Most of what we know — or think we know — about how kids learn comes from classroom practice and behavioral psychology. Now, neuroscientists are adding to and qualifying that store of knowledge by studying the brain itself. The latest example: new research in the journal Developmental Science suggests a famous phenomenon known as the "fourth-grade shift" isn't so clear-cut.
"The theory of the fourth-grade shift had been based on behavioral data," says the lead author of the study, Donna Coch. She heads the Reading Brains Lab at Dartmouth College.
The assumption teachers make: "In a nutshell," Coch says, "by fourth grade you stop learning to read and start reading to learn. We're done teaching the basic skills in third grade, and you go use them starting in the fourth."
But, Coch's team found, that assumption may not be true. The study involved 96 participants, divided among third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders as well as college students. All average readers, the subjects wore noninvasive electrode caps that could swiftly pick up electrical activity in the brain.
They were shown strings of letters/symbols that fell into four different categories: words ("bed"); pseudo-words ("bem"); strings of letters ("mbe") and finally, strings of meaningless symbols (@#*). The researchers then observed the subjects' brains as they reacted, within milliseconds, to each kind of stimulus.
The children in the study handled the first three categories roughly as well as the college students, meaning their brains responded at a speed that suggested their word processing was automatic. The difference came with the fourth category, meaningless symbols. As late as fifth grade, children needed to use their conscious minds to decide whether the symbols were a word.
The study suggests there is nothing so neat as a fourth-grade shift. It found that third-graders exhibit some signs of automatic word processing while fifth-graders are still processing words differently from adults.
Why is this important? "From my perspective, this concept of automaticity is key to learning to read," says Coch. "If you're not automatic, you're using a lot of effort to decode and understand individual words, meaning you have fewer resources for comprehension."
Coch's team also administered a written test, covering the same set of real words, fake words, and symbol strings. This task was designed to test the participants' conscious word processing, a much slower procedure.
Interestingly, most of the 96 participants got a nearly perfect score on the written test, showing that their conscious brains knew the difference between words and non-words. Future research will no doubt try to pinpoint when that process becomes automatic ... research that could change the way we teach reading in the higher grades.
Fresh Air Weekend highlights some of the best interviews and reviews from past weeks, and new program elements specially paced for weekends. Our weekend show emphasizes interviews with writers, filmmakers, actors, and musicians, and often includes excerpts from live in-studio concerts. This week:
'Trans Bodies, Trans Selves': A Modern Manual By And For Trans People: Modeled after the groundbreaking feminist health manual Our Bodies, Ourselves, the book details the social, political and medical issues faced by transgender people.
'A Hard Day's Night': A Pop Artifact That Still Crackles With Energy: To celebrate the 50th anniversary of A Hard Day's Night, a spectacular restoration is in theaters and on DVD. The black-and-white photography of the Beatles is gorgeous, and the movie isn't half bad.
How Scientists Created A Typhus Vaccine In A 'Fantastic Laboratory': Arthur Allen's new book The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl describes how a WWII scientist in Poland smuggled the typhus vaccine to Jews — while his team made a weakened version for the Nazis.
You can listen to the original interviews here:
Updated at 9:05 a.m. ET.
The U.S. has temporarily closed its embassy in Libya and evacuated diplomats amid what is being described as a significant deterioration in security, with rival militant factions battling in the capital, Tripoli.
"Due to the ongoing violence resulting from clashes between Libyan militias in the immediate vicinity of the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, we have temporarily relocated all of our personnel out of Libya," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said.
"Securing our facilities and ensuring the safety of our personnel are top department priorities, and we did not make this decision lightly," Harf said. "Security has to come first. Regrettably, we had to take this step because the location of our embassy is in very close proximity to intense fighting and ongoing violence between armed Libyan factions."
In a separate statement, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said: "[All] embassy personnel were relocated, including Marine security guards who were providing security at the embassy during the movement."
"During movement, F-16s, ISR assets and an Airborne Response Force with MV-22 Ospreys provided security," Kirby said in the statement. "The mission was conducted without incident, and the entire operation lasted approximately five hours."
The Associated Press says: "The withdrawal underscored the Obama administration's concern about the heightened risk to American diplomats abroad, particularly in Libya where memories of the deadly 2012 attack on the U.S. mission in the eastern city of Benghazi are still vivid and the political uproar over it remain fresh ahead of a new congressional investigation into the incident."
A newly issued travel warning issued today by the State Department said the Libyan government had been unable "to adequately build its military and police forces to improve security.
Secretary of State John Kerry, holding talks in Paris with his Turkish and Qatari counterparts on the situation in Gaza, called the closure of the embassy in Tripoli temporary, Reuters reports. He said Turkey had also removed about 700 of its personnel from the North African country.
Reuters describes the fighting in Tripoli:
"Black plumes of smoke marked shell blasts and bulldozed earthen barricades mapped out the frontlines around Tripoli's largest airport, now at the heart of a standoff between the country's powerful militias.
"With barrages of Grad rockets, anti-aircraft guns and artillery fired at their rival enclaves just kilometers apart, brigades of former rebels have turned parts of southern Tripoli in a battleground for nearly a fortnight.
"The clash over Tripoli International Airport is the latest eruption in a deepening rivalry among bands of ex-fighters who once battled side by side against Muammar Gaddafi, but have since turned against each other in the scramble for control."