Study Reveals Effects of Different Teaching Styles on Learning New Words

Researchers at Peabody College are studying how people learn new words in hopes of determining optimal interventions for children who struggle with reading.

A new educational neuroscience study offers clues on reading and plasticity in the brain that could lay the foundation for more targeted investigations of what types of training may work for particular readers.

Lead author Laurie Cutting and colleagues created a tool to mimic learning in order to identify the differences in neurological response to two types of teaching methods: implicit teaching, which uses words in a sentence, and explicit teaching, which teaches the words in isolation. Study participants were taught the pronunciation and meaning of pseudowords – artificial words that resemble real words but do not actually exist. Half of the pseudowords were taught implicitly (used in a sentence) and half were taught explicitly (in isolation).

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers observed the differences in brain activity to the two approaches to word learning and found that in spite of learning the pseudowords equally, there were differences in neurological response based on the level of the reader.

Readers identified as “excellent” did not demonstrate notable differences in brain function between the implicit and explicit approaches, but readers considered “average” showed significantly less efficient neural networks when the pseudowords were learned by the implicit method.

“While the benefit of explicit instruction over implicit instruction may seem obvious, it was surprising to find such differences in brain function between groups of a very narrow range of reading skill,” said Cutting, Patricia and Rodes Hart Associate Professor of Special Education, associate professor of psychology, radiology and pediatrics and Vanderbilt Kennedy Center investigator.

Although this study was conducted with adults, Cutting says this research implies that readers may look the same in the classroom but the manner in which they process words and respond to instruction may be different.

“Whether these differences in efficiency of brain networks have predictive value remains to be seen,” Cutting said. “However, such an approach may ultimately be useful for predicting which types of instruction will result in sustained reading growth.”

Sheryl Rimrodt, assistant professor of pediatrics and Vanderbilt Kennedy Center member, co-authored the paper, published in the journal Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience as part of a special 2012 issue on neuroscience and education. Other contributors to the study included Kennedy Krieger Institute researchers Amy Clements-Stephens, April Materek, Sarah Eason, Hollis Scarborough, Kenneth Pugh and James Pekar.