Improving the literacy performance of low-achieving students: some tentative directions from cognitive neuroscience

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Graham, L. & Bellert, A. 2011, 'Improving the literacy performance of low-achieving students: some tentative directions from cognitive neuroscience', paper presented to the Biennial 2011 Joint conference for learning difficulties: Include and impact, Brisbane, QLD, 16-17 September.


New knowledge about the brain and cognitive processing applied to understandings of learning and teaching has the potential to drive transformational change in the education of students with learning difficulties. Increasingly there are calls for findings from neuroscience, cognitive neuroscience and education to be linked, and for practicing teachers to be involved as key stakeholders in this process. As the recent report from the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council working group on the Transformation of Learning (2010) concludes, the time is right to “take a quantum leap towards the future of learning” by “integrating multidisciplinary research with sustained practitioner involvement” (p. 1). This workshop takes up this challenge by reviewing selected knowledge from cognitive neuroscience and relating it to classroom teaching practices which support low-achieving students’ improvement in literacy. Key concepts to be explored include how synaptic plasticity can contribute to learning, the information processing framework, memory processes, the effects on leanring of limitations in working memory, metacognition, and the importance of developing automaticity in basic academic skills. An understanding of the basic tenets of ‘the science of learning’ potentially enhances teacher effectiveness through the development of a deeper understanding of students’ learning difficulties, the role of working-memory in their information processing, and how this may be implicated in the kinds of reading and comprehension problems students encounter in everyday classroom contexts. This workshop will also describe a responsive reading intervention, QuickSmart Reading which aims to support middle-school students experiencing learning difficulties in reading and comprehension. This intervention, theoretically situated within an information processing framework, has been developed and extensively trialed over the past 10 years. The supporting evidence base not only indicates that participant students improve automaticity in word reading and maintain these gains after the intervention has concluded, but that students also show significant improvement on standardised tests which measure more general reading competencies such as comprehension and vocabulary. The overall aim of the workshop is to provide information for teachers about advances in cognitive neuroscience that relate to learning difficulties in reading. It will be organized based on the premise that enhanced teacher knowledge supports transformed teaching and learning practices which, in turn, lead to improved student learning outcomes. The workshop will make explicit the tentative links between findings from cognitive neuroscience, intervention research, and effective approaches for teaching and learning that may support students experiencing learning difficulties in reading.