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Reading problems show cultural differences

The language you use may affect the type of reading problem you have.

12:00am, September 2, 2004

Some people love to read. Others, struggling with disorders such as dyslexia, have a hard time at it. Either way, the brain plays a big role in how a person reads.

A new study shows that different brains appear to have different problems, depending on the language a person uses. Specifically, the brains of people who have trouble reading Chinese and the brains of people who have trouble reading English show different patterns.

In one reading test, Chinese students had to tell the difference between a real Chinese character (left) and a fake character (right).

In one reading test, Chinese students had to tell the difference between a real Chinese character (left) and a fake character (right).


Scientists can look at a person's brain while it's doing things and figure out which parts of the brain are working at various times. An instrument called a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner measures where blood flows through the brain during certain tasks. The more blood flow in an area, the more activity there is.

In dyslexic people who use languages with alphabets and letters, such as English, there are disturbances in the back of the left side of the brain. This region is important for matching written letters with their sounds.

On the other hand, in Chinese readers with dyslexia, disturbances in an area in the front of the brain seem to be more important. This area helps in deciphering the meaning of written Chinese characters.

To better understand the difference, researchers from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in Bethesda, Md., and colleagues looked at 16 Chinese children, ages 10 to 12. Half had severe reading problems.

Each child took two reading tests. In poor readers, fMRI scans showed less activity in several areas of the left side of the brain. These areas are normally involved in reading languages such as Chinese, which have no alphabet and use characters to stand for words or ideas. The poor readers also showed low activity in two places on the right side of the brain, which are responsible for understanding characters by sight.

Many experts turn to biology to explain the development of reading disorders. Now, it seems, culture may be even more important, the NIMH researchers say. The language you learn to write may determine how your brain works when you read.

This sort of research could eventually lead to better ways of helping struggling readers, whatever language they use.—E. Sohn

Going Deeper:

Bower, Bruce. 2004. Cultured readers: Chinese kids show new neural side of dyslexia. Science News 166(Sept. 4):148-149. Available at http://www.sciencenews.org/articles/20040904/fob4.asp .

McDonagh, Sorcha. 2004. Reading verbs revs up your brain. Science News for Kids (Feb. 11). Available at http://www.sciencenewsforkids.org/articles/20040211/Note2.asp .

Sohn, Emily. 2004. Charging up the brain for reading. Science News for Kids (May 12). Available at http://www.sciencenewsforkids.org/articles/20040512/Note2.asp .

______. 2003. A DNA clue to reading troubles. Science News for Kids (Sept. 3). Available at http://www.sciencenewsforkids.org/articles/20030903/Note2.asp .

______. 2003. Watching the brain learn to read. Science News for Kids (May 28). Available at http://www.sciencenewsforkids.org/articles/20030528/Note3.asp .

You can learn more about dyslexia at kidshealth.org/kid/health_problems/learning_problem/dyslexia.html (KidsHealth for Kids).

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