Measuring Brainwaves May Predict Reading Success in Children


Taking a peek inside a child’s mind by measuring brainwaves can later predict reading comprehension and cognitive ability, suggests a new study.

A pair of researchers from Binghamton University found that assessing brain activity during a child’s reading session has predictive value on academic measures several years down the road.

Credit: JennRene Owens/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

“Your brain is what allows you to do everything, from math to designing buildings to making art,” said Sarah Laszlo, Associate Professor of Psychology at Binghamton University. “If we look at what the brain is doing during reading, it is a really good predictor of how reading will develop.”

The research team, led by Laszlo and colleague Mallory Stites, both affiliated with Binghamton’s department of Psychology, used a tool known as event-related potentials, or ERPs, to show that brain activity in children who later found success with reading comprehension was different than the brain activity in children who struggled with reading.

Event-related potentials “are essential characteristics for studying a process that unfolds rapidly and consists of multiple, interactive subprocesses,” note the researchers in the journal Psychophysiology.

The act of reading involves many such activities occurring beneath the surface. For example, a person must be able to process orthographic, phonological and semantic information in an extremely rapid manner. Event-related potentials can reflect this type of processing on a “millisecond-level,” the researchers note.

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For the current study, the researchers had a group of children “read a list of words silently to themselves. Every so often they would come across their own name to make sure they were understanding the text and paying attention.”

The researchers noticed a unique pattern of brain activity among children who later achieved higher academic success — particularly during phonological and semantic processing.

“Phonological processing is the ability to sound things out and semantic processing is knowing what words mean — like being able to link the word fish with a slimy creature that swims underwater,” said Laszlo.

Credit: Anthony Kelly/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

To get a baseline level of academic performance for the children in the years following the measurement of brain activity, the researchers assessed report cards, feedback from teachers, the level of parental engagement in reading, and how much the children read at home.

To date, the researchers have tracked the children for four years and plan to publish a comprehensive report on the study group after five years have passed. However, they believe that gaining an early glimpse into a child’s reading potential can give parents and educators a key head start on any challenges a young person may face.

“The thing that is really valuable about this is that once kids starting having trouble with reading, they start needing extra help, which can be hard and stigmatizing for the child and often not effective,” said Laszlo. “By using long-range predictions about success, we can give them the extra help they need before they fall behind.”

Ultimately, the researchers say that event-related potentials assessed during year one have predictive value a year later.

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