Learning Leader

Literacy on the Brain

The Children’s Learning Institute recently partnered with the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation to co-host “Literacy on the Brain”, an informative event for the Literacy Partner Network held at the Denton A. Cooley, M.D. and Ralph C. Cooley, D.D.S. University Life Center at UTHealth. 


The event on December 10 featured five speakers from CLI who presented emerging literacy, language, and brain development research. Julie Baker Finck, Ph.D., President of the BBHLF, kicked off the event by welcoming attendees and introducing CLI's Director, Susan Landry, Ph.D. As part of her presentation, Dr. Landry highlighted statistical information on literacy-related student scores in Houston area schools.

Attendees also heard presentations about CLI’s Dan L Duncan Children’s Neurodevelopmental Clinic, from Linda Ewing-Cobbs, Ph.D., director of clinical programs at CLI. Dr. Ewing-Cobbs shared information on the overlap of reading disorders with other psychological learning and language disorders in children. She introduced the comprehensive services provided by the clinic and spoke about the Academic Enrichment and Outreach (AERO) program. AERO is an early intervention and enrichment tutoring program that is uniquely designed for each participating child based on norm-referenced and curriculum-based assessments. So far, AERO has assisted over 2,500 students and is rapidly expanding.

Michael Assel, Ph.D. shared the importance of developmental assessments; pediatricians are the first point of contact for parents with concerns about their infant- or toddler-aged child’s social skills and language development. Dr. Assel urged parents to seek a second opinion if they feel that their pediatrician is not hearing their concerns. He also invited parents to reach out to Early Childhood Intervention Services (ECI), a federally funded program that provides specialized services (e.g., occupational therapy, physical therapy, and speech therapy) along with developmental monitoring and case management support. For children older than 3 years old, parents can contact Child Find, a component of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA) that requires school districts to identify, locate, and evaluate all children with disabilities residing in their state.

Parenting and the Brain was presented by Dana DeMaster, PhD, sharing information on child brain development and how early brain development is strongly affected by genetic factors and experiences. Her research team is working with advanced neuroimaging methods to investigate brain connectivity in relation to cognitive and language development. Dr. DeMaster also shared ongoing research that is investigating the impact of responsive parenting behavior. “In addition to white matter development, we investigated the effect of parent behavior on how the brain functions. And our findings were in a similar direction such that children with more responsive parents had brain regions that were more connected – worked together.” Dr. DeMaster concluded her presentation by encouraging attendees to reflect on how they interact with children; noting they are providing the stimulation needed to shape young brain circuitry.

The last presentation, Bilingualism and the Brain featured a demonstration where Kelly A. Vaughn, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research fellow at CLI, asked the audience to see if they could notice when someone switched between spoken language spoken without hearing their words and only by watching the speaker’s mouth. This same video was presented to children from bilingual and monolingual homes as part of Dr. Vaughn’s research. During her research, she discovered that children from bilingual homes are good at spotting language switches from a very early age, demonstrating the impressive capacity in children for language processing. Dr. Vaughn’s research investigates how the infant brain adapts to the bilingual environment to support the learning of multiple languages.


The event also included a huge inflatable brain that attendees could enter while CLI faculty facilitated brain tours and answered questions.

The Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation aims to improve the quality of life for Houstonians through the power of literacy. CLI would like to thank the foundation for making this special event possible and for their continued partnership.


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