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By Gordon Sherman, Ph.D.
Neuroimaging also may help us discern the precise instructional elements that work best for teaching students with dyslexia how to read, write, and spell.
For example, some propose that supplementary non-language treatments directed at the visual and auditory systems benefit the struggling reader. This, however, remains controversial. It has been difficult to establish the efficacy of these approaches. Imaging the brain before and after using these techniques may provide the clues necessary to determine if they do benefit learning.
While science has verified structured-language instruction, researchers have yet to study the "multisensory" component educational therapists and teachers often include, particularly for students with dyslexia. Multisensory instruction conveys information through multiple input channels (visual, auditory, and kinesthetic/tactile) and enlists various multisensory strategies to enhance memory storage and retrieval. Multiple sensory channels feed comprehensive and concrete information to the language-processing network of the brain. Theoretically, multisensory instruction bypasses sensory-system weaknesses, conveys information to an atypical language system in more decipherable and indelible forms, and provides various "triggers" for memory.
In multisensory instruction, a student might be instructed to look at a letter (visual), listen to its sound (auditory), associate the letter and its sound with a picture of a "key word" that "unlocks" its sound (e.g., apple/short a - visual/auditory), say the letter with its sound (kinesthetic/auditory) and perhaps its key word, and write the word and perhaps move or gesture in some way that represents the key word, letter, or sound (kinesthetic). A variety of structured-language/multisensory programs employ versions of such methods, usually in inventive and systematic ways. Their goal is to achieve multiple pathways and associations for input, storage, and retrieval to offset weaknesses in sensory, language, and memory systems.
Clinical experience with this technique points to a powerful effect. From what we know about the brain and dyslexia, multisensory instruction would seem to be an important component in teaching students with this learning condition, perhaps even beneficial for all students. But science has not yet addressed the efficacy of multisensory instruction. "Seeing" the brain at work through neuroimaging may help establish the merits of this instruction and enable educators to refine its elements. Neuroimaging may help us understand the apparent magic of multisensory instruction.
Neuroimaging techniques reveal a brain far more complex than previously thought. For example, the language network appears to involve more than a few "key centers" and may be distributed in other brain regions, contrary to earlier hypotheses. We have also learned how the brains of people with dyslexia change while engaged in basic language tasks after receiving structured-language educational interventions. In general, these changes entail shifting to a more efficient, unilateral mode of processing. In other articles in this series we will discuss these remarkable findings in greater detail.
Will advancements in neuroimaging dispel all the controversies and confusions surrounding dyslexia? Probably not. They will, however, bring us breathtakingly closer to understanding the mysteries of the brain. Along the way, these advancements will help us demystify dyslexia, sharpen its definition, fine-tune its diagnosis, and verify the efficacy of educational interventions. Indeed, we are on the threshold of a brave new world - one where neuroscience and education will combine to unlock and enhance human potential in powerful new ways. Morgan and Hinshelwood would have been astonished! We, however, need only a little vision to find and cross the threshold.
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