Can we Predict Children’s Future Reading Ability?

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could predict which young children will grow to become strong readers and which ones will not?


And for those who struggle to read, wouldn’t it be nice if we could predict which struggling learners will improve their reading skills over time, with or without intervention?


Can we predict children's future reading ability, even without a crystal ball?  The research seems to think so. Learn what we're learning about learning, as well as what we can do to help students who struggle.

Fukima Hoeft, a cognitive neuroscientist at UCSF, is actually trying to do just that. Through her brain scan research on dyslexia she already uncovered the what, the where and the when of predicting reading ability in young children.


The What

What is this magical predictor, you ask?


Well, in terms of measuring reading gains of dyslexic students, it ISN’T any of the widely used standardized measures of reading and language. Fukima and her fellow researchers put 17 of them to the test, none of which proved to be useful predictors.


Based on the research, the ONLY consistent predictor of a child’s strength in reading turns out to be the growth of white matter. White matter, to be more specific, allows different parts of our brains to communicate with each other.


The Where

Where does this white matter growth need to occur? In a place called the left temporoparietal region, apparently. That’s the area of the brain where development of speech, reading and phonological processing (linking sounds and letters) occurs.


Makes sense, right? Dyslexia, after all, is marked by difficulty in phonological processing.


Now that we know our budding young readers’ brains require a certain volume of white matter in a very particular region of the brain, what about the timing? Does it matter when that growth occurs?


The When

Yes. Regardless of how much white matter a kindergartener started with, the volume between the critical period of kindergarten and third grade determined how well children learned to translate letters into meaningful words.


And if you’re wondering if there’s still hope for older dyslexic children, I, of course, always say yes. But don’t take my word for it.  The research agrees. According to Hoeft and her colleagues in Neural systems predicting long-term outcome in dyslexia (2011):

In regards to reading pathways, it appears that dyslexic readers who showed gains in reading did so by depending on a righthemisphere pathway, in contrast to the left-hemisphere pathway that characterizes typical reading… This finding encourages consideration of intervention approaches that capitalize on alternative reading strategies in addition to current interventions that build on typical reading instruction.


In other words, when working with students with dyslexia, and I’ll also add students with other learning difficulties, don’t simply double down on the same instruction you provide everyone else. Please, I beg every parent and educator to absorb this point! Very different TYPES of instruction will be much more effective.


Yes folks, I do realize that we aren’t going to give our children futuristic helmets to wear around the house in order to measure white matter and brain function. Not any time soon, anyway.


Still, the outcomes of the research are exciting. They support the idea that reading instruction and intervention is best tailored to the individual, and best provided well BEFORE we see behavioral evidence of any struggle.


Want to learn what else I’m learning about learning?  Find more in this category, Research and Fun Facts.