Decoding Dyslexia

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Thanks to The Ghotit Blog for the link.

A Book is like a Garden in your Pocket

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An interesting talk in the Radio 4 programme ‘All in the Mind’ alerted me to the Dyslexia Research Trust’s sponsorship of a garden at the Chelsea Flower Show about the impact of coloured filters on reading problems. (Thanks to @sutmae on Twitter for the nudge to the programme.)

Professor of Neuroscience at Oxford University, John Stein, and garden designer Tim Fowler, discuss the theory that colours can help with the processing of words on a page. The premise is seen as controversial by those who focus exclusively on language impairment and consequent problems with processing sounds within words so characteristic of many learners with dyslexia. Phonological processing ability is clearly a central difficulty, but to my mind it is not necessarily the only underlying cause of reading difficulties. Differences in dyslexic brains show that auditory processing is not the only indicator of dyslexia.

Stein maintains that blue and yellow backgrounds are particularly advantageous for learners with visual stress and thus the designer of the garden has chosen these colours to work with. The garden features books, first closed then open, to demonstrate that judicious use of colour (overlays, glasses) enables many youngsters with difficulties to read.

The first part of the garden contains white and green flowers. Along the path are random letters, set higgledy-piggledy in the path. This represents the problems that many learners with dyslexia have with ordering letters, especially when against white backgrounds.

You pass by a pile of closed stone books to see a mass of yellow and blue flowers surrounding a path embedded with real words. Yellow and blue are especially significant for supporting learners with specific reading difficulties.

The yellow flowers represent the filter that enables readers with visual difficulties to make the letters stay still so that they can be ordered.  The visual magnocellular system is impaired in dyslexics: filters make a real difference to their experience of looking at print.

Stein says (in another talk here ):

Sometimes giving these yellow filters has a really dramatic effect, whereby a child who has been complaining that the words and letters have been moving around or are blurred can find things much clearer with yellow filters. On average, children who benefit from yellow filters will improve their reading by six months in a three month time period, therefore doubling their reading progress. This should be considered in the context that if such children are given no help to their vision then they tend to go backwards (in three months they might only progress one month). Therefore dyslexia overlays can have a significant impact.

Blue filters regulate the body clock:

It is believed that these work in a different way because the blue filters stimulate a kind of cell in the retina that is important for controlling daily rhythms. These are useful because the magnocellular system is actually favoured by yellow light. Therefore, when blue filters are given children are helped to synchronize their body clocks.

The children who benefit from blue often have problems with sleeping. Blue spectacles will improve sleeping patterns and they will be able to sleep at the right time and wake up at the right time. There is another benefit in that these same children often get migraines or stomach aches. You give them the blue glasses and these go as well because they all depend upon this hypothalamic clock.

Stein’s research provides evidence that 50% of serious reading problems can be helped by the use of blue or yellow filters.

At the end of the garden is an open and enticing book demonstrating that reading is possible. Finally a water feature – a lens shaped bowl – symbolises the importance of calm and tranquility and the reduction of stress (whether visual or emotional) that is so often a feature of learning when reading disabled.

I’d love to visit. (And I so wish there were a more dyslexia friendly WordPress theme!)

(The right sort of) Brain Training Can Improve Grades

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The BBC trial of brain training mentioned in my last post  demonstrated that Brain Training is ‘only as good as spending six weeks using the internet. There is no meaningful difference’, as is shown in the clip above.

The ‘Brain Test Britain’ experiment was inspired by a study, published in 2009, suggesting the scientific evidence for brain training was lacking.   Tracy Packiam Alloway was instrumental in conducting research on this issue. She states that:

Working memory abilities are closely associated with a wide range of measures of academic ability, including literacy and mathematics. The majority of those with recognised learning difficulties in these areas have working memory impairments. Poor working memory skills in the early years of education are also effective predictors of poor scholastic attainments over the subsequent school years.

The point about brain training programs is that there is no transfer effect. You might improve your ability to recall numbers in a backward sequence over a short period (or spell ‘psychiatrist’ backwards as in Neurolinguistic programming) but not develop your critical or creative thinking and reasoning, your ability to evaluate and synthesise new information or relate prior learning to novel situations. You are no better equipped to know what to do when you don’t know what to do!

Alloway conducted a clinical trial with two groups of students:

The Training group participated in a working memory training program  and the Control group received targeted educational support (IEP). The two groups did not differ in their IQ, working memory, or academic scores pre-training.

In contrast, the Training group demonstrated a clear improvement not only in IQ and working memory tests, but crucially in learning outcomes as well. Students on the working memory training program went from a C to a B, or a B to an A after just 8 weeks of training! This is an exciting step in demonstrating that the right brain training can significantly boost academic attainment.

Both the Training and the Control groups underwent 8-weeks of their respective training programs and then were retested on the IQ, working memory, and academic tests.

The results were dramatic. The Control group did not perform much better without intervention, and in some instances they performed even worse in math and working memory.

Now, Alloway has a product to sell; but at least Jungle Memory appears to be founded on evidence based, scientific and peer reviewed research.

John Connell flagged up a fascinating TED talk about ‘Science Denialism’ and irrational thinking which describes the importance of challenging the ‘belief in magic that replaces evidence-based research’. The speaker, Michael Specter, focuses largely on food production and vaccines, but he could equally well be talking about the ‘leap into the arms of the placebo’ that many take about education. The clip is well worth watching if you have 15 minutes to spare.

Working Memory: the New Intelligence

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Working memory is the new intelligence: the ability to hold information in your head and manipulate it mentally. We use this mental workspace not just when doing ‘mental maths’, but also when following instructions and directions, recalling sequences in words, sentences and oral presentations, and retaining information long enough to evaluate and synthesise. Children who do poorly at school may have poor working memory rather than an immutable lack of intelligence.

Working memory is not linked to differences in income, environment, social class or any of the other factors that make traditional IQ tests so unhelpful. Poor working memory is often not routinely identified at school and teachers often describe children with this problem as inattentive, day dreamers or being less able.

Working memory determines how effectively someone can learn and is, according to Tracy Packiam Alloway, ‘the best predictor of academic success’. I had thought this was receptive vocabulary but of course knowledge of a wide variety of words is dependent on the ability to retrieve these words at will. An effective working memory is fundamental to learning.

Dr Alloway is the director of the Centre for Memory and Learning in the Lifespan at Stirling University. I heard her at the Edinburgh Science festival last week and was most impressed with her energy and wide ranging research profile.

People use working memory to stay focused, creatively solve complex problems, respond to questions thoughtfully and recall instructions and crucial information. Those who are better at remembering and working with new information do better in all aspects of learning.

Working memory impacts on every aspect of how our brain works and, as a consequence, every aspect of our lives: from securing our survival, to making savvy business decisions and controlling our emotions. Understanding what we can do to train our working memory can have a tremendous impact on preventing memory loss and delay the signs of dementia.

Alloway states that specific ‘Brain Training’ programmes have no benefit other than enabling people to do brain training exercises more effectively. She has also debunked ‘Brain Gym’ in her extensive research. The BBC programme this week, ‘Bang goes the Theory’ , confirmed these findings in an amusing way. A chimp demonstrated that practise in such games improves performance measurably, with no concomitant surge in overall cognitive function. The chimp didn’t become more intelligent in the generally accepted sense of the word.

Brain Test Britain found that people who play brain training games do get better at those specific brain training games. But this really only proves the old adage of ‘practice makes perfect’. There is no evidence that this transfers to the brain skills measured by our benchmarking tests.

However, all is not lost. Alloway’s research demonstrates that playing video games involving planning and strategy, such as war games, may also train working memory. Games that demand keeping track of past actions and mapping the actions you are about to take (Scrabble, chess, crosswords, Sudoku being prime examples) are likely to have the same effect as their video equivalents in challenging the brain.

Dr Alloway’s team has developed a program, Jungle Memory , that claims to increase the performance of 11 – 14 year olds. After 8 weeks, children in a trial saw ten-point improvements in literacy, numeracy and ‘IQ’ scores. (I wonder why Alloway continues to use this outdated mode of assessment. It is clear that she regards intelligence quotients only as effective indicators of the ability to pass intelligence tests).

Doodling is also highly recommended for recording those ‘mental scribbles’ about information we need to remember and reflect on.

Adopting approaches that encourage note making using symbols, metacognitive strategies for recall, strategic thinking, time for reflection and – crucially – collaborative learning and playing games in the classroom is likely to help those children (estimated at 10% across all age ranges) whose poor working memory affects their progress.

Interesting stuff that should impact upon learning and teaching for all children, but especially those with learning difficulties.

Pinky and the Brain

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Yesterday at the Edinburgh Science Festival I heard Sergio Della Sala’s talk, ‘The Mind is somewhere North of the Neck’. It was a reprise of the lecture I heard a couple of months ago debunking myths that influence educators about the brain and learning. Videos of Della Sala on the LT Scotland site are well worth a look, although they don’t show us the entertaining showman performing last night.

He dismisses many myths surrounding neuroscience, such as ‘claims that we use 10% of the brain, or the right hemisphere, drink buckets of water or kick your feet to stimulate the corpus callosum, or use coloured lenses to treat dyslexia’ as ludicrous and in many instances sheer charlatanism. He urges us to base any pedagogical approaches on peer reviewed research not hype and avoid ‘simplistic recipes sold by people who made a fortune…just by taking a model over simplified [sic] may produce disasters in education’.

As it’s the holidays, I’m not going to write much more – although there was much to think about – but I located the video clip of a cartoon explaining the different areas of the brain that Della Sal showed. Here it is.

The brain is an organ of re-presentation

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I was working with a P7 class today. I will be working with them  for 4 60 minutes sessions on higher order reading skills.

For the first 2 weeks we’re focusing on working memory and then we’ll move on to how we  read actively:  skimming and scanning for main ideas.

I started today’s session with this video clip illustrating how easy it is to miss important information unless we are mindful. We construct our own memories which are not always reflections of reality.

We decided what aids we used to remember instructions  and then the children made a memory time line. Crucially they discussed with their partners what made events in their lives memorable. They agreed that we tend to recall things that are novel, exciting, and which touch our emotions.

I told them about McLean’s theory of the Triune Brain. I used a toy snake (Reptilian Brain), a Valentine’s card declaring ‘I will love you with all my Limbic System’ and a Brownie cap (Neo-cortex) to illustrate the 3 parts to the brain. I assured them that this was a very simplistic concept that helped me to understand how important ‘fight or flight’ reflexes, emotions and logical anaylytical thinking are in learning.

Finally, we reviewed the learning and I asked them to practice the memory strategies we had identified as useful. I would test them next week!

It will be interesting to see whether the class teacher over the next term or so finds that the children in her class are focusing more mindfully and utilising different strategies to recall information.

Coincidentally, I went to hear Sergio Della Sala speak about ‘Neuroscience and Education’ ths evening and he showed the same video. Spooky. He was debunking myths that are pervasive in education that have no foundation in reality. He stressed the centrality of evidence based research in a most entertaining lecture.

I’m a bit worried now about my deployment of possibly spurious data to make a point about learning. After all, what do I know about neuroscience? However, I shall be more circumspect in future and check and check once more before I make certain assertions.