Brain neuroplasticity: speculation, sensationalism or significant promise?


What if you could heal brain injury through intensive therapy? Or what if you could improve reading fluency of a dyslexic student, by two years in just two weeks? Can we overcome conditions as complex as depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder with simple brain exercises?

Or if you are the parent of a struggling child, would it change anything in your life to find a method that could improve the academic performance and self-esteem?


Until recently, all this talk had been fodder for speculation or even science fiction. Brain plasticity research had long been though of as being theoretical, academic and anecdotal.

But in 2013, neuroplasticity seemed to be a major and recurring theme in television documentaries, on bestseller book lists, in the medical literature, across articles in the lay press, at McGill teacher conferences and within the curricula of some progressive Canadian schools. Maybe it had always been there swirling around me and I had I neglected to notice.

Could anything be more exciting for teachers, tutors and trainers? What about for society as a whole?

The brain may always remain a mysterious entity not unlike an uncharted frontier town. I had once heard that the mysteries brain research are akin to the unknown explorations of outer space witnessed in my parent’s generation.

I had once been skeptical about the potential benefits of neuroplasticity – six months ago, to be precise. It was a warm May evening in 2013, when I had made my way to the back of the wrong room at the open-house of a local school. I ended up in a presentation about a new neuroplasticity program to launched that September.

I was disinterested and skeptical at the claims being made that evening. But with time, research and exposure, I became thoroughly captivated by the notion that a brain has power to change. L’idée a fait son chemin, as they say in French.

I would like to mention that brain plasticity is not actually a new concept. The learning psychology field began at least 100 years ago with the observational work of Alexander Luria, a Russian neuropsychologist associated with early documentation about brain and injury.

At the time of Luria, there were no available therapeutic treatment options but the work of these early scientists is credited with inspiring all modern day plasticity practitioners. A brain can be re-wired to overcome its own challenges – any claim to the contrary is becoming quickly outdated and impractical. And now more than a year later, I am now hearing about plasticity in the corporate setting!

At the risk of producing an overly long blog, here is a list of resources to help teachers, tutors, trainers, therapists and parents understand and even tackle the issue of neuroplasticity:

    • Arrowsmith schools have been challenging neural weaknesses for more than twenty years in Canada. The program begins with a thorough intake period to evaluate as many as 19 different cognitive parameters and students are prescribed daily, repetitive exercises such as tracing symbols, speed writing, journaling, memorizing fast-moving words and summarizing one-paragraph stories. This repetitive, targeted work seems to strengthen or re-wire neural pathways needed for academic success. Performance is tracked very closely each school day and the program is constantly changed to reflect progress. Students can eliminate cognitive deficits and emerge performing at an above-average grade level.
    • Montessori-style and Rudolph Steiner schools present an interesting alternative to Arrowsmith, for younger students. Based on the learning theories and educational approaches of an Italian physician and educator, such schools emphasize independence, freedom within limits, and respect for a child’s natural physical, and social development.
    • The Cellfield reading program can induce changes to reading performance for dyslexic students. It claims to be a patented intervention designed to create conditions of accelerated brain plasticity. It also promises improved reading literacy by two years in two weeks. I am acquainted with their product, which is available world-wide, and I have been impressed by its efficacy. I would even consider administering the program to adults or a non-dyslexic child just to improve fluency, speed and overall love of reading.
    • Software programs such as Fast ForWord can have a major impact on brain agility and learning ability. I learned a little more while watching the CBC’s The Nature of Things during which David Suzuki presented the topic of neuroplasticity. Part 1 of the broadcast was an introduction to the research and case studies which prove that brain research is taking a more practical approach.
    • Part two of the CBC episode introduced its audience to some of the American and Canadian plasticity scientists who are proving that increases to cognitive capacity are possible.
    • Norman Doidge MD, FRCP is a Canadian-born psychiatrist and author who wrote a best-selling book about the implications of the changing brain. It offers principles to use to overcome brain limitations. The publication is available as an audio book, which I recently downloaded.
    • A range of captivating TED talks can shed light on the evolution of the theory of neuroplasticity.

Educational psychologists, academic counselors, support agencies and my local school boards are starting to recognize neuroplasticity. It is critical to shop around to find the right type of plasticity training.

2013 tool kit photo

Mathematics and Dyslexia










After a few consecutive years of scheduling conflicts, I finally got to attend the Quebec Teacher’s Association convention.

My first workshop of the day was “Success in math with dyslexia (and other visually-based learning differences)” by Lori Kiteala. The syllabus promised to expose how math is perceived by the dyslexic brain and I was definitely not disappointed.

I recently became more curious about dyslexia, having once thought the issue was restricted to problems with b’s and d’s and a tendency toward mental fatigue. Thanks to Lori Kiteala, I now know differently.

A very long list of potential symptoms can signal dyslexia.


Today’s conference opened my eyes to a learning disability of which I knew very little. I will feel far more capable of teaching a dyslexic once I fully understand how they perceive spoken language, written communication and mathematical concepts.

For now, here are the critical elements that I will retain:

1- Dyslexics transition well to high school because they have spent all of primary school acquiring learning strategies
2- Dyslexics tend to show great strength of character
3 -Dyslexics are hard-working and tenacious, so much so that they often go on to complete advanced degrees.

This list makes me want to work with them even more!

As the speaker continued her presentation, I was captivated by her intentionally dramatic and color-accented slides. She offered many visual examples of how dyslexics “misinterpret” mathematical situations.

At the risk of writing an overly long blog, I share some of my new learnings here:

1. Dyslexics are literal thinkers. As one example, I remember a friend teaching young kids how to interpret idioms such as “raining cats and dogs”. In a similar way, math tutors and teachers need to be conscientious about the words they choose to teach procedures. Something as simple as “re-copy the algebra on each line” or “the left side is for positives” can be interpreted unexpectedly.

2. Previewing content. This accommodation is very helpful to dyslexics. A teacher who sends out pre-reading material can greatly help a dyslexic student. Admittedly, this can be difficult for a busy or novice teacher.

3. Peer-teaching.  When two students work together at the white board, it helps the learning. Allow dyslexics to move around and stand up.

4. Sub vocalizations.  Quietly talking through math or science problems is an accommodation frequently allowed on examinations and it can make a huge impact on marks. Students are moved to a separate room so as not to disturb others with murmuring sounds.

5. Exam coaching. Dyslexics use considerably more brain energy and are usually wiped out (exhausted) after a three-hour exam. A coach can keep them going. Trained coaches can motivate a student to remain focussed. This is even more necessary when extra time is allocated for disability (3 + 1 = 4 hours!).

6. Color coding. Using colored, fine-point, felt pens can make note-taking smoother and more visually organized in a copybook. Using up to 6 different colors can help learners locate various notes (e.g. black for titles, blue for notes, red for formulas, purple for examples, etc). Boys, as much as girls, should use a variety of bright fuchsia highlighters from Staples (green, mauve, yellow, pink, orange).

7. Exam Strategies. Having only one question per exam page will reduce visual clutter, mental fatigue and discouragement. Letting dyslexics separate their exam sheets into two piles (remove the staple) can help. In one pile go the problems they can confidently solve. In the other pile go the questions that may be challenging or discouraging. After students have finished the first pile, let them get up, change desks, stretch or drink water. They may need the change of scenery to tackle the second pile.

9. Different perception. Let us not assume that a dyslexic sees exactly what we do. As one example, most of us take for granted a visual display of two similar triangles. Teachers often draw them  juxtaposed to show the ratio of their sides. A dyslexic may actually see a small triangle and a trapezoid. (refer to image). This difficulty may explain why some students struggle to learn trigonometry. dsylexic similar triangles

10. Fractions may be erroneously interpreted as a number less than zero (a<0). This may explain why my science students struggle with operations on fractions (ex.: ½ divided by ½).

Dyslexics are particularly astute and can excel at higher math. They just need the right support, a few accommodations to ease the burden of note-taking and many mental breaks during long exams.

I left the conference with so many tricks that can help tutoring but I should mention that, through no fault of their own, dyslexics can be resistant to the benefits of tutoring. Tutors need to be extra patient, creative and empathetic to this reality.

Thanks to my colleagues who let me photograph them at the conference.
2013-11 Science math and language teachers