Reading Makes My Brain Hurt: One Family’s Path to a Reading Solution

Our daughter, Desi, came to us from an orphanage in Bulgaria when she was almost three. We had no idea she had special needs until she started having difficulty acquiring language. After a visit with a neurologist and an MRI, we were told she had left brain hemiatrophy, a form of cerebral palsy. The left side of her brain was half the size of the right, probably as a result of a stroke or some other vascular event either in utero or at birth. When we asked about her prospects, one doctor said, “Well, she probably won't go to Harvard.” 

BY Dr. Maria Finaro Cleary | September 2021 | Category: Education

Reading Makes My Brain Hurt: One Family’s Path to a Reading Solution

However, Desi just forged ahead, blithely unaware of her “prospects.” She was a patient student, sitting for hours trying to learn. In fact, there was nothing she wouldn’t try. We found out that, contrary to expectations, Desi was athletically inclined and we enrolled her in Special Olympics where she gave her all to soccer, basketball, and track. She would run races, have a seizure in the middle of the track, and get up and finish the race. She left everyone speechless. 

Despite great success in some areas, her learning problems persisted. Math was always a hurdle because it involved abstract thinking, which was a challenge for her. But we made some progress with reading and had hopes that she would be able to manage books on grade level, at least through adolescence.

We were wrong. By middle school, she had outgrown the picture books that had supported her reading. And books that were age-appropriate were not illustrated and difficult to understand. So she just stopped reading altogether. In fact, she said, “Reading makes my brain hurt.”

This was very alarming because of what we’d learned about brain development. Neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. Recent research in neuroscience shows that our brains are not static, but rather are dynamically changing and undergoing transformation throughout our entire lives.

However, brain stimulation must stay constant or increase in order for us to make these neural connections. (You know all those “brain games” that are always being advertised for adults? That’s the reason!) If adolescents give up on reading once they get to middle school, the brain’s reading network will cease to develop. “When we reach adolescence, a massive ‘pruning back’ operation begins in the brain and synaptic connections and neurons that have not been used extensively suddenly die off – a classic case of ‘use it or lose it.’” (Doidge, 2007, 2015).

Another thing to worry about.

The good news is that when challenged, readers learn that their brain capacity can expand, they are encouraged, and their performance, morale and self-image improve. (Blackwell, Trzesniewski & Dweck, 2007). So our challenge as parents is to motivate them to read more. Fortunately, there are two promising resources than can help: illustrations and digital media.

Younger children with reading difficulties often find support in books with pictures that reinforce the text. Illustrations help them create mental images of simple story lines and characters. In many ways, pictures serve as the key to reading enjoyment for children who have difficulty turning abstract concepts into concrete thoughts.

However, there are very few resources for older readers in the form of the picture book. This audience has long outgrown the juvenile story lines and characters that mark many of the choices in this category. Illustrated books for older readers, although they do exist in the form of “Hi-Lo” readers (high interest, low reading level), are limited in number and scope. Graphic novels offer illustrations, but sometimes in a frenzied format with many panels on a page and dialogue bubbles to advance the story, which some readers with learning disabilities find confusing.

Digital illustrations can offer the same comprehension support as print, but can also provide two real advantages: the appeal of digital resources to young people, and the potential to interact with a book.

So that’s how Readeezy came to be. I decided to create something that was digital, because it kept her attention for a longer time. Desi’s brother, Jeff, is a reading teacher, so he and I wrote a book that we thought would be appealing to this audience. I then hired folks to illustrate and animate it and a developer to program it. As educators, Jeff and I knew that challenged readers often have trouble keeping their focus, so we included checks for understanding at the end of every chapter.

Best of all, we tested it. We did a peer-reviewed study with readers at least two grades below level and were overwhelmed at the positive results. In every category – comprehension, retention and engagement – readers rated it over 85%. We were overjoyed.

Of course, now, we had to spread the word that we had this resource and we had to figure out how to create a whole library. One book was great but wouldn’t have the kind of impact we wanted. And that’s the journey we’re on now. The dream is to have an entire collection of books that challenged readers can just visit and enjoy whenever they want. So we’re reaching out to the world to help make that happen.

But while we’re working to create the Readeezy library, we parents can provide some of these aids to our children as they read. Find pictures that match those in the stories they like. Make up a simple game to check for understanding when you finish a chapter. Perhaps you can even record a narration for easy books that you can play while your child follows along. (There are also some books online for this age group that have a text-to-speech feature.) It’s extra work but worth it if it can help a young person be motivated to read more. You can also visit our website at www.readeezy.com for links to research on neuroplasticity of the brain and how neural connections can both strengthen and weaken, depending on how they’re stimulated. It may inspire you to create reading solutions of your own.

For those of us who’ve ever enjoyed a good book, we know the fun of losing yourself in a story. We hope that Readeezy can be the kind of place where any reader who wants can climb inside the pages, learn something new, go on an adventure and most of all, have a wonderful time doing it.  

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Dr. Maria Finaro Cleary is a parent of a young adult with learning disabilities and works as an interim school superintendent. She is also the President of Readeezy. You can contact her at maria@readeezy.com or visit www.readeezy.com 

References 

Doidge, Norman. (2007). The brain that changes itself: Stories of personal triumph from the frontiers of brain science. New York: Viking.

Doidge, Norman. (2015). The brain's way of healing: Remarkable discoveries and recoveries from the frontiers of neuroplasticity. New York: Viking.

Blackwell, Lisa, Kali H. Trzesniewski and Carol Sorich Dweck. (2007).  Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across adolescent transition: a longitudinal study and an intervention. Child Development, 78(1), 246 – 263. 

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