Exploring the relationship between the developing brain, a child’s home environment, and learning ability

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Boston public school teacher Colleen Labbe believes that the brain of a struggling child can change in response to the right interventions.

“There’s a slogan in education,” says McGovern Investigator John Gabrieli. “The first three years are learning to read, and after that you read to learn.”

For John Gabrieli, learning to read represents one of the most important milestones in a child’s life. Except, that is, when a child can’t. Children who cannot learn to read adequately by the first grade have a 90 percent chance of still reading poorly in the fourth grade, and 75 percent odds of struggling in high school. For the estimated 10 percent of schoolchildren with a reading disability, that struggle often comes with a host of other social and emotional challenges: anxiety, damaged self-esteem, increased risk for poverty and eventually, encounters with the criminal justice system.

Most reading interventions focus on classical dyslexia, which is essentially a coding problem—trouble moving letters into sound patterns in the brain. But other factors, such as inadequate vocabulary and lack of practice opportunities, hinder reading too. The diagnosis can be subjective, and for those who are diagnosed, the standard treatments help only some students. “Every teacher knows half to two-thirds have a good response, the other third don’t,” Gabrieli says. “It’s a mystery. And amazingly there’s been almost no progress on that.”

For the last two decades, Gabrieli has sought to unravel the neuroscience behind learning and reading disabilities and, ultimately, convert that understanding into new and better education interventions—a sort of translational medicine for the classroom.

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