Neuroscience in rural areas: Gathering evidence to meet literacy challenges

Plenty of research has looked at how kids learn to read, but most studies have focused on children who attend school consistently. In places like the cocoa-growing villages of Ivory Coast, where access to education is sporadic, how do children learn? Cognitive neuroscientist Kaja Jasinska is working with TRECC in a first-of-its kind project to produce evidence to guide education policy. Using neuroimaging technology with children in cocoa communities, she is looking at an understudied aspect of learning: brain development in communities at high risk of illiteracy. We interviewed her about the many ways in which this research can contribute to transforming education.

Q: What is the goal of your research?

A: My research seeks to understand how children learn to read in communities that have a very high risk of illiteracy. We know that learning to read requires quality education – meaning a teacher who can instruct the child and age-appropriate reading materials (books). Without that, simply put, literacy does not happen. What we’re trying to understand is how children learn in the absence of quality education, or with inconsistent access to education. Many children in rural areas in Ivory Coast do not attend school regularly. This is due to many factors, one of which is the prevalence of child labor in cocoa farming.

Our research team looks at literacy from a neurodevelopmental perspective. Rather than evaluating learning in terms of grade levels or primary school completion, we look at a child’s success in mastering all of the important building blocks of literacy. Reading is truly a complex, multifaceted task that requires the ability to identify and manipulate the sounds of language (termed phonological awareness), vocabulary, and cognitive abilities such as attention and memory. These skills are all important predictors of reading attainment.

Clara SanchizNeuroscience in rural areas: Gathering evidence to meet literacy challenges
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