The New Yorker:
Why is it easy for some people to learn to read, and difficult for others? It’s a tough question with a long history. We know that it’s not just about raw intelligence, nor is it wholly about repetition and dogged persistence. We also know that there are some conditions that, effort aside, can hold a child back. Socioeconomic status, for instance, has been reliably linked to reading achievement. And, regardless of background, children with lower general verbal ability and those who have difficulty with phonetic processing seem to struggle. But what underlies those differences? How do we learn to translate abstract symbols into meaningful sounds in the first place, and why are some children better at it than others?
This is the mystery that has animated the work of Fumiko Hoeft, a cognitive neuroscientist and psychiatrist currently at the University of California, San Francisco. “You know where the color of your eyes came from, your facial features, your hair, your height. Maybe even your personality—I’m stubborn like mom, sloppy like dad,” Hoeft says. “But what we’re trying to do is find out, by looking at brain networks and accounting for everything in the environment, is where your reading ability originates.”
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