Poverty is complicated. It is a compilation of many issues, many of which have broad–reaching impact. Perhaps most critical for our education system is that research finds that many of the risk factors associated with low socioeconomic status (SES) impede brain development and functioning. And in cases of generational poverty, the impact is even greater.
One of the most consistent findings is that poverty significantly affects the brain regions related to language development and reading. Neuroscientist and pediatrician Kimberly Noble found that being poor correlates with the underdevelopment of the part of the brain that plays a primary role in phonological ability—specifically the left fusiform gyrus. These phonological skills, which enable us to explicitly represent and manipulate language sounds, strongly predict reading achievement.
Compounding matters for many financially disadvantaged children is the fact that they often do not hear words correctly. The inability to hear discreet language sounds accurately leads to issues with pronunciation and spelling. Patricia Kuhl, Professor of Speech and Hearing Sciences, used advanced brain-scanning technologies to measure infants’ phonetic processing abilities during their first year of life. She found that infants experiencing poverty did not pick up discreet language sounds.
An even more surprising finding was that phonetic skills during a child‘s first year were also predictive of language abilities and pre-literacy skills later in life. Infants who come from impoverished backgrounds consistently perform lower on phonetic testing, which later correlates to poor brain activation in language and literacy areas.
The reading process undergoes a significant transition in the brain, particularly in Grades 3-5. These changes enable the brain to shift from word identification to reading comprehension. Students with an average–to–high degree of exposure to spoken and printed words seem to complete this transition during the elementary school years, while students with poor phonological skills often do not make the transition at all, compromising their long-term reading abilities.
However, there is something that we as educators can do.
Here are 3 tips for improving the reading skills of low–SES students:
1. Encourage parents to have books at home
An increase in a student’s early exposure to books can minimize poverty’s impact on the brain’s language centers. In fact, children who grow up in a home with a lot of books—even if they don’t read them—develop better literacy skills. This is called the “radiation effect.” Growing up in a house full of books promotes the idea that books are cherished and that knowledge is essential.
If merely having books in the home improves literacy, how much more will it help if parents are encouraged to read to and with their children to increase exposure to printed and spoken words?
2. Improve memory by practicing rapid recall
Research has found that the speed by which a child can name letters is predictive of reading ability. We now know that naming speed has to do with the brain’s inability to multitask. If a child struggles to recall the names of letters, all related information cannot be recalled quickly enough to develop reading proficiency. Low SES hinders this ability.
Teaching low-income students strategies to improve memory and affording them sufficient opportunities to practice is the key to developing the rapid recall of letters that reading proficiency requires. Quick recall improves with repetition, and schools should not assume it will happen at home.
Many children build memory ability by playing games that require them to use the skill repeatedly. Playing games like Simon Says or the card game Concentration at school increases the odds that students will independently engage in these activities at home.
3. Teach with music
Music training can help to correct the auditory issues associated with poverty. Research has found that early music activities improve brain structures and functions, even without formal music training. Teachers can consistently provide music activities that combine acoustic music, singing, visuals, and movements when teaching academic content—for example, showing the alphabet’s corresponding letters while students sing the ABCs song and performing distinct movements representing each letter. The combination of auditory, visual, and movement processes improves communication between brain regions, increasing general brain function.
We must make an effort to better understand poverty’s negative effects on the developing brain so that we can adapt our instruction to effectively counter them. The power is in our hands!
Learn more about how poverty transforms students’ brains, as well as targeted strategies to help educators with instruction and discipline, in my new book, The Poverty Problem.