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Brain Growth in the Early Years of Life

Written By Geoff Nixon . December 9, 2023

Those Precious First Three Years Are Not The Whole Story

There is no doubt that brain growth in the early years has a profound impact on reading and learning.  A number of scientific experiments have confirmed that in the first three years of life the brain is in complete learning set up mode.  It assumes nothing and processes everything, connecting everything to everything.  For instance, a door opens and a dog barks — early in life this is remembered in case it is useful.

In the first few weeks of life babies can recognize the different faces of monkeys, until they recognize there is no useful purpose in holding that information and so they lose that skill.  By a process of trial and error the brain eventually figures out how to learn, what is connected and relevant, and what isn’t.

The success of this setup phase has a profound effect on a child’s life.

Observations and Experiments – Brain Growth

Fast ForWord software founder, Michael Merzenich, talks about an experiment involving rats placed in different sound environments.  Some rats heard a rich variety of sounds and music, while others heard only a ceiling fan with one repetitive sound.  As you might guess this difference in environment had a huge stimulative impact on activated brain growth.  The rats that only heard a ceiling fan had stunted auditory brain development.

This same dynamic applies to the language you hear at birth.  If you grow up hearing most Asian languages, your brain tunes into picking up different tones – a huge part of Asian language structure.  Whereas, babies that grow up hearing English are confronted with phonetic language and so that what it focuses on, identifying different syllable and vowel sounds.

As you can imagine, mapping an entire language is a big project. After figuring out phonemes, words are attached to meaning, then there’s language syntax, recognizing the impact of tone, etc.

And so there is a strong link between early childhood and reading.  If a child has ear infections during this 3 year set up period, language development can be compromised. In fact, a lot of reading delays can be traced back to ear infections early on.

This is why the best way for parents to help thing for a child learn to read is focus on language bombardment.  For instance, reading out loud to child, talking to a child in adult language with lots of depth in vocabulary and language structure.  In the first three years, it is best not to distract the brain with other projects, such as learning to read, until you are sure oral language has been mastered.

Learning is Not Fixed at Any Age

No doubt about it, the first three years of life are critical.  After this wonderful period of growth in learning skills the brain has made most of the connections it needs for learning and so shuts down this aspect of growth to focus more on learning actual content, i.e., learning the language, sounds for reading, etc.

This is where the learning-is-fixed idea comes from.  From the knowledge that the first three years of life are unique and indeed they are.  It is also true that once learning mechanics are wired, it is harder after those first three years to change them.  Naturally, “rewiring” is harder than wiring for the first time.

But that is not where it ends. The brain is constantly learning and changing. This is what science now tells us, it’s called brain plasticity. And so it is not true to say that rewiring is not possible.  Just because you don’t have a brain in always-on mode it does not mean that a brain that has glitches in its early set up cannot be trained to improve.

Rewiring is possible, or said another way learning is not fixed.

Gemm Learning uses Fast ForWord software at home to build essential language processing and pre-reading skills, and then reading comprehension.

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