Impact of interrupted schooling on the development of the brain’s capacity for reading: Examining a developmental sensitive period for reading in Syrian refugee children in Canada

For refugee children, displacement and migration often corresponds to a period of interrupted schooling and limited literacy instruction. As refugee children resettle in Canada, they resume learning to read at school. However, refugee children significantly lag behind their peers, both native English-speaking students as well as other newcomers to Canada and English language learners (ELLs), in reading. Crucially, this reading achievement gap is wider for children who arrived in Canada at an older age—suggesting that there may be an optimal period for reading instruction. While interrupted schooling clearly has a negative impact on literacy, little is known about the specific effects of interrupted schooling across the developmental trajectory for reading, and even less is known about the neurobiological mechanisms by which interrupted schooling impacts the neural systems that support reading. By leveraging the latest tools of educational neuroscience (functional neuroimaging tools, specifically functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy; fNIRS)—we can examine the neural systems that support reading development for children who have experienced periods of interrupted schooling at different ages and who have resumed schooling, and learning to read, at an older age. We test specific hypotheses concerning the age at which children receive literacy instruction in relation to neural activation in left-hemisphere frontal and temporoparietal brain language regions that form the neural reading network.

70 Syrian refugee children between the ages of 10-16 complete a behavioral battery of language and literacy assessments in both English and Arabic, as well as a neuroimaging task measuring spoken and written language processing. The neuroimaging task is designed to elicit patterns of neural activation for spoken and written language processing as well as semantic, phonological, and orthographic processing involved in reading. Participants will hear/see English word stimuli presented in a block-design paradigm with conditions (2×3 design) contrasting modality (speech, print) and lexicality (word, pseudoword, falsefont/vocoded speech). Data collection is ongoing.

To date, the mechanisms by which the rich functional specialization for reading develops remain poorly understood. An important theoretical advance would be to test how the brain’s reading network is changed through education or lack thereof. The resettlement of refugee children allows us the opportunity to address these outstanding issues, and gain new insights that may ultimately guide education practice to best support newcomer refugee children in Canada.

Monday, June 20, 2022

14:35 EDT
11:35 PDT, 12:35 MDT, 15:35 ADT, 19:35 BST

Dr. Kaja Jasińska
Director of the Brain Organization for Language and Literacy Development (BOLD) Laboratory
University of Toronto

Dr. Jasińska is an Assistant Professor of Applied Psychology and Human Development at the University of Toronto and the Scientific Director of the Brain Organization for Language and Literacy Development (BOLD) Laboratory. Dr. Jasinska received her PhD in Psychology and Neuroscience from the University of Toronto in 2013. She then completed postdoctoral training at Haskins Laboratories, affiliated with Yale University. Dr. Jasińska studies the neural mechanisms that support language, cognitive, and reading development across the lifespan using a combination of behavioral, genetic, and neuroimaging research methods. Her research aims to understand how early life experiences (including bilingual language experience) can change the brain’s capacity for language and learning, with focus on understanding development in environments with poverty-related risk (including rural communities in West Africa). Dr. Jasińska’s work uses innovative portable neuroimaging techniques to study brain development in understudied, low-resource settings, leveraging the latest tools of cognitive neuroscience to advance our understanding of global child development. Dr. Jasinska received the 2018 Society for functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy Young Investigator Award, and a 2016-2018 Jacobs Foundation Early Career Fellowship.
@Kaja_Jasinska ;

Dr. Becky Xi Chen
Co-Lead of Literacy / Governance: Knowledge Mobilization Lead
University of Toronto

Dr. Becky Xi Chen’s research focuses on bilingual and ELL (English Language Learner) children’s language and literacy development. She is interested in how children develop literacy skills simultaneously in their first language and second language, and whether these skills transfer between the two languages. She has a well-established research program examining children in French immersion programs. This line of research has three goals: 1) identify reading difficulties at word and text levels, 2) compare the development of English and French literacy skills between children who are native speakers of English and those who speak another language at home, and 3) examine transfer of language and literacy skills between English and French. She is also a co-lead of the Language, Literacy and Learning Cluster of the Child and Youth Refugee Research Coalition (CYRRC), an international coalition that conducts research on refugee children and youth. This line of research focuses on language, literacy and well-being of Arabic-speaking children, particularly refugee children. Finally, she conducts cross-cultural studies comparing the development of Chinese literacy skills between Chinese-speaking children in Canada and children in China. In applied practice, she is interested in helping bilingual children who are at-risk readers or have reading disabilities.