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Breaking Down Barriers

WolfTufts literacy expert Maryanne Wolf has pioneered ground-breaking research that has led to advances in dyslexia testing and treatment.


In Finland, a child with dyslexia writes his name for the first time. In Israel, a four-year-old is tested for reading disabilities before entering kindergarten. In Somerville, Mass., a second-grader learns to read with the help of a new intervention program. Around the world, children are being tested and treated for dyslexia more successfully than ever before—thanks in part to Child Development Professor Maryanne Wolf's ground-breaking work at the Tufts Center for Reading and Language Research (CRLR).

"Everything we do involves making knowledge come to life for children," says Wolf, who has directed the center—which is an affiliate of Tufts' Eliot Pearson Department of Child Development—since 1995. "We have a lot to learn from the dyslexic brain. It teaches us [what elements] have to be there in order to read."

"Everything we do involves making knowledge come to life for children."

— Maryanne Wolf

According to Wolf, the brain never evolved to read. Rather, reading reveals how the brain "rearranges older structures devoted to linguistic, perceptual and cognitive regions to make something new." Children with dyslexia have a range of difficulties that prevent this, but are often gifted in other areas, including all forms of pattern-finding, art and architecture. She points out that many successful artists, sculptors, radiologists and entrepreneurs have a history of dyslexia, and children and adults with dyslexia often think "outside the box."

At the center, Wolf develops and evaluates state-of-the-art intervention techniques to help children overcome barriers to reading. "All of us at the center want to understand what is the best possible set of interventions that we can possibly design for different children," she says.

Through two large grants from the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, Wolf helped to develop the RAVE-O (Retrieval, Automaticity, Vocabulary, Engagement with Language, Orthography) Program, an experimental, research-based intervention program that is geared toward young elementary school children. The results, which will be released this year, show that this program is more effective than other programs in developing reading comprehension and fluency skills.

"It is a singularly encouraging result after 10 years of work by all the members of the center," Wolf says.

A major direction for the center is to provide teachers from around the country with training workshops on these new methods. Another focus is to conduct brain-imaging studies of children with dyslexia before and after the RAVE-O intervention to study how they change as a result.

Another product of Wolf's research—the Rapid Automatized Naming and Rapid Alternating Stimulus (RAN/RAS) Tests—has become an important tool in detecting dyslexia.

"I've tested the RAN/RAS for almost 20 years now," she says about the assessment tool, which she developed along with a neurologist from Johns Hopkins University. The test, which uses letters, numbers, colors and objects to determine if a child is at risk for a reading disability, is "a powerful predictor" of dyslexia, according to Wolf. "It's become a prototype for many other tests."

Wolf explains that these tests and tools are being used in numerous literacy programs around the world to help children who speak languages as diverse as Hebrew, Greek, Chinese, German, Finish, Dutch and Spanish. But some of the center's most interesting work, she points out, takes place in communities nearby Tufts, where undergraduates are tutoring school children.

According to Wolf, members of the Tufts Literacy Corps—an organization that sends tutors to local schools—are trained in cutting-edge dyslexia testing and treatment methods, including RAVE-O. (Read more about the Tufts Literacy Corps)

Wolf points out that because they learn RAVE-O principles, undergraduates in the Tufts Literacy Corps know a great deal more than the average tutor. "This is really solid training," she says.

The initiative dovetails with a broader institutional goal of lending support to local communities and fits with the mission of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service. (continued)

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Profile written by Michaelann Millrood, Class of 2006

Photos by Tufts University Photo

This story originally ran on Oct. 16, 2006.