here exists in our high-tech society an irony that, while we take for granted such scientific advances as landing on the moon or teleconferencing with someone halfway around the world, we continue to struggle with the basics: Doctors still can't cure the common cold, meteorologists remain at the mercies of Mother Nature, and teachers continue to search for the best way to teach children to read.
But thanks to the work of Benita Blachman, professor of reading and language arts in SU's School of Education, at least one of these long-standing mysteries is closer to being unraveled. Backed by a five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health, Blachman is conducting research in conjunction with Yale Medical School that studies how patterns of brain activation change as children learn to read. In addition, she recently published Foundations of Reading Acquisition and DyslexiaImplications for Early Intervention, a book that shares the research of experts from several countries on the topic of teaching reading.
The complexities of learning to read have always intrigued Blachman. In her first job teaching children with special needs, she sought ways to move beyond her students' severe behavioral problems to teach them to read. "I knew the inability to read would compromise their futures as much as any other factor in their lives," she says.
Blachman came to SU in 1980 to develop a graduate program for teachers of children with learning disabilities, one of the first programs of its kind established at any area college. Excited about the opportunity to create this groundbreaking program, Blachman turned to research for guidance. For the first time in 1981, SU offered graduate students a master of science degree in learning disabilities, with a major focus on developing literacy skills.
Her recently published book, which Blachman edited, resulted from a conference sponsored by the National Dyslexia Research Foundation that brought together 20 specialistsincluding educators, neuroscientists, linguists, psychologists, and physiciansto explore how children learn to read and why many children fail. Blachman, who was asked to organize the conference, sees the book as an effective way to disseminate the valuable information shared there. "Especially important," she says, "is research demonstrating that learning to read is related to a child's awareness of the phonological (or sound) segments in spoken words. These are the segments more or less represented by the letters of the alphabet."
In her current research project, Blachman joins forces with Yale researchers to learn more about how the brain functions in the process of learning to read, and how that relates to early intervention. Blachman works with a team of teachers, including current and former SU graduate students, who provide intensive tutoring for children identified as having reading problems. Before the tutoring begins, the child and a parent visit Yale for neural testing that allows researchers to see which parts of the brain are activated when the child is asked to complete a variety of language tasks. The children are tested again after a year of tutoring, and once more a year after the tutoring is completed. Results are compared with those of another group of children who do not receive the intensive tutoring. "We're learning more about how to prevent reading disabilities," Blachman says. Or, as one child said when asked about the research, "We're helping scientists learn how the brain learns to read!"
Through research funded by the National Institutes of Health, Professor Benita Blachman works with Yale Medical School researchers to learn more about preventing reading disabilities in children.
According to Blachman, the intersection of neuroscience and the behavioral fields through this research makes this project an exciting one that poses and answers new questions about the complexities of learning to read. "It is significant that this research is funded by the National Institutes of Health," she notes. "The inability to read is considered a major public health issue, because it is related to dropping out of school, under-employment, and unemployment. Helping more children master the task of learning to read will result in positive, long-term consequences for our society."