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Academic Views - The brain science of language, reading and learning

19 January 2010

Educators have an important role. They increase students' knowledge and build brains, according to Dr Marty Burns, Associate Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Northwestern University in the United States.

Dr Marty Burns.

My interest in brain science developed during my 35 years practising as a speech pathologist, teaching in schools and as a consultant to staff in school district offices. It became apparent that in every classroom there are students who continue to struggle to learn despite the best efforts of their teachers.

I became fascinated with the research that emerged later in my career which showed that learning capacity was not set by the genes as once thought but was highly influenced by experience. For me, these studies were piecing together the puzzle of why some students learnt easily and others struggled, and what to do about it.

I began to see that experiences in the home during the early years of life combined with education were a powerful part of brain development and maturation.

Since then I've become involved in and am reviewing the emerging worldwide learning research to determine how to put the findings into practise to optimise the effectiveness and efficiency of the curriculum and enhance students' motivation to learn.

Teachers can use this research to reduce the learning gap between the strongest and weakest student in their class and to help those students who just don't seem to "get it".

No matter how good the teaching or the curriculum, some students have a weak learning foundation and won't achieve their academic potential. The research tells us that learning is a cumulative process so teaching phonics to a child who has auditory processing difficulties is likely to be problematic. The research shows us how to help these students.

The research is truly fascinating and at times surprising. To some extent we have always known the brain is "plastic" or capable of change. We recognise for example that most of us are capable of learning, at any age, a new language or a new dance step when we have adequate time to learn and practise and there is no brain disease or damage.

But what we did not realise until recently is that this capacity to learn has a neurological basis; with each piece of new information acquired, the human brain has changed.

This same "neuroplasticity" is evident each time a student learns to read a word or masters an algebra problem. The demand on the brain causes the brain to change and build, and new connections between neurons (brain cells) are made and chemically strengthened. This is why education is so important.

Dr Burns visits Australia this year and will present a seminar on The Brain Science of Language, Reading and Learning in Brisbane on March 1 where she will discuss the latest brain science findings and practical applications for language, reading and general learning development. To register, email or phone (08) 9248 5788.