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Researchers, teachers, discuss
science and practice of reading
July 19, 1999

hanks to innovative work with brain scans, researchers are now able to pinpoint the key area of the brain that doesn't function properly in many impaired readers. But how do educators who work with these readers each day take that information and apply it to the classroom?

More than 40 reading specialists and school administrators converged on the UConn campus recently to discuss ways to do just that. The educators were attendees at the UConn/ Haskins Summer Workshop on the Science and Practice of Reading held from June 29 to July 1.

The workshop was a joint venture between the University and Haskins Laboratories, a language research lab in New Haven associated with UConn and Yale University. Researchers from the two institutions presented the latest research and, together with attendees, discussed how the findings can be applied to everyday classroom situations.

Researchers at the language and cognition program in UConn's psychology department and at Haskins are at the forefront of much of the research on reading. They were part of a team, led by Sally and Bennet Shaywitz of Yale University; that took brain scans of normal and impaired readers and discovered that the brains of people in the two groups function differently while they read. Most poor readers show a deficiency in an area of the brain called the angular gyrus, said Ken Pugh, a senior scientist at Haskins Laboratories, during one of the conference sessions. Researchers theorize that this area of the brain is responsible for translating letters into their sounds or phonemes. Currently, researchers are involved in a study to determine whether remedial instruction can improve the functioning of the angular gyrus in impaired readers.

During a discussion of how the mind reads, Michael Turvey, a professor of psychology at UConn, outlined different theories of what's occurring in the brain as people read. One hypothesis states that words are identified independent of the sounds that letters indicate, for example, but a conflicting hypothesis states that word identification is dependent on the letters' sound. It's imperative for researchers to understand how words are identified, Turvey said, since dysfunction in that process is a major stumbling block in learning to read.

Attendees also heard lectures about what children who can't yet read need to know before they can learn to read and how instructors can teach these prerequisites. Other highlights included a discussion about what teachers need to know about language to teach reading and a presentation about the debate between those who favor a teaching method that emphasizes a word's meaning and those who prefer one that emphasizes a word's pronunciation.

Attendees also heard about the sources of reading difficulties, how to identify children who may have trouble learning to read and how to use research to improve reading skills.

Leonard Katz, a professor of psychology at UConn and a senior research scientist at Haskins Laboratories, said he hopes the workshop participants gained a better understanding of how the brain functions while people read.

Conference participants, including school administrators and reading specialists from Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, also discussed with fellow educators how their school districts deal with reading difficulties and sharing ideas on ways to improve their results.

"For me and my colleagues," said Katz, "it was very useful to hear from the educators about the real classroom implementation of our research findings. For example, a common complaint was that there aren't enough attractive reading books that focus on phonics. Putting theory into practice effectively is a challenge."

Allison Thompson