The Test That Can Look Into A Child's (Reading) Future

Jul 21, 2015
Originally published on July 23, 2015 1:19 pm

If this isn't an honest-to-goodness crystal ball, it's close.

Neurobiologist Nina Kraus believes she and her team at Northwestern University have found a way — a half-hour test — to predict kids' literacy skill long before they're old enough to begin reading.

When I first read the study in the journal PLOS Biology, two words came to mind: science fiction.

Because flagging some 3-year-olds as potentially troubled readers — before they've even tried reading — feels eerily like being handcuffed by Tom Cruise in Minority Report for a crime that hasn't happened yet.

Kraus herself says the test is nothing short of "a biological looking glass into a child's literacy potential."

To understand how the test works, she says, you need to understand that reading begins not with our eyes but with our ears, as we hear and catalog speech sounds. It's hard work. Everything we hear, our brains have to process, separating the stuff that's meaningful from pure noise. And they do it in microseconds.

"This is arguably some of the most complex computation that we ask our brain to do," says Kraus.

Every sound creates a kind of electric reflection in the brain. Brain waves even look like the sound waves they're reacting to. And it's loads of information packed into these brain waves that, Kraus says, can tell her if a child who can't yet read may have trouble reading down the road.

The Test

Here's how it works.

"The child is sitting in a comfy chair," according to Kraus. "He's watching a movie of his choice. And we have these scalp electrodes, which we call buttons."

In one ear (the left), kids heard their movie. For our own, hypothetical test, we picked the Pixar favorite Wall-E:

In the right ear, Kraus' young subjects heard two things. First, the unintelligible chatter of half a dozen people:

It's just noise. No real words in there. But, on top of that Kraus looped the simple consonant-vowel combination "Da":

The final product sounded something like this:

A mess, right? But Kraus and her team could see, in the kids' brain waves, how well they could separate the speech sound, "Da," from everything else.

What's the sign of a healthy brain and a strong, future reader? Brain waves that, in spite of the noise, capture the richness of that tiny, little "Da" — things like timing, harmonics and consistency.

For example, every "Da" should elicit the same response from the brain. Varied responses to the same sound, says Kraus, are a big red flag:

"If the brain responds differently to that same sound — [though] the sound hasn't changed — how is a child to learn?"

Kraus tested one batch of 3-year-olds, then tested them again at 4, and was able to predict language skill. Her team also tested kids as old as 14 and were able to predict reading skill as well as flag learning disabilities.

When asked what Kraus would like to see in her looking glass, she's ambitious:

"My vision for this is to have every child tested at birth."

Because, Kraus says, this science fiction idea is based on something researchers have known for decades:

When it comes to helping kids with literacy challenges, earlier is better.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Researchers at Northwestern University have developed a new literacy test for kids, and here's what's remarkable about it. They say the 30-minute test can predict trouble reading even in kids who are too young to read. Cory Turner of the NPR Ed Team explains.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: When I first read this study in the journal PLOS Biology, two words came to mind, science fiction, because flagging kids as troubled readers before they can even read feels kind of like being cuffed by Tom Cruise in "Minority Report" for a crime that hasn't even happened yet.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MINORITY REPORT")

TOM CRUISE: (As John) I'm placing you under arrest for the future murder of Sarah Marks and Donald Dubin that was to take place today, April 22, at 0800 hours and 4 minutes.

ARYE GROSS: (As Howard) I didn't do anything.

TURNER: I mean, when it comes to predicting a child's reading ability, it's not as if scientists have some kind of movie magic looking glass.

NINA KRAUS: This is a biological looking glass into a child's literacy potential.

TURNER: That's Nina Kraus, the Northwestern neurobiologist behind this new literacy test. She says our ability to read begins with our ears and those early years spent hearing and cataloging speech sounds. It's hard work. Everything we hear, our brains have to process, separating the stuff that's meaningful from all of the noisy nonsense. And they do it in microseconds.

KRAUS: This is arguably some of the most complex computation that we ask our brain to do.

TURNER: Every sound creates a kind of electric reflection in the brain. Brain waves even look like the sound waves they're reacting to. And it's loads of information packed into these brain waves, Kraus says, that can tell her if a child who can't yet read may have trouble reading down the road. As for the test itself...

KRAUS: The child is sitting in a comfy chair. He's watching a movie of his choice. And we have these scalp electrodes on, which we call buttons.

TURNER: So imagine, kids as young as 3 watching...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WALL-E")

BEN BURTT: (As Wall-E) Wall-E.

ELISSA KNIGHT: (As Eve) Wall-E.

TURNER: ...While Kraus and her team recorded their brain waves. But wearing headphones the subjects could only hear the movie in their left ear. In the right, they heard this.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHATTER)

TURNER: That's half a dozen people, but the chatter's too dense to make out. It's just noise. Now the important part, over that chatter, researchers played this.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Da.

TURNER: The simple consonant-vowel combination, da, looped.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da...

TURNER: So to the kids in the study, the whole thing sounded like this.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WALL-E")

BURTT: (As Wall-E) Wall-e.

KNIGHT: (As Eve) Wall-e.

BURTT: (As Wall-E) Aw...

TURNER: A mess, right? But even as you hear this in your car or your shower, wherever you are, your brain's responding to every sound in there. And Kraus and her team could see in the kids' brain waves how well they could separate the speech sound...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Da, da, da, da, da...

TURNER: From everything else.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WALL-E")

BURTT: (As Wall-E) Wall-e.

TURNER: What's the sign of a healthy brain and a strong, future reader? Brain waves that, in spite of the noise, capture the richness of that tiny, little da, things like timing, harmonics and consistency.

KRAUS: If the brain responds differently to that same sound - the sound hasn't changed - how is the child to learn?

TURNER: Kraus tested one batch of 3-year-olds, and then tested them again at 4 and was able to predict language skill. Her team also tested kids as old as 14 and were able to predict reading skill as well as flag learning disabilities. I asked Kraus what she'd like to see in her looking glass.

KRAUS: My vision for this is to have every child tested at birth.

TURNER: Because, Kraus says, this science fiction idea is based on something we've known for decades. When it comes to helping kids with literacy challenges, earlier is better. Cory Turner, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.