Brain scans can predict children's reading ability, Stanford researchers say

If a 7-year-old is breezing through the "Harry Potter" books, studies indicate that he or she will be a strong reader later in life. Conversely, if a 7-year-old is struggling with "The Cat in the Hat," that child will most likely struggle with reading going forward.

New research from Stanford shows that brain scans can identify the neural differences between these two children, and could one day lead to an early warning system for struggling students.

The researchers scanned the brain anatomy of 39 children once a year for three consecutive years. The students then took standardized tests to gauge their cognitive, language and reading skills.

In each case, the rate of development (measured by fractional anisotropy, or FA) in the white matter regions of the brain, which are associated with reading, accurately predicted their test scores.

Specifically, children with above-average reading skills exhibit an FA value in two types of nerve bundles – the left hemisphere arcuate fasciculus and the left hemisphere inferior longitudinal fasciculus – that is initially low, but increases over time. Children with lower reading skills initially have a high FA, but it declines over time.

The findings could eventually influence reading lessons for pre-elementary children. Previous studies have shown that a child's reading skills at age 7 can accurately predict reading skills 10 years down the road. A child who is struggling at 7 will most likely be a poor reader at age 17.