Does interplay between children and their environment shape the development of reading skills?

An interview with a developmental cognitive neuroscientist


Ola Ozernov-Palchik is a postdoctoral associate at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a lecturer and program director at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She applies neurocognitive methods to investigating individual differences in dyslexia in emerging readers. She is interested in the interplay between children and their environment in shaping the development of reading skills and in reciprocal relationships between research and real-world practices. Here, Miriam Fein, a speech-language pathologist and licensed reading specialist discusses with Ola Ozernov-Palchik her research and findings.

What memories do you have of learning to read or of early reading experiences at school or home?

I actually spoke about this recently when I told my story in the McGovern Institute Story Slam!

My family immigrated from the former Soviet Union when I was 9 years old. I was an avid reader as a child, and when my books were lost in the move, I had to learn how to read in Hebrew.
At first, my mom had to pay me five cents per page to motivate me to read picture books. I went from reading Around the World in Eighty Days in Russian, to laboriously decoding Llama, Llama, Red Pajama in Hebrew, one word at a time. It was painful and demoralizing and I felt like a bird without wings. Fortunately, I soon got hooked on an eight volume fiction series that helped me become a fluent reader. Reading was truly my anchor and my outlet through many moves over the years.

How did you become interested in cognitive neuroscience research, and in particular, in studying language and dyslexia?

As I said, growing up, reading was everything to me so I was struck when I first encountered a child who couldn’t read. In college I worked for an institute for reading research and through this work, I would regularly visit schools in wealthy suburban, inner-city, and immigrant neighborhoods and administer reading assessments to children at regular intervals. I was struck at the variability with which children made progress from month to month. I would sit in front of a frustrated child, with tears welling up in his eyes, trying his hardest to work his way through a particularly difficult word, just like I had so many years ago. But for this child, this wasn’t a fleeting hiccup, but the beginning of a lifelong struggle. This experience sparked my passion to unravel the neural mechanisms of individual differences in reading development in children.

What are a few key findings of your research and what are some implications for teachers of beginning or struggling readers?

Our studies with Dr. John Gabrieli and Dr. Nadine Gaab have shown that behavioral and familial risk for dyslexia in pre-reading children is associated with behavioral profiles, as well as with

brain differences typically observed in already-reading individuals. In other words, the cognitive markers are already present as early as a few months into kindergarten. This supports the feasibility and importance of early identification of dyslexia risk. There is absolutely no reason to wait; rather, we can and should adopt a preventative approach.

In another line of work with Dr. Tiffany Hogan we are looking at the brain and behavioral correlates of the components of the Simple View of Reading and differences in how these impact reading comprehension in typical readers and those with dyslexia. We’re finding that early on, decoding makes the most important contribution to reading comprehension. Later on language takes over. However, in our dyslexic participants, decoding continued to constrain reading comprehension skills, even into adulthood. We proposed that in individuals with dyslexia, cognitive resources are recruited to support word identification at the expense of comprehension. Though there is some evidence that children naturally develop and use some compensatory strategies, this is not sufficient to achieve strong comprehension. The important implication for teachers is that you just can’t bypass decoding.

Is there anything you find is often misunderstood in the education world and general public about dyslexia? What are some common misconceptions you come across?

Yes! There is a misconception that dyslexia is a visual disorder of switching letters. Primary deficits in dyslexia, as you know, are actually considered to be related to the speech and auditory system. There are many debates about the underlying deficits in dyslexia, but they are certainly not primarily visual.

There is also a myth that children “grow out of it” if we wait for them to be “ready”. We know that’s not the case. We know that children with certain deficits are likely to have trouble learning to read.

Another myth is that children with dyslexia need to be taught strategies to bypass their phonological difficulties. We know that people tend to rely on contextual information when it is hard for them to understand the person talking to them (think about a noisy party). Similarly, there is some research that individuals with dyslexia tend to rely more on meaning when trying to decode words. The fact that readers are sometimes able to skip or guess words correctly from context, however, does not mean they need to be taught to do this! Just like when an older person with hearing difficulties is not taught to guess what people are saying to them in noisy restaurants, instead of getting a hearing aid.

What current or upcoming projects or research are you especially excited about?

I’m very excited about our current project with Dr. John Gabrieli and a PhD student Halie Olson. The neuroimaging work is somewhat on hold unfortunately due to Covid, but the interventions are underway. It’s a randomized controlled trial for improving language comprehension skills with children from disadvantaged backgrounds. We carefully selected audio books for the participants based on their language skills. One group is listening to the audio and reading simultaneously to books we curated for them through Learning Ally, to see if access to books alone will have an impact. For the second group, we have trained college students as “scaffolders” to administer an intervention we adapted from the Language and Reading Research Consortium (LARRC). They meet with the children twice a week to support their vocabulary and comprehension. A third group is receiving only mindfulness training. We are still collecting data, but it has been moving to see how important it is for children to have people checking in with them regularly. We have heard heartbreaking stories of what children are going through during this time, and many are reporting how valuable and meaningful this connection has been for them. In addition, it’s been great to see the enthusiasm and creativity of the college students administering the intervention. They work so hard to keep children engaged and learning. Maybe this will inspire them to pursue a teaching career! We are looking forward to seeing the data, but already there is so much unfolding that has been interesting and wonderful to see.


Miriam Fein is a speech-language pathologist and licensed reading specialist. She lives near Boston, Massachusetts, and supports students from early elementary through high school with reading, spelling, writing, and language skills. She believes in the power of evidence-informed, systematic, and compassionate teaching for all learners. 

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