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Reading and the Brain - Baby Science Sidebar

Santana Hamond’s mother waits anxiously for the test results for her son. The test will show how her child hears certain sounds, a critical indicator of whether he will have difficulty learning to read. Her boy didn’t sit for testing or answer questions from a researcher. Her baby is less than a day old.

In Louisville, Kentucky, doctors Dennis and Victoria Molfese are studying the ability of infants to distinguish sound. “The discrimination of speech sounds is really independent of the child’s ability to hear,” says Dr. Dennis Molfese in the film. “The problem is their ability to not just hear, but then to discriminate between the different sounds.”

The researchers attach brain sensors to the baby’s head to measure neuron activity. The neuron activity is represented by lines on a graph known as brainwaves. If the brainwaves are identical when different sounds are played, the scientists know that the baby can’t differentiate between them. “We can predict, with about 80 percent accuracy from birth, if a child is going to be a good or a very poor reader by as late as eight years of age,” says Dr. Dennis Molfese.

The Molfeses are working on specific interventions to help children hone their sound discrimination skills. Until those strategies are finalized, they recommend a surprisingly simple tactic — teaching nursery rhymes. “All of that word play is important for developing and honing the skills in speech discrimination,” says Dr. Victoria Molfese in “Reading and the Brain.”

“Reading and the Brain” is a new 30-minute television show that will air on PBS stations across the country beginning in fall 2006 (check local listings or visit to watch the show online).

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