I Know What You Shouldn’t Have Done Last Summer

Rachel R. Romeo, Joanna A. Christodoulou, Kelly K. Halverson, Jack Murtagh, Abigail B. Cyr, Carly Schimmel, Patricia Chang, Pamela E. Hook, John D.E. Gabrieli. Socioeconomic Status and Reading Disability: Neuroanatomy and Plasticity in Response to Intervention. Cerebral Cortex, 2017; 1 DOI: 10.1093/cercor/bhx131 (paywall)

I admit that the opening paragraph of the MIT press release last week for this new study of reading “disabilities” and the brain put me in a sour mood even before I read the journal article (graciously supplied to me by the lead author). It began by claiming that “20 percent of children in the United States have difficulty learning to read.”

This is utter bunk, as I pointed out 20 years ago in The Literacy Crisis (movie rights still available!).

The university’s PR department was no doubt just looking for a good hook for the story, and perhaps trying to bury the lede in what turned out to be a pretty disappointing set of results for systematic phonics instruction (the main report on the project was published a bit earlier this year).

A group of six- to nine-year-olds (N = 40) spent part of their summer vacation going four hours a day, five days a week, for six weeks to a “reading intervention.” The lucky little ones got to experience the Lindamood-Bell program called “Seeing Stars.” It was a bit like a trip to Hollywood Boulevard, except instead of seeing the Walk of Fame and taking selfies in front of Grauman’s Theater, they got a “multisensory remedial approach with a primary focus on training orthographic and phonological processing to improve reading accuracy, fluency, and comprehension” (p. 4).

The children were tested in four different reading “subskills,” which consisted basically of pronouncing nonsense words and identifying words on isolated lists. They were not tested on, you know, actual reading comprehension.

These “subskill” and “component” assessments are ones that students who get intensive systematic phonics instruction often do pretty well on. Phonics can be great for individual word recognition and sounding out nonsense words, but not so much for actually reading something and making sense of it.

The children’s performance was tested before and after the intervention, and compared to another group of “waiting controls” (their turn came during the second half of the summer). The intervention “worked” in the sense that on three of the four not-actually-reading reading measures, the treatment group did significantly better than the control group. On one measure, there was no difference.

But saying they did significantly better doesn’t mean they actually improved. In fact, what happened was that the treatment group didn’t get any worse over the summer, while the controls did. They avoided the “summer slump.”

Given the children got 120 hours of small group (one teacher for every three to five kids) instruction, making absolutely no gains at all on average should be at least slightly disappointing, especially when the measures were about the only ones this kind of instruction can ever seem to effect. I’d ask for a refund.

The press release for the study spends a lot of time talking about how the low-SES children responded better to the treatment than the high-SES group, all backed up by some nifty-looking brain scans. That’s all very interesting, but somewhat beside the point if you were one of the 50% of the children whose scores didn’t improve at all.

One of the researchers is quoted is saying that “We’re taking [the children] on a neuroanatomical detour that seems to go with real gains in reading ability.” If by “detour” you mean going round and round in circles, then that seems about right.






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