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Study Shows How Poverty Could Limit Learning

In this 2013 file photo, Ivan Silverberg teaches his American Studies class to eighth and ninth graders at the Niles North High School in Skokie, Illinois. (AP Photo/Scott Eisen)

In this 2013 file photo, Ivan Silverberg teaches his American Studies class to eighth and ninth graders at the Niles North High School in Skokie, Illinois. (AP Photo/Scott Eisen)

From VOA Learning English, this is the Education Report.

Studies have shown that children from poor families have more difficulty in school than other boys and girls. Children with higher socioeconomic roots seem better prepared and perform better on school tests.

Now, American researchers may have found a biological reason for that difference. They found differences in the brains of students who had low standardized test scores. Their brains had less gray matter and their temporal lobes developed more slowly than the other children. The findings were reported in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

Temporal lobes and gray matter are very important brain areas, says researcher Barbara Wolfe. She is a professor of economics, population health and public affairs at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

The brain areas are "critical in the sense that they keep developing until individuals are well into their adolescence or early 20s, and critical in the sense that they are important for executive function," she said.

Researchers studied brain images of nearly 400 children and young adults. The youngest subjects were four years old. The oldest were 22. Researchers looked for a connection between the person’s socioeconomic status and his or her test results.

On average, young people from poor families had test scores between three and four points below what is expected for their age group.

The poorest students scored between eight and 10 points below the developmental norm. Ms. Wolfe says there are several reasons why poorer students often have lower scores. One reason could be poor children do not get the food they need for healthy development. Poor parents are less likely to stimulate their children’s brains through talk, play, and activities. Ms. Wolfe also blames the "stress that parents face in trying to deal with poverty, putting food on the table."

The researchers say that up to 20 percent of the achievement gap, or difference in test performance, could be tied to poverty.

Ms. Wolfe suggests early action may improve the brain development of children living in poverty. Reaching out to children when they are very young could help raise their test scores and academic performance when they are older.

She says that when the source of the deficit is known, "these areas of the brain can be developed," she said. "... It means that policies can be developed that overcome this deficit."

I’m Jonathan Evans.

VOA’s Jessica Berman wrote this story. Adam Brock adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

standardized testn. a test that is administered and rated in a predictable, or “standard,” way

gray mattern. neural tissue especially of the brain and spinal cord that contains nerve-cell bodies and has a brownish-gray color

temporal loben. a large lobe of each cerebral hemisphere in the brain

pediatricsn. an area of medicine that deals with the development, care, and diseases of babies and children

adolescencen. the period when a child develops into an adult

status n. of, relating to, or involving one’s social standing or other influences

stimulate v. to cause (something) to happen or develop

achievement gap n. the difference between the test scores of low-income students and those of middle class or wealthier students.

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