Here’s what we learned:

1. The 1990s Were A Breakthrough Era For Studying The Developing Child’s Brain

Gabrieli said a major source of inspiration for his career path was breakthroughs in technological advancements in the late 1990s that allowed researchers to dive deeper into studying the science of reading and reading-related challenges. Specifically, the safe use of magnetic resonance imaging, or MRIs, on children helped pave the way for being able to actually see the changes in a child’s brain as he or she developed — something that had never been done before.

For the first time, researchers like Gabrieli could get a sense of how interventions impacted a child’s mind.

2. Brains Have Plasticity — And Dyslexic Brains Are Different

When it comes to things like reading, variations in a brain’s structure and function make a big difference, Gabrieli said. Brains can change over time, too — and not all act the same.

For example, the first time a person hears a word, the brain is also trying to take in a number of other details to help get itself acquainted with the new word. However, as that word is heard more often, the brain begins to process it more efficiently and less effort is needed to understand it.

But, in those with dyslexia, that efficiency is greatly reduced when it comes to reading. Meaning, despite repeated exposure to the same word, the brain will tend to continue needing the extra effort to process it.

“That’s a way of looking at brain plasticity,” Gabrieli explained. “At first your brain responds strongly [to a] word and then when it’s repeated a few times it responds less and less strongly. We think that’s because the brain has changed to process the word more efficiently.”

“What we found in both adults and kids with dyslexia – this change in brain, this plasticity, this response to something repeating — was less with words that they saw and words that they heard.”

3. Dyslexia Affects Multiple Brain Functions – But Reading Is Typically The Biggest Hurdle

Dyslexia also affects parts of the brain that become activated when recognizing a face or an everyday object, in addition to reading print — though people with dyslexia rarely have a problem identifying people or things. So why is reading such a challenge? Gabrieli said it’s still fully unknown, but his team believes it could be because the practice of reading and writing printed text is still a relatively new concept in the overall scheme of human existence. While people have been seeing faces and objects for thousands of years, and thus brains have had enough time to adapt and work around those recognition issues — only in the last few hundred years has print come into mainstream use.

Simply put: brains may not have had enough time to adapt, Gabrieli believes. But, there’s still much to be learned.

“We’re mystified about that a bit,” he said. “But our thinking is: Things like recognizing a face or recognizing objects has been part of our species forever, and there might be many different ways to do it successfully that the brain is prepared to do. …Nobody is instructed how to recognize their parent’s face, or recognize a chair, but they also have a huge amount of instruction over many months and years to become a fluent reader — so it may be that variation in how our brains function doesn’t matter too much in areas where we have many successful ways of doing things available to us.”

“But reading being such an unnatural demand of education and current culture, there may not be as many pathways to achieve reading in the usual way.”

The surprising discovery taught Gabrieli’s team that there may be a variation of the brain “that’s wider than we think.”

4. Comprehensive, Multi-Sensory Interventions Work Best

It may seem obvious, but Gabrieli said research confirms it: multi-sensory methodologies, like IMSE’s Orton-Gillingham is the “best approach” to helping children read.

“We do know that reading involves just so many senses, from hearing words to seeing words, to the focus of attention,” Gabrieli said.

“Everything we know about reading is consistent with the value of multi-sensory interventions and the success of multi-sensory interventions.”

5. Early Detection And Intervention For Kids Is Crucial — Especially For A Child’s Confidence

Gabrieli said that research has shown that brain differences which would make it harder for a child to read are detectable before he or she steps into a classroom — with some differences detectable as early as six months old.

“If we can identify children at risk effectively very early, we know the literature supports that early interventions are most effective not only for learning to read, but we also hope in any discouragement the child might have about his or her first major educational experience. If you could identify a problem before it plays out you can support a child in a way that doesn’t make them feel defeated.”

MIT graduate student Tyler Perrachione, left, and Professor John Gabrieli are among the leading researchers on the scientific study of dyslexia.

In the future, Gabrieli said he would like to see wide-scale screening for early identification — not waiting until noticeable difficulties arise. By that time, the child could be further behind in school and have lower self-esteem.

And once a brain difference is detected?

Because no two children are exactly the same, personalized instruction is critical, he said. Studying ways in which personalized instruction can be even more effective and fit a child’s specific needs early on, is crucial.

“That’s why we’re so interested in Orton-Gillingham,” Gabrieli said, because studying its effects can give further insight into changes in the brain that result as a consequence of necessary reading interventions.

Gabrieli said he’s looking to technology to help pave the way, ideally in the form of an automated, web-based screening system that could be easily accessible and widely used by schools and pediatricians. Then, personalized instruction can begin.

“Seeking a high quality intervention if at all possible through a school or other resources, there’s so much evidence that can really make a difference in a child’s ability to read,” Gabrieli said.

“[Research is] compelling that you want to address it as young as possible with a well-validated intervention like Orton-Gillingham.”

Want to learn more? Check out the Institute for Multi-Sensory Education and learn about their multi-sensory, Orton-Gillingham based trainings for all educators.