Test: PSAT Critical Reading

The following passage and corresponding figure are from Emilie Reas. "How the brain learns to read: development of the “word form area”", PLOS Neuro Community, 2018.

The ability to recognize, process and interpret written language is a uniquely human skill that is acquired with remarkable ease at a young age. But as anyone who has attempted to learn a new language will attest, the brain isn’t “hardwired” to understand written language. In fact, it remains somewhat of a mystery how the brain develops this specialized ability. Although researchers have identified brain regions that process written words, how this selectivity for language develops isn’t entirely clear. 

Earlier studies have shown that the ventral visual cortex supports recognition of an array of visual stimuli, including objects, faces, and places. Within this area, a subregion in the left hemisphere known as the “visual word form area” (VWFA) shows a particular selectivity for written words. However, this region is characteristically plastic. It’s been proposed that stimuli compete for representation in this malleable area, such that “winner takes all” depending on the strongest input. That is, how a site is ultimately mapped is dependent on what it’s used for in early childhood. But this idea has yet to be confirmed, and the evolution of specialized brain areas for reading in children is still poorly understood.

In their study, Dehaene-Lambertz and colleagues monitored the reading abilities and brain changes of ten six-year old children to track the emergence of word specialization during a critical development  period. Over the course of their first school-year, children were assessed every two months with reading evaluations and functional MRI while viewing words and non-word images (houses, objects, faces, bodies). As expected, reading ability improved over the year of first grade, as demonstrated by increased reading speed, word span, and phoneme knowledge, among other measures.

Even at this young age, when reading ability was newly acquired, words evoked widespread left-lateralized brain activation. This activity increased over the year of school, with the greatest boost occurring after just the first few months. Importantly, there were no similar activation increases in response to other stimuli, confirming that these adaptations were specific to reading ability, not a general effect of development or education. Immediately after school began, the brain volume specialized for reading also significantly increased. Furthermore, reading speed was associated with greater activity, particularly in the VWFA. The researchers found that activation patterns to words became more reliable with learning. In contrast, the patterns for other categories remained stable, with the exception of numbers, which may reflect specialization for symbols (words and numbers) generally, or correlation with the simultaneous development of mathematics skills.

What predisposes one brain region over another to take on this specialized role for reading words? Before school, there was no strong preference for any other category in regions that would later become word-responsive. However, brain areas that were destined to remain “non-word” regions showed more stable responses to non-word stimuli even before learning to read. Thus, perhaps the brain takes advantage of unoccupied real-estate to perform the newly acquired skill of reading.

These findings add a critical piece to the puzzle of how reading skills are acquired in the developing child brain. Though it was already known that reading recruits a specialized brain region for words, this study reveals that this occurs without changing the organization of areas already specialized for other functions. The authors propose an elegant model for the developmental brain changes underlying reading skill acquisition. In the illiterate child, there are adjacent columns or patches of cortex either tuned to a specific category, or not yet assigned a function. With literacy, the free subregions become tuned to words, while the previously specialized subregions remain stable.

The rapid emergence of the word area after just a brief learning period highlights the remarkable plasticity of the developing cortex. In individuals who become literate as adults, the same VWFA is present. However, in contrast to children, the relation between reading speed and activation in this area is weaker in adults, and a single adult case-study by the authors showed a much slower, gradual development of the VWFA over a prolonged learning period of several months. Whatever the reason, this region appears primed to rapidly adopt novel representations of symbolic words, and this priming may peak at a specific period in childhood. This finding underscores the importance of a strong education in youth. The authors surmise that “the success of education might also rely on the right timing to benefit from the highest neural plasticity. Our results might also explain why numerous academic curricula, even in ancient civilizations, propose to teach reading around seven years.”

The figure below shows different skills mapped to different sites in the brain before schooling and then with and without school. Labile sites refer to sites that are not currently mapped to a particular skill.

Screen shot 2020 08 20 at 3.23.45 pm

1.

Based on the information given in the passage and the figure, which of the following is true?

Becoming literate is more difficult for adults because many of the sites that could be attuned to words are already tuned to other objects.

Words associated with particular objects are always mapped onto the region next to where information about the object is formed.

Students who become literate experience a decrease in their ability to recognize faces.

New information associated with words is mapped onto labile sites rather than onto sites already dedicated to a particular skill.

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