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

Preschool

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

The Test That Can Look Into A Child's (Reading) Future
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a toddler and sound i
LA Johnson/NPR
a toddler and sound
LA Johnson/NPR

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:

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

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

Da Da Da
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The final product sounded something like this:

Final product
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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.

Why Babies Love (And Learn From) Magic Tricks

Why Babies Love (And Learn From) Magic Tricks
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Researchers at Johns Hopkins University set out to study how infants use what they already know to motivate future learning. i

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University set out to study how infants use what they already know to motivate future learning. Len Turner, Dave Schmelick and Deirdre Hammer/Johns Hopkins University Office of Communications hide caption

toggle caption Len Turner, Dave Schmelick and Deirdre Hammer/Johns Hopkins University Office of Communications
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University set out to study how infants use what they already know to motivate future learning.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University set out to study how infants use what they already know to motivate future learning.

Len Turner, Dave Schmelick and Deirdre Hammer/Johns Hopkins University Office of Communications

To survive, we humans need to be able to do a handful of things: breathe, of course. And drink and eat. Those are obvious.

We're going to focus now on a less obvious — but no less vital — human function: learning. Because new research out today in the journal Science sheds light on the very building blocks of learning.

Imagine an 11-month-old sitting in a high chair opposite a small stage where you might expect, say, a puppet show. Except this is a lab at Johns Hopkins University. Instead of a puppeteer, a researcher is rolling a red and blue striped ball down a ramp, toward a little wall at the bottom.

Even babies seem to know the ball can't go through that wall, though not necessarily because they learned it. It's what some scientists call core knowledge — something, they say, we're born with.

"Some pieces of knowledge are so fundamental in guiding regular, everyday interactions with the environment, navigating through space, reaching out and picking up an object, avoiding an oncoming object — those things are so fundamental to survival that they're really selected for by evolution," says Lisa Feigenson, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Hopkins and one of the researchers behind this study.

Which explains why the baby seems genuinely surprised when the ball rolls down the ramp and does go through the wall — thanks to some sleight of hand by the researchers:

Baby Watches Magic Ball

This is where the learning part of our story kicks in.

Not only did the babies in the study react when the ball seemed to pass through the wall or a toy car floated across the stage ...

Baby Watches Floating Truck

... but their surprise appeared to make them better learners.

When the babies were given new information about these seemingly magical objects — like, the ball also squeaks — they were more likely to retain it.

Baby Chooses Ball

If the ball stopped at the wall, as it did for some infants, they paid less attention to it and were less likely to remember if it also squeaked. As if to say: "It's just a ball. I get it. Who cares?"

The babies were also given a chance to play with the items that had surprised them. Not only did they prefer those to other toys; they played with them in a way that suggested they were trying to learn.

Baby Chooses Truck

"Consider seeing a ball pass through a wall right in front of your eyes," says Aimee Stahl, lead author of the paper and a doctoral candidate at Johns Hopkins. "If you were given that ball to explore, you might want to test its solidity by banging it on a solid surface."

Stahl says that's exactly what the babies did. They pounded it on the tray of their high chair.

And the babies who saw that car float across the stage? They just wanted to drop it — to see if it would float again.

In short, says Stahl, "[infants] take surprising events as special opportunities to learn."

This theory, that we're born knowing certain rules of the world, isn't new. We see evidence of it not only in humans but in lots of others species, too.

What's new is this idea: that core knowledge seems to motivate babies to explore things that break those rules and, ultimately, to learn new things.

It's not always nature versus nurture. Sometimes, it's nature doing the nurturing.

This Is Your Brain. This Is Your Brain On Music

This Is Your Brain. This Is Your Brain On Music
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Amir Pinkney-Jengkens, 8, is learning trombone through Harmony Project, a nonprofit that provides musical instruments and instruction to children in low-income communities. Recent research suggests that such musical education may help improve kids' ability to process speech. i

Amir Pinkney-Jengkens, 8, is learning trombone through Harmony Project, a nonprofit that provides musical instruments and instruction to children in low-income communities. Recent research suggests that such musical education may help improve kids' ability to process speech. Annie Tritt for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Annie Tritt for NPR
Amir Pinkney-Jengkens, 8, is learning trombone through Harmony Project, a nonprofit that provides musical instruments and instruction to children in low-income communities. Recent research suggests that such musical education may help improve kids' ability to process speech.

Amir Pinkney-Jengkens, 8, is learning trombone through Harmony Project, a nonprofit that provides musical instruments and instruction to children in low-income communities. Recent research suggests that such musical education may help improve kids' ability to process speech.

Annie Tritt for NPR

Musical training doesn't just improve your ear for music — it also helps your ear for speech. That's the takeaway from an unusual new study published in The Journal of Neuroscience. Researchers found that kids who took music lessons for two years didn't just get better at playing the trombone or violin; they found that playing music also helped kids' brains process language.

And here's something else unusual about the study: where it took place. It wasn't a laboratory, but in the offices of Harmony Project in Los Angeles. It's a nonprofit after-school program that teaches music to children in low-income communities.

Two nights a week, neuroscience and musical learning meet at Harmony's Hollywood headquarters, where some two-dozen children gather to learn how to play flutes, oboes, trombones and trumpets. The program also includes on-site instruction at many public schools across Los Angeles County.

Harmony Project is the brainchild of Margaret Martin, whose life path includes parenting two kids while homeless before earning a doctorate in public health. A few years ago, she noticed something remarkable about the kids who had gone through her program.

"Since 2008, 93 percent of our high school seniors have graduated in four years and have gone on to colleges like Dartmouth, Tulane, NYU," Martin says, "despite dropout rates of 50 percent or more in the neighborhoods where they live and where we intentionally site our programs."

A Harmonic Haven For L.A. Kids

  • A class for beginning flutists, crammed into an office building boardroom, labor over "Hot Cross Buns." It's part of Harmony Project, a nonprofit program offering music lessons in a wide range of instruments — flute, trombone, trumpet, oboe, violin, cello, drums — to kids from some of Los Angeles' poorest neighborhoods. The instruments are provided, and the lessons are free.
    Hide caption
    A class for beginning flutists, crammed into an office building boardroom, labor over "Hot Cross Buns." It's part of Harmony Project, a nonprofit program offering music lessons in a wide range of instruments — flute, trombone, trumpet, oboe, violin, cello, drums — to kids from some of Los Angeles' poorest neighborhoods. The instruments are provided, and the lessons are free.
    Annie Tritt for NPR
  • These students attend classes at Harmony Project's headquarters in Hollywood, Calif. The walls are thin; a few of the windows barely close. At 5 o'clock, staffers simply surrender their offices to the kids and their teachers. Forrest Powell, left, and his trumpet students are packed shoulder-to-shoulder in one office-turned-practice room.
    Hide caption
    These students attend classes at Harmony Project's headquarters in Hollywood, Calif. The walls are thin; a few of the windows barely close. At 5 o'clock, staffers simply surrender their offices to the kids and their teachers. Forrest Powell, left, and his trumpet students are packed shoulder-to-shoulder in one office-turned-practice room.
    Annie Tritt for NPR
  • Student Cinee Hong eagerly waits for flute instructor Kathleen Ellingson's attention. Ellingson, a recent graduate of the University of Southern California, says when she's not teaching kids at Harmony Project, she's giving private lessons or working in the office of a local flute repair shop.
    Hide caption
    Student Cinee Hong eagerly waits for flute instructor Kathleen Ellingson's attention. Ellingson, a recent graduate of the University of Southern California, says when she's not teaching kids at Harmony Project, she's giving private lessons or working in the office of a local flute repair shop.
    Annie Tritt for NPR
  • Ellingson, the flute instructor, is a big believer in the power of stickers to help her students remember where to place their fingers.
    Hide caption
    Ellingson, the flute instructor, is a big believer in the power of stickers to help her students remember where to place their fingers.
    Annie Tritt for NPR
  • While Harmony Project students head into their practice rooms, the second-floor hallway fills with parents and siblings who wait for an hour — reading books, playing video games, or entertaining each other.
    Hide caption
    While Harmony Project students head into their practice rooms, the second-floor hallway fills with parents and siblings who wait for an hour — reading books, playing video games, or entertaining each other.
    Annie Tritt for NPR
  • Esmeralda Martinez, center, demonstrates good trombone posture. Her practice room is an office and storage room by day which requires the kids to squeeze in between filing cabinets, folding chairs and stacked instruments.
    Hide caption
    Esmeralda Martinez, center, demonstrates good trombone posture. Her practice room is an office and storage room by day which requires the kids to squeeze in between filing cabinets, folding chairs and stacked instruments.
    Annie Tritt for NPR
  • Trumpet teacher Danny Levin gets a laugh out of Katie Vela, left, and Andres Lopez, right, as he demonstrates what their chins should not be doing while playing.
    Hide caption
    Trumpet teacher Danny Levin gets a laugh out of Katie Vela, left, and Andres Lopez, right, as he demonstrates what their chins should not be doing while playing.
    Annie Tritt for NPR
  • Around 6 o'clock, the beginners retreat to the hallway, rejoin their parents and siblings, and head home for dinner and homework. The kids are expected at lessons two to three days a week and to practice daily.
    Hide caption
    Around 6 o'clock, the beginners retreat to the hallway, rejoin their parents and siblings, and head home for dinner and homework. The kids are expected at lessons two to three days a week and to practice daily.
    Annie Tritt for NPR

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There are plenty of possible explanations for that success. Some of the kids and parents the program attracts are clearly driven. Then there's access to instruments the kids couldn't otherwise afford, and the lessons, of course. Perhaps more importantly, Harmony Project gives kids a place to go after the bell rings, and access to adults who will challenge and nurture them. Keep in mind, many of these students come from families or neighborhoods that have been ravaged by substance abuse or violence — or both.

Still, Martin suspected there was something else, too — something about actually playing music — that was helping these kids.

Enter neurobiologist Nina Kraus, who runs the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University. When a mutual acquaintance at the National Institutes of Health introduced her to Martin, Kraus jumped at the chance to explore Martin's hunch and to study the Harmony Project kids and their brains.

Breaking Down Brainwaves

Before we get to what, exactly, Kraus' team did or how they did it, here's a quick primer on how the brain works:

The brain depends on neurons. Whenever we take in new information — through our ears, eyes or skin — those neurons talk to each other by firing off electrical pulses. We call these brainwaves. With scalp electrodes, Kraus and her team can both see and hear these brainwaves.

Using some relatively new, expensive and complicated technology, Kraus can also break these brainwaves down into their component parts — to better understand how kids process not only music but speech, too. That's because the two aren't that different. They have three common denominators — pitch, timing and timbre — and the brain uses the same circuitry to make sense of them all.

In other research, Kraus had noticed something about the brains of kids who come from poverty, like many in the Harmony Project. These children often hear fewer words by age 5 than other kids do.

And that's a problem, Kraus says, because "in the absence of stimulation, the nervous system ... hungry for stimulation ... will make things up. So, in the absence of sound, what we saw is that there was just more random background activity, which you might think of as static."

In addition to that "neural noise," as Kraus calls it, ability to process sound — like telling the difference between someone saying "ba" and "ga" — requires microsecond precision in the brain. And many kids raised in poverty, Kraus says, simply have a harder time doing it; individual sounds can seem "blurry" to the brain. (To hear an analogy of this, using an iconic Mister Rogers monologue — giving you some sense of what the brain of a child raised in poverty might hear — be sure to listen to the audio version of this story.)

Improving Your Ear For Music, And Speech

Learning to play an instrument appears to strengthen the brain's ability to capture the depth and richness of speech sounds. These heat maps of brainwaves show how much music lessons improved kids' neurophysiological distinction of consonants.

Responsiveness to Sounds

Working with Harmony Project, Kraus randomly assigned several dozen kids from the program's waitlist into two groups: those who would be studied after one year of music lessons and those who would be studied after two years.

And what she found was that in the two-year kids, the static didn't go away. But their brains got better — more precise — at processing sound. In short: less blur.

Why The Improvement?

It goes back to pitch, timing and timbre. Kraus argues that learning music improves the brain's ability to process all three, which helps kids pick up language, too. Consonants and vowels become clearer, and the brain can make sense of them more quickly.

That's also likely to make life easier at school, not just in music class but in math class, too — and everywhere else.

To be clear, the study has its limits. It was small — roughly 50 kids, ranging in age from 6 to 9. It wasn't conducted in a lab. And it's hard to know if kids doing some other activity could have experienced similar benefits.

But 10th-grader Monica Miranda doesn't need proof that playing violin has helped her. She's one of the first students in the door at a recent Harmony Project re-enrollment event in the auditorium of a nearby elementary school.

"I feel like music really connects with education," she says. "It helps you concentrate more."

Miranda is in her third year with Harmony Project.

"When I do my homework or I'm studying for something and I feel overwhelmed, I usually go to my violin, to start playing it," Miranda says. "I feel like it relaxes my mind. And coming here to play with an orchestra, it's just amazing. I love it."

And, the science says, her brain loves it, too.

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