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Readiness: Early Life-Learning Trajectories
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Why? What's Involved: Causes and Contributing Factors

Return to Index of Topics  -  Notes: 1) This page is a work in progress and does not yet comprehensively cover its topic or include all the COTC and web resources its topic deserves.  2) Bold is used to emphasize our [COTC] sense of importance and does not necessarily reflect gestures or tones of emphasis in the original source. This color indicates COTC edits for brevity or flow. See referenced original for exact quotes.

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The Genetic - Environmental Spectrum

David Boulton: Let’s talk about how this relates to reading, which is our focus. Let’s talk about the difference between a genetically driven variation in this signal to noise distinction process and the quality of the sound scape in the environment the child is developing in. 

Dr. Michael Merzenich: Right. Well, first of all, I want to say that every child that has a reading impairment, does not have an identical genetic fault.  

The development of human ability represents a complex interplay between inherited resources and environmental influences. Our abilities absolutely spring out of the self-organization of our capacities as a product of our environment given our inherited resources. So both of them are absolutely crucial. You could say we have this broad category that we call normal development, which has a lot of slack, a lot of latitude in it. On the other hand we have the capacity to get the most out of a brain which means we can get more out of brains if the environment is enriched and positive and has greater possibilities expressed.

There’s been sort of a religious notion that we’re stuck with our inherited resources, and to some extent, of course we are. It represents a source of limits to everyone of us - every individual human being. But at the same time, we have a tremendous capacity to modulate the outcomes of this given, our inherited resources, as a function of our individual experiences.

One of the complications of that is there is a very poor understanding of what good is when we say what we need to do for a kid, for the kid to advance in the most positive way and have the most general positive benefit from it. So we’re very confused about what exactly it is that the brain needs to get the most out of it, to make it the best at communicating, and ultimately, become the best reader. But given that aside, absolutely environment makes an enormous difference.   

Michael Merzenich, Chair of Otolaryngology at the Keck Center for Integrative Neurosciences at the University of California at San Francisco. He is a scientist and educator, and found of Scientific Learning Corporation and Posit Science Corporation. Source: COTC Interview -


Pat Lindamood: And so the thing that's important to know is that the problem is a genetic difference that some of us don't come wired with the same kind of connections for this specific function of phoneme awareness.

David Boulton: You said, "genetic difference".  It seems to me that some of the processing infrastructure that's forming in children from infants on, relative to how well they can do this, is forming in response to the environment they're in and how language is being used, how distinctly it's being used, or complexly it's being used, the speed at which it's being used. Aren't they growing into a learning environment that's also affecting how well the formation of their ability to do this is developing?

Pat Lindamood: Yes, it can have some effect. But when you have within the same family some children who can respond to that environment without any difficulty and another child who doesn't, why, then, now that we have fMRI measures and MSI measures, now what we used to try to analyze on the basis of performance of the student, or behavior, now we can actually use brain function measures that will show an area of the brain that is active when people are making these good judgments about the identity, number and order of sounds and words, and that area of the brain is not active when they're unable to do that.

David Boulton: Right. But that's still at a snapshot in time. I mean, unless we did that across the number of children from the time they were born until the time they were six or seven so we could see the effect of their environment on developing that — I mean, I hear what you're saying about the different kids from the same family ending up with different capacities here, and that that certainly reveals a genetic propensity that's at work, but that at some degree, it's both.

Pat Lindamood: Yeah.

David Boulton: I mean I don't know how we could say otherwise, right? We couldn't say that it was just genetic.

Pat Lindamood: No, no.

David Boulton: Okay.

Pat Lindamood: No, because if it were just genetics, then you couldn't do anything about it.

David Boulton: Yes.

Pat Lindamood: But it is — it's genetically based. And then depending on what's done, the situation can be changed or not changed.  

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Dr. Grover (Russ) Whitehurst  Director, Institute of Education Sciences, Assistant Secretary of Education, U.S. Department of Education
Dr. Jack Shonkoff Chair, The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child; Co-Editor: From Neurons to Neighborhoods
Dr. Edward Kame'enui Commissioner for Special Education Research, U.S. Department of Education; Director, IDEA, University  of Oregon
Dr. G. Reid Lyon  Past Director, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH)
Dr. Keith Stanovich  Canadian Chair of Cognitive Science, University of Toronto
Dr. Mel Levine Co-Chair and Co-Founder, All Kinds of Minds; Author: A Mind at a Time, The Myth of Laziness & Ready or Not Here Life Comes
Dr. Alex Granzin  School District Psychologist, Past President, Oregon School Psychologists Association 
Dr. James J. Heckman Nobel Laureate, Economic Sciences 2000; Lead Author: The Productivity Argument for Investing in Young Children
Dr. Timothy Shanahan President (2006) International Reading Association, Chair National Early Literacy Panel, Member National Reading Panel
Nancy Hennessy  President, 2003-2005, International Dyslexia Association
Dr. Marilyn Jager Adams Senior ScientistSoliloquy Learning, Author: Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print
Dr. Michael Merzenich Chair of Otolaryngology, Integrative Neurosciences, UCSF;  Member National Academy of Sciences
Dr. Maryanne Wolf Director, Center for Reading & Language Research; Professor of Child Development, Tufts University
Dr. Todd Risley  Emeritus Professor of Psychology, University of Alaska, Co-author: Meaningful Differences
Dr. Sally Shaywitz  Neuroscientist, Department of Pediatrics, Yale University, Author: Overcoming Dyslexia
Dr. Louisa Moats  Director, Professional Development and Research Initiatives, Sopris West Educational Services
Dr. Zvia Breznitz Professor, Neuropsychology of Reading & Dyslexia, University of Haifa, Israel 
Rick Lavoie Learning Disabilities Specialist, Creator: How Difficult Can This Be?: The F.A.T. City Workshop & Last One Picked, First One Picked On
Dr.Charles Perfetti Professor, Psychology & Linguistics; Senior Scientist and Associate Director, Learning R&D Center, U. of Pittsburgh, PA
Arthur J. Rolnick Senior V.P. & Dir. of Research,  Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis;  Co- Author: The Economics of Early Childhood Development  
Dr. Richard Venezky  Professor, Educational Studies, Computer and  Information Sciences, and Linguistics, University of Delaware
Dr. Keith Rayner  Distinguished  Professor, University of Massachusetts, Author: Eye Movements in Reading and Information Processing
Dr. Paula Tallal  Professor of Neuroscience, Co-Director of the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience, Rutgers University
Dr.John Searle  Mills Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Language, University of California-Berkeley, Author: Mind, A Brief Introduction
Dr.Mark T. Greenberg Director, Prevention Research Center, Penn State Dept. of Human Development & Family Studies; CASEL Leadership Team
Dr. Terrence Deacon  Professor of Biological Anthropology and Linguistics at University of California- Berkeley
Chris Doherty  Ex-Program Director, National Reading First Program, U.S. Department of Education
Dr. Erik Hanushek Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University

Dr. Marketa Caravolas Director, Bangor Dyslexia Unit, Bangor University, Author: International Report on Literacy Research
Dr. Christof Koch Professor of Computation and Neural Systems,  Caltech - Author: The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach
Dr. Guy Deutscher Professor of Languages and Cultures of Ancient Mesopotamia, Holland; Author: Unfolding Language
Robert Wedgeworth  President, ProLiteracy, World's Largest Literacy Organization
Dr. Peter Leone  Director, National Center on Education, Disability and Juvenile Justice
Dr. Thomas Cable  Professor of English, University of Texas at Austin, Co-author: A History of the English Language
Dr. David Abram Cultural Ecologist and Philosopher; Author: The Spell of the Sensuous
Pat Lindamood and Nanci Bell  Principal Scientists, Founders, Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes
Dr. Anne Cunningham  Director, Joint Doctoral Program in Special Education, Graduate School of Education at University of California-Berkeley
Dr. Donald L. Nathanson  Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Jefferson Medical College, Director of the Silvan S. Tomkins Institute 
Dr.Johanna Drucker  Chair of Media Studies, University of Virginia, Author: The Alphabetic Labyrinth
John H. Fisher  Medievalist, Leading authority on the development of the written English language, Author: The Emergence of Standard English
Dr. Malcolm Richardson   Chair, Dept. of English, Louisiana State University; Research: The Textual Awakening of the English Middle Classes  
James Wendorf  Executive Director, National Center for Learning Disabilities
Leonard Shlain Physician; Best-Selling Author: The Alphabet vs. The Goddess
Robert Sweet  Co-Founder, National Right to Read Foundation


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The Children of the Code is a Social Education Project and a Public Television Series intended to catalyze and resource a social-educational transformation in how we think about and, ultimately, teach reading. The Children of the Code is an entertaining educational journey into the challenges our children's brains face when learning to read. The series weaves together archeology, history, linguistics, developmental neuroscience, cognitive science, psychology, information theory, reading theory, learning theory, and the personal and social dimensions of illiteracy. 




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