MIT study finds poorer kids benefit more from summer reading programs

Regions of the brain associated with reading grew significantly thicker during the course of the program.
Regions of the brain associated with reading grew significantly thicker during the course of the program.

Children who come from poorer homes may benefit more from summer reading programs than kids from wealthier homes, according to a new study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

MIT researchers set up two summer schools with children of many backgrounds to study how they reacted to programs meant to help them read better, said John Gabrieli, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT and the study’s lead author.

The children in the study, who were between 6 and 9 years old, spent four hours a day, five days a week in the program for six weeks. The program was based on an educational system known as Lindamood-Bell, which teaches children to think of words as units of sound, Gabrieli said.


The children’s brains were scanned by MRI, and they were given reading tests at the start and at the end of the program.

Get Metro Headlines in your inbox:
The 10 top local news stories from metro Boston and around New England delivered daily.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

In the end, about half the kids improved their test scores and most of them came from lower-income families, Gabrieli said.

“If you just left these children alone on the developmental path they’re on, they would have terrible troubles reading in school. We’re taking them on a detour that seems to go with real gains in reading ability,” he said.

Researchers believe that part of the results may have come from conducting the study in the summer rather than during the school year, said Rachel Romeo, one of the study’s authors.

“Summer is when socioeconomic status takes its biggest toll. [Poor] kids typically have less academic content in their summer activities compared to [rich kids], and that results in a slump in their skills,” Romeo said.


Gabrieli said that reading “is a complicated skill, so there could be a number of different factors that would make you better or worse,” and that he and his team are hoping to examine socioeconomic status, a child’s environment, and even their genetics to understand why they may struggle with reading.

“In medicine, people call it personalized medicine: this idea that some people will really benefit from one intervention and not so much from another. We’re interested in understanding the match between the student and the kind of educational support that would be helpful for that particular student,” he said.

The study is expected to be published in an upcoming issue of the Cerebral Cortex journal.

Andrew Grant can be reached at [email protected]