Volume 10, Number 2 September 6, 2002

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'Neuroimaging' used to study adults' reading problems

By Elizabeth Frogley

It was Bill Owen's experience as a foreman that got him interested in how people read.

Bill Owen
Bill Owen

"I had a couple of workers who wouldn't give their contracts back to me," he says. "I discovered it was because they couldn't read them. But when I read the contract to them they understood it just fine."

"I was curious about that," says Owen, who recently completed a PhD in psychology at the University of Saskatchewan. "That's why I wanted to study skilled adults' reading, because there's a huge social cost to illiteracy."

Owen points to a study released by the federal government in February, which reported that one in four graduates of Canadian high schools don't have the literacy skills they need to succeed in higher education or learn more and advance in their jobs.

"It's a surprisingly high number, but the government and other researchers have converged on this number," he says. Even some university students were found to read at an elementary school level.

Owen is confident that researching how skilled adults read will help researchers and teachers understand why some people have trouble reading, and help pinpoint ways to overcome difficulties with reading.

He used a variety of methods to find out more about how people read, studying the amount of time it took people to recognize words and looked at common errors they made in reading. The time it takes people to identify words indicates whether they are remembering the whole word or have to break the word down into small groups of sounds or letters to understand it.

The errors people make in pronouncing words also indicate whether they recognize the whole world, or figure it out a few letters at a time. For example, Owen says the word 'yacht' was commonly mispronounced by people who read words phonetically. Knowing more about the two ways people read - by word recognition and by phonetic decoding - should help identify which reading process a person who reads poorly has trouble with, and they can learn to read better.

Owen also used neuroimaging techniques to find which parts of the brain people use to read.

For his research, Owen had people read words or do different word-recognition tasks while the neuroimaging scanner took multiple cross-sectional pictures of their brains. The neuroimages show where the brain was active during the different word tasks.

Finding out what parts of the brain are used for reading will help determine if people who have trouble reading have different brain structures from those who are skilled readers. Identifying the physical cause of reading problems would help diagnose and treat people who cannot read well.

But first scientists have to learn more about how the process of reading works. Owen plans to continue his current research to learn more about reading.

"I eventually want to get into remediation of adults who can't read," he says. "But first we have to do a lot of research to find out how people are actually reading."

For more information, contact communications.office@usask.ca

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