The presenters were Dr. Guinevere Eden and Dr. Maureen Lovett.
Lovett is a senior scientist in the Neurosciences and Mental Health Program at the Hospital for Sick Children and professor of pediatrics and medical sciences at the University of Toronto.
Eden is a professor in the department of pediatrics and director of the Centre for the Study of Learning at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Eden is also a past president of the International Dyslexia Association.
Eden spoke about brain imaging (through tools such as a MRI) and how it can be used to learn about reading acquisition and intervention. She said her research findings are the result of years of work by a very large team.
“There’s something really important to remember and that sometimes we forget. When we study the reading brain, we have to remember the brain was not designed to read,” she told the gathering.
Eden said language has been around for hundreds of thousands of years and it develops spontaneously in a child. Reading, however, does not.
“Reading is a cultural invention,” Eden said. “There’s nothing designed in the brain to make us readers. Reading has only been around for 4,000 years, maybe a little longer. There are no systems in place from an evolutionary perspective designed for reading.”
The brain is apportioned for various tasks. However, Eden said, when people learn to read, brain areas designed for other skills are being converted for the reading skill.
“It’s important to remember this is a skill that we have invented and we use to access knowledge and information,” Eden said.
“It’s not a skill that we have a designated brain region for. It’s something the brain has to learn and it takes many years to learn it. For some individuals, it’s just a huge challenge to do this very specific skill.”
The researcher took the audience on a tour of the brain in an effort to provide participants with a better understanding of how it works and how it learns.
The brain, she said, compartmentalizes various tasks into different areas of the brain. Also, it is adept at studying objects, evident at a child’s early life when he or she learns to recognize the faces of family members. However, people are better able to recognize the faces of people they’re familiar with — a task that is experience driven.
“When we learn words, clearly learning to read involves many different mechanisms and one of them is the recognition of words and having that exposure. Many of you, as teachers, know that exposure to words is one of the key things to build familiarity and recognition,” Eden said.