Using neuroscience to design effective reading programs: An interview with Dr. Devin Kearns

dr kearns

Neuroscience is showing us how children with dyslexia process information when reading (right down to how they process each part of a word), and what reading interventions work best.

Education researchers like Dr. Devin Kearns are using this information to design and test reading programs that work specifically for the dyslexic brain.

Dr. Kearns is an American education researcher who studies reading disabilities, including dyslexia. He is an assistant professor at the Department of Educational Psychology of Neag School of Education, the University of Connecticut in the United States.

Most recently, he co-authored The Neurobiology of Dyslexia, a report that shows differences between young readers with dyslexia and their peers with typical reading skills. We summarized the report here: What science is telling us: Do dyslexic brains work differently? What reading instruction works best?

In this interview, he explains how neuroscience is shaping the future of reading instruction.

Dr. Devin Kearns

1. Dyslexic Library: Educational psychology. What is that?

Devin Kearns: Educational psychology is—at least in part—studying how we can best design educational experiences to maximize individuals’ cognitive processing of what we are teaching.

2. Dyslexic Library: What stands out to you in the neuroscience as it relates to education and dyslexia?

Devin Kearns: What I think is especially important is that it may be possible to find new ways to help people with dyslexia that rely on different parts of the brain than those we typically use for reading. One possibility is to teach people about morphemes, meaningful parts inside words. We don’t yet know exactly what will help best, but neuroscience is beginning to give us some interesting clues.

3. Dyslexic Library: The report, The Neurobiology of Dyslexia, finds that “foundational word-recognition instruction” is effective reading instruction for children with dyslexia. Is that similar to what is used in Orton Gillingham?

Devin Kearns: Yes, Orton Gillingham…the pictures [in the report] illustrate the kind of OG-type strategies we are talking about. This is phonics, and it is very effective for people with dyslexia.

4. Dyslexic Library: Does this research suggest that there is more than one way to read “correctly”–or that dyslexics may just read less efficiently?

Devin Kearns: Good—and tricky—question. Typical reading circuits are probably the “correct” way—meaning that they are typical and work well for many people. People with dyslexia may not be able to use those circuits well, as they use other processes. Frequently, people with dyslexia read more slowly than others (even after they have improved their reading through good instruction), although our work does not really say why.

5. Dyslexic Library: Do these findings suggest that dyslexia affects more than just reading?

Devin Kearns: This is not entirely clear, but it is likely. The genes that are involved in dyslexia are related to other behaviors affecting memory and so on.

6. Dyslexic Library: The report concludes that the dyslexic brain “works differently”. Does that infer it may not entirely be a disadvantage?

Devin Kearns: I would start from the idea that processing in the case of dyslexia is definitely different, and that may make reading harder. It can—and often does—improve over time with good teaching and lots of practice. So, there are not data showing that people with dyslexia are generally better at tasks that other people are not—although this is not entirely conclusive. However, many people with dyslexia have strengths in other areas. People differ in what they do well partly because of our genes and partly because of our life experiences.

7. Dyslexic Library: How do you think/hope neuroscience will help us understand dyslexia in the future?

Devin Kearns: Neuroscience gives us an understanding how readers are processing individual words. Understanding the neurobiological patterns processing readers use can help us develop new instructional techniques.

For example, my co-authors, Ken Pugh, Fumiko Hoeft and Steve Frost, and I are currently engaged in a study using a reading intervention called Empower™. We are looking to see how the brain’s patterns of cognition change across the entire intervention. We hope to see patterns of changes where the kinds of instruction we are providing at different points in the program show up in terms of different patterns of processing. If we can show this, it will help us understand the points at which students show the greatest (and least) progress and may lead to more efficient reading intervention. We are just in the second year of a five-year study, but this is exciting work!

Ken Pugh, Mike Coyne (a professor in my department and a leading expert on reading), and I have another project where we are comparing how children perform in two different kinds of intervention by examining how the patterns of processing for children in one group differ from those in the other group. This project also may help us figure out what approaches to reading instruction will best help individuals with dyslexia.

Dyslexic Library: Thank you to Dr. Kearns for taking so much time to answer my many questions about this report. Also thank you also to neuroscience superhero Dr. Fumiko Hoeft for her contribution.


Orton-Gillingham and Empower are methods of reading instruction used to teach dyslexic children and adults. Find out more about reading interventions available here in Ontario:


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