Many children struggle to learn to read, and studies have shown that students from a lower socioeconomic status (SES) background are more likely to have difficulty than those from a higher SES background.

MIT neuroscientists have now discovered that the types of difficulties that lower-SES students have with reading, and the underlying brain signatures, are, on average, different from those of higher-SES students who struggle with reading.

In a new study, which included brain scans of more than 150 children as they performed tasks related to reading, researchers found that when students from higher SES backgrounds struggled with reading, it could usually be explained by differences in their ability to piece sounds together into words, a skill known as phonological processing.

However, when students from lower SES backgrounds struggled, it was best explained by differences in their ability to rapidly name words or letters, a task associated with orthographic processing, or visual interpretation of words and letters. This pattern was further confirmed by brain activation during phonological and orthographic processing.

These differences suggest that different types of interventions may needed for different groups of children, the researchers say. The study also highlights the importance of including a wide range of SES levels in studies of reading or other types of academic learning.

“Within the neuroscience realm, we tend to rely on convenience samples of participants, so a lot of our understanding of the neuroscience components of reading in general, and reading disabilities in particular, tends to be based on higher-SES families,” says Rachel Romeo, a former graduate student in the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology and the lead author of the study. “If we only look at these nonrepresentative samples, we can come away with a relatively biased view of how the brain works.”

Romeo is now an assistant professor in the Department of Human Development and Quantitative Methodology at the University of Maryland. John Gabrieli, the Grover Hermann Professor of Health Sciences and Technology and a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT, is the senior author of the paper, which appears today in the journal Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience.

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