An interesting piece by New Yorker science and psychology blogger Maria Konnikova How Children Learn to Read, doesn’t mention Montessori, but it should!
Here’s the gist: UC San Francisco researchers published a three-year longitudinal study (paywall) of the neuroscience of reading development. They followed 5 and 6 year olds from kindergarten through third grade, measuring phonological and reading skills, cognitive and expressive ability, direction-following, family behavior patterns including reading at home and screen time, and brain growth. Konnikova talks to researcher Fumiko Hoeft about the findings, which aren’t what you might expect (emphasis added):
When Hoeft took into account all of the explanatory factors that had been linked to reading difficulty in the past—genetic risk, environmental factors, pre-literate language ability, and over-all cognitive capacity—she found that only one thing consistently predicted how well a child would learn to read. That was the growth of white matter in one specific area of the brain, the left temporoparietal region. The amount of white matter that a child arrived with in kindergarten didn’t make a difference. But the change in volume between kindergarten and third grade did.
White matter (wiki), which we used to think of as “filler”, in fact allows for communication among different areas of the brain. For reading, it seems to help the brain combine sounds into words and imbue them with meaning. So how do we promote white matter growth during this critical (one might even say “sensitive”) period?
Hoeft looked at some outliers to tease out answers: “stealth dyslexic” children who have a hard time picking out sounds but learn to decode anyway, or who have a hard time decoding but still develop high reading comprehension. And here she found a development in a specific area of the brain: the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (wiki), “responsible, among other things, for executive function and self-control”. Hoeft sees an intervention:
“If it’s superior executive function that is helping some kids develop despite genetic predisposition to the contrary, that is really good news, because that is something we do well—we know how to train executive function.”
Why yes! Yes, we do. The article continues:
There are multiple programs in place and multiple teaching methods, tested over the years, that help children develop self-regulation ability: for example, the KIPP schools that are using Walter Mischel’s self-control research to teach children to delay gratification.
Hm. I can think of another one. Well documented by pediatric neurospychologist and Montessori advocate Steve Hughes here and by researchers Adele Diamond and Kathleen Lee here, high quality Montessori in controlled experiments has been shown to increase executive function in children. (More links in my post on executive function here.) If Montessori education, rigorously practiced, could be shown to increase white matter — that would be big. Sounds like a dissertation topic!
Incidentally, Konnikova had another New Yorker piece that made the rounds in Montessori: What’s Lost as Handwriting Fades?. I would love for her to find out more about our work. Comments are not enabled on the New Yorker article, and there is no “contact the writer” feature. Konnikova has a website, and suggests that the best way to reach her is via Facebook or Twitter, so I will give that a try.