Archive for the 'Research' Category

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Neuroimaging data do not validate left- vs. -right-brain types

If you believe in learning styles, personalities, and so forth, skip this entry. It just reports that another of those balloons has been popped. However, it you’re into understanding the fascinating nature of humans’ thinking, there are a couple of morsels here.

Unless you’ve been putting your thumbs in your ears and wiggling your fingers while loudly saying, “Yadda, yadda, yadda. I’m not listening to you. I can’t hear a word you’re saying,” you’ve probably heard some educator talking about left-bained or right-brained learners, schools as catering to left-brained learners, girls as better at left-brained tasks and therefore better in schools, and so forth. (Think I’m kidding? Try this example from the widely circulated magazine, Scholastic or check on the sales of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.)

Fortunately, some folks have called “bologna” on this already. See, for examples:

Well, if that’s not enough (and it should be), a group of neuroscientists at the University of Utah (abstract and source follows) studied images showing the neural connections in the brain hemispheres of over 1000 people ranging from seven to 29 years of age. Although they found that there were functionally separate areas in the brain (e.g., language regions or hubs), these connections consistently showed lateralization between the major “hubs,” not a general individual type. They said that their

…analyses suggest that an individual brain is not “left-brained” or “right-brained” as a global property, but that asymmetric lateralization is a property of individual nodes or local subnetworks, and that different aspects of the left-dominant network and right-dominant network may show relatively greater or lesser lateralization within an individual.

Before you get carried away with interpreting that statement, please read the article. It’s available for free!

Nielsen, J. A., Zielinski, B. A., Ferguson M. A., Lainhart J. E., & Anderson J. S. (2013) An evaluation of the left-brain vs. right-brain hypothesis with resting state functional connectivity magnetic resonance imaging. PLoS ONE 8(8): e71275. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0071275


Lateralized brain regions subserve functions such as language and visuospatial processing. It has been conjectured that individuals may be left-brain dominant or right-brain dominant based on personality and cognitive style, but neuroimaging data has not provided clear evidence whether such phenotypic differences in the strength of left-dominant or right-dominant networks exist. We evaluated whether strongly lateralized connections covaried within the same individuals. Data were analyzed from publicly available resting state scans for 1011 individuals between the ages of 7 and 29. For each subject, functional lateralization was measured for each pair of 7266 regions covering the gray matter at 5-mm resolution as a difference in correlation before and after inverting images across the midsagittal plane. The difference in gray matter density between homotopic coordinates was used as a regressor to reduce the effect of structural asymmetries on functional lateralization. Nine left- and 11 right-lateralized hubs were identified as peaks in the degree map from the graph of significantly lateralized connections. The left-lateralized hubs included regions from the default mode network (medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, and temporoparietal junction) and language regions (e.g., Broca Area and Wernicke Area), whereas the right-lateralized hubs included regions from the attention control network (e.g., lateral intraparietal sulcus, anterior insula, area MT, and frontal eye fields). Left- and right-lateralized hubs formed two separable networks of mutually lateralized regions. Connections involving only left- or only right-lateralized hubs showed positive correlation across subjects, but only for connections sharing a node. Lateralization of brain connections appears to be a local rather than global property of brain networks, and our data are not consistent with a whole-brain phenotype of greater “left-brained” or greater “right-brained” network strength across individuals. Small increases in lateralization with age were seen, but no differences in gender were observed.

So, can the bunk. Quit blaming kids’ outcomes on irrelevant factors and let’s get to thinking about what matters: The things we can do to alter the teaching environment to improve those outcomes. Let’s see, we could start with having more light in the classrooms. O.K., how about adjusting the temperature up or down one degree? What? You think it would be more important to change the teaching?

Well, I agree.

Guide for effective writing instruction

The US Institute of Education Sciences announced the release of a practice guide about improving writing instruction. The guide, entitled “Teaching Elementary School Students to Be Effective Writers,” is available for free from the IES What Works Clearinghouse (direct link follows). The authorship team, led by Steve Graham of Arizona State University, included Alisha Bollinger (Norris Elementary School, Firth, NE), Carol Booth Olsen (University of California, Irvine), Catherine D’Aoust (University of California, Irvine), Charles MacArthur (University of Delaware), Deborah McCutchen (University of Washington), and Natalie Olinghouse (University of Connecticut).

This practice guide provides four recommendations for improving elementary students’ writing. Each recommendation includes implementation steps and solutions for common roadblocks. The recommendations also summarize and rate supporting evidence. This guide is geared toward teachers, literacy coaches, and other educators who want to improve the writing of their elementary students.

Recommendation Level of
1. Provide daily time for students to write. Minimal
2. Teach students to use the writing process for a variety of purposes. Strong
3. Teach students to become fluent with handwriting, spelling, sentence construction, typing, and word processing. Moderate
4. Create an engaged community of writers. Minimal

Go to the landing page for the practice guide or download a pdf of the guide directly.

Professor Graham and his team have done an excellent job of assembling and interpreting the research here and making it useful to consumers. Of course, readers of Teach Effectively recognize him as one of the foremost experts in the US on writing instruction (and a good friend of TE). Alert readers will remember earlier posts about Professor Graham’s work including Graham Lecture with S. Graham (24 April 2009) and Effective methods for teaching writing (15 April 2009).

Dan Willingham’s new blog

Even though he harbors doubts about whether there is a need for another education blog, friend of TE Dan Willingham has started a new blog. He thinks there is a niche for providing brief notes pointing at scientific findings that are relevant for education, and he plans to do so at daniel-willingham-science-and-education-blog. Scurry on over there and check on it. I’ll add it to the sidebar here.

Free gift from Education Consumers Foundation!

partial image of cover of Clear Teaching

Isn’t it unusual to get something for free that is actually worth a lot? The good folks over at Education Consumers Foundation (ECF) are giving away a small book that is quite valuable, and I encourage readers to download it, read it, and tell their friends to get it, too.

What are they giving away? It’s a book called Clear Teaching: With Direct Instruction, Siegfried Engelmann Discovered a Better Way of Teaching by Shep Barbash. As one can tell from the subtitle, it’s about Zig Engelmann’s work on education. I talked with Mr. Barbash as he worked on the manuscript for the book, read an earlier version of it, and am very impressed with this finished product. It’s even more impressive that the book is now out in the wild for free. Kudos to Mr. Barbash, John Stone, and all the others at ECF who made this happen.

Clear Teaching – The Book
Written by veteran journalist Shepard Barbash over a period of 10 years, Clear Teaching is a well-researched, highly readable introduction to Direct Instruction (DI), a systematic teaching approach which for more than 40 years has dramatically improved learning outcomes for students of all abilities and from all walks of life. The book looks at the development of DI through the early experiences of its creator, Zig Engelmann; explains the principles that underpin this approach; and looks at DI’s reception in the world of teaching, where it has been effectively shunned despite a formidable research base and example after example of transformative success.

The image at the top of the post is hot, but readers can also click here to go to the ECF page where they can download the PDF.

Learning styles goes public (radio)

“Think You’re An Auditory Or Visual Learner? Scientists Say It’s Unlikely.” That was the headline that Patti Neighmond used in reporting on the popular myth of learning styles for US National Public Radio’s Morning Edition. One of the experts she interviewed for the segment that aired 29 August 2011 was friend of Teach Effectively, Dan Willingham.

The coverage by Ms. Neighmond is brief (4+ mins), but it includes solid content. In addition to Professor Willingham’s comments, she has sound from Doug Rohrer, one of the authors of the thorough examination of the evidence about learning styles published by Psychological Science in the Public Interest in 2008.

As Ms. Neighmond noted, there is big money in learning styles. Do you think the folks who have a stake in this unproven, thin-sliced bologna will accept this report without response? I doubt it. It’ll be intriguing to watch the comments in Ms. Neighmond’s story. There’ll be some shameless appeals to intuition and personal experience, some references to shoddy studies, and more. Watch the fun!

For those of us who have for many years been noting that the learning styles hypothesis is bogus, it’s very nice to have the message reach the general public. Thanks to Ms. Neighmond for that.

Read the print version of “Think You’re An Auditory Or Visual Learner? Scientists Say It’s Unlikely” (or go there to listen to the audio version or download an MP3 of it). Read other posts about learning styles that have appeared on Teach Effectively.


Kavale, K. A., & Forness, S. R. (1987). Substance over style: A quantitative synthesis assessing the efficacy of modality testing and teaching. Exceptional Children, 54, 228-234.

Lloyd, J. W. (1984). How shall we individualize instruction-or should we? Remedial and Special Education, 5(1), 7-15.

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9, 106-119.

Something odd going on?

As a parent of a child with reading problems, what would you think if a nearby college or university offered a special summer reading program that sounded especially promising? What if you went to a Web site branded with the university’s trademark “logo” and saw well-produced videos with testimonials from parents and phrases such as these: “Your child will get excited about learning to read, and the program will lay the foundation for a strong start in reading and school?” And, your child can benefit in as few as 10 hours!

Would you be tempted? Over on Reading and Other Learning Disabilities, Professors Howard Margolis and Gary Brannigan are skeptical about the possibilities. They explain in their post, “Rutgers University’s 10-Hour Summer Reading Program: Serious Concerns.” Writing for the team blog, Professor Margolis, reported his skepticism about the claims after reading a mailer describing “a summer reading programs [that] would quickly ‘turn poor readers into good readers.'”

Continue reading ‘Something odd going on?’

Teaching spelling promotes general literacy

In “Using Encoding Instruction to Improve the Reading and SpellingPerformances of Elementary Students At Risk for Literacy Difficulties: A Best-Evidence Synthesis,” professsors Beverly Weiser and Patricia Mathes of Southern Methodist University reviewed of studies of the effects of spelling instruction on literacy performance and found that systematic instruction in helping students to convert speech into print promotes not just spelling but also reading competence. What is more, the benefits appear to persist over time.

Using Encoding Instruction to Improve the Reading and SpellingPerformances of Elementary Students At Risk for Literacy Difficulties: A Best-Evidence Synthesis

Although connectionist models provide a framework explaining how the decoding and encoding abilities work reciprocally to enhance reading and spelling ability, encoding instruction in today’s schools is not a priority. Although a limited amount of high-quality experimental or control studies to date (N = 11) give empirical support to using direct, explicit encoding instruction to increase the reading and spelling abilities of those students at risk for literacy failure, the benefits of integrating this instruction into current reading curriculums warrant further consideration. Students receiving encoding instruction and guided practice that included using (a) manipulatives (e.g., letter tiles, plastic letters) to learn phoneme–grapheme relationships and words and (b) writing phoneme–grapheme relationships and words made from these correspondences significantly outperformed contrast groups not receiving encoding instruction. Robust Cohen’s d effect sizes, favoring the treatment groups, were found in areas of phonemic awareness, spelling, decoding, fluency, comprehension, and writing. Educational implications of these findings suggest that there is support for using encoding instruction to increase the literacy performances of at-risk primary grade students and that encoding instruction can be successful in improving the reading and spelling performances of older students with learning disabilities. Importantly, there is also evidence to support the transfer effects of early encoding instruction on later reading, writing, and spelling performances.

Continue reading ‘Teaching spelling promotes general literacy’

Lesaux promotes vocabulary instruction

Speaking at the 2011 George Graham Lecture at the University of Virginia’s Curry School, Nonie Lesaux explained that students who do not have English skills—English language learners, English as a second language, language minority learners, and so forth—at the middle school level need to learn an academic vocabulary. After presenting background research showing that much of the problem in reading for students in US schools who do not have English as their primary language is not in mastering the phonological aspects of literacy, and not just in learning labels for nouns, she described a 20-week vocabulary curriculum for teaching students language used in academic texts.

Professor Lesaux, a member of the faculty at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, has conducted extensive research using multiple methods across diverse topics related to language learning and literacy. Her message is clear: Helping students, including those who are not native speakers of English, requires systematic and comprehensive instruction in multiple areas, including vocabulary, and we can’t expect that simply teaching students words as labels will be sufficient. We have to get them to use those words.

Kelley, J. G., Lesaux, N. K., Kieffer, M. A., & Faller, S. E. (2010). Effective academic vocabulary instruction in the urban middle school. The Reading Teacher, 64, 5-14.

Kieffer, M. J., & Lesaux, N. (in press). Breaking down to build meaning: Morphology, vocabulary, and reading comprehension in the urban classroom. The Reading Teacher.

For more, peruse Professor Lesaux’s vita.

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