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Better reading comprehension

How can we help children and adults to acquire better reading comprehension? Paul van den Broek and his colleagues at the Brain and Education Lab are searching for an answer to this question by investigating reading and the related brain activity.

Reading is a very complex process

The ability to read well is an essential condition for learning. Approximately ten to fifteen percent of the Dutch population have problems with reading comprehension, i.e. problems understanding the content of a text. This is why Professor Paul van den Broek studies the relationship between reading comprehension and our brain: what happens in the human brain when we read a text? And once we manage to map these processes, how can we help people acquire better reading comprehension?

‘After years of research, we’ve reached the conclusion that we still understand very little of what happens in the brain when we read,’ says Van den Broek. ‘Each phase in reading activates a different part of the brain, that much we know. So there is not a single area - or even a few areas - where reading “happens”. This is why we try to first understand separate components of the process, to ultimately bring them all together.’

More than one out of ten Dutch people has problems with reading comprehension.

Different kinds of problems with reading comprehension

Van den Broek is head of the Leiden Brain and Education Lab. In the Lab’s studies, children and adults are asked to read text excerpts while their eye movements and brain activity are being measured. Bit by bit Van den Broek is coming to understand more about how reading comprehension works. ‘We have by now been able to distinguish between different groups of children, each with their own problems. Firstly there is a group that when asked to understand the meaning of a text focuses on a couple of very specific sentences. Instead of looking at the entire text, they get stuck on a small part. A second group does look further than a few specific sentences, but unfortunately focuses on sentences that are not particularly relevant to understanding the text.’

‘A third group of weak readers try to understand sentences by linking them to their own experience. This is in principle a good strategy – it’s also what good readers do – but they use the wrong associations. For example, if you read a text about how the gear on a bicycle works, a person who reads well might think: that reminds me of my uncle’s boat, which also has a wheel to move the boat along. A less useful association would be: “My uncle also has lots of bicycles.” The first association helps you understand the meaning of the text, which is about how a gear works. The second one doesn’t.’

Over the next few years Van den Broek and his colleagues hope to investigate and compare the brain activity of these specific groups. And to map these, together with other forms of reading behaviour.

Applications in schools

The lab’s researchers are in ongoing contact with schools in the Netherlands and abroad, to apply their newly discovered ‘pieces of the puzzle’ in education. They, for instance, train people to work in schools with children from the above-mentioned groups and to apply interventions. ‘We see that these interventions work. We asked different children to read a short text, and discovered that the children who were offered an intervention understand the text better than those who didn’t. We’re now investigating whether the children who are offered an intervention learn from it and are later better able to understand other texts.’

In this study, school pupils are asked to read a text in pairs. The children who are offered an intervention ask each other specific questions. This question-and-answer dialogue turns out to improve reading comprehension.

Brain and Education Lab

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