "Consider, for example, an 8-year-old boy who
cant read. A neuroscientist could give his teacher an image of his brain
and explain that the wrong areas of his brain are active when he tries to
read. A literacy coach or school psychologist could give the student a
45-minute assessment and then explain to his teacher that he doesnt have a
good grasp of the sounds that the letters make. As a teacher, which test
results would you rather have? The brain image might be interesting, but it
does not provide any information about how to help the boy read. In a
nutshell, thats about where neuroscience is today on most matters related
to the classroom."
Brain Science and Adult Literacy Education
In his 1999 book Bruer argues that, "Adult literacy programs provide
additional evidence that acquiring and improving literacy skills is not
time-limited or subject to critical period limitations." (p. 112). He says,
"We might question the prudence of decreasing expenditures for adult
education or special education on the grounds that a person's intellectual
and emotional course is firmly set during the early years." (p. 26). This
is a policy he rejects and it is an important point given governmental
policies which place billions of dollars in early childhood education while
providing only minimal funding resources for the literacy development of the
adults who are children's first teachers, their parents.
Bruer, J. (1998, November) Lets Put Brain Science on the Back Burner. NASSP
Bulletin, 82, 9-19.
Bruer, J. (1999). The Myth of the First Three Years. New York: The Free
Clinton, H. R. (1996) It Takes a Village and Other Lessons Children Teach
Us. New York: Simon & Schuster, pp. 57-58.
Shaywitz, S. (2003). Overcoming Dyslexia: A New and Complete Science-Based
Program for Reading Problems at Any Level. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Willingham, D. (2006, Fall). "Brain-Based" Learning: More Fiction than Fact.
American Educator. Online at
Thomas G. Sticht
International Consultant in Adult Education
2062 Valley View Blvd.
El Cajon, CA 92019-2059
Tel/fax: (619) 444-9133
Email: tsticht at aznet.net
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