Q&A with Joanna Christodoulou, Research Affiliate in the MIT GabLab


Dr. Joanna Christodoulou, EdD is a developmental cognitive neuroscientist who studies reading development and difficulties. She is Associate Professor at the MGH Institute of Health Professions in Boston, MA, as well as Research Associate at MIT and adjunct faculty at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Dr. Christodoulou works at the intersection of education and neuroscience. Her research focuses on the brain and behavior correlates of reading, as well as intervention approaches for struggling learners in schools and other practical settings.

How would you describe the intersection of education and neuroscience?

Learning capitalizes on the incredible potential of the brain’s mechanics, linking information to emotions and meaning. Learning to read is among the skills situated at the intersection of education and neuroscience. Since reading is a cultural invention, rather than a biological drive, becoming a reader requires targeted learning experiences with access to print to create networks in the brain. Although our brains are not wired for reading at the outset, the brain is ready to interact with print. Many children accomplish the incredible feat of learning to read, thus gaining access to all of the richness that a literate life can offer. At least 10% of school-age children struggle to become readers. By studying how children translate scribbles on a page to the code we call written language, we can use the tools and theories from educational neuroscience to understand how reading can be accomplished, why learning to read can be a struggle, and what intervention approaches under which conditions work best for which children. Studying reading at the intersection of education and neuroscience also means that professionals from each discipline can collaborate to broaden perspectives, share insights, and ensure that research and practice are informing each other.

What type of research are you working on to understand reading and dyslexia?

We are invested in helping struggling learners reach their potential and succeed. One barrier we recognize is the range of benefit, or gains, across children for different reading intervention programs: While some students make significant gains, others may show minimal, if any, benefit. Our research investigates what factors influence the degree that children benefit from reading intervention, and how to better match children to effective instruction. During the summer months of 2019/2020, we are launching project SUMMIT (short for SUMmer @ MIT) to study the impact of effective instruction. We are inviting at-risk readers in grade one or two to enroll, as well as highly qualified staff to join our teaching team. In addition to offering free high-quality summer programming, we are measuring reading and related skills before/after the summer program using education-informed activities as well as brain imaging (for more information, email summitprogram2019@gmail.com).

Another challenge we recognize is the potential for skills such as reading to weaken over the summer months, often called summer slump. This issue of summer learning loss has been documented as being especially severe for children from socioeconomically disadvantaged homes; at the start of each new school year, these children tend to start the school year reading at lower levels than their peers due to summer slump, and this gap accumulates every year. In fact, up to 80% of the achievement gap in high school between children from lower and higher socioeconomic backgrounds can be explained via the summer slump in reading. Our research investigates the factors that put children at risk of summer slump by considering both socioeconomic background, as well as reading ability (i.e., readers of all ability levels including disabilities such as dyslexia). We also study how to overcome summer slump so that at-risk students can use this time to build strong skills rather than lose skills that may be fragile.

Reading challenges can impact many types of students. Our research focuses on struggling readers who have dyslexia, as well as those who struggle for other reasons. One such population that we work with is children who have undergone hemispherectomy, or removal of the left or right side of the brain. This medical procedure is used in the context of extreme seizure disorders, and is often highly effective. However, children with only a left or right hemisphere must learn to read relying on more limited neural infrastructure. Our work with this group aims to understand the potential of a single hemisphere to support reading as well as offer research-based evidence to guide educators in their instruction.

These examples of our research showcase our goals as well as the incredible community partnerships with families, schools, and associations that make scientific progress possible.

How can we use individual variability to improve educational outcomes?

Individual variability means that each child has distinct characteristics as a learner. When we harness this knowledge we can optimize potential for success. Even when children share a diagnosis or label such as dyslexia, it doesn’t mean they are a homogenous group of readers. In fact, there are multiple pathways that can lead to a single diagnosis. We can use individual variability to improve educational outcomes by understanding each learner as more than a person with a challenge, but rather as a whole child with distinct areas of strength and weakness, interests and motivations. One of our research aims is to move beyond the story of the average to put the spotlight on instructional strategies that are optimized for collective learning in educational settings and supportive mechanisms that are catered to individual differences. When it comes to applying research to practice, we recognize the importance of discovering findings based on whole groups, but also the value of digging deeper to study individual differences among learners.

What is your favorite thing about working at MIT?  

The colleagues I have at MIT epitomize the dedication, hard work, talent and passion that comes with vision manifested in purpose. I’ve had the great pleasure of working with Dr. John Gabrieli and his lab members for over a decade. This group has been an inspiration; together we have been able to engage with community members to enroll hundreds of research participants and to disseminate scientific knowledge on the topic of reading development and difficulties. We have successfully built a professional network to interweave research, practice, and policy. In addition to the talented and hard-working colleagues within the lab, I’ve been fortunate to meet other scientists and staff who make MIT into a caring, thoughtful, and positive environment. Our participants have shared their experiences of feeling empowered by joining our studies, becoming ‘junior MIT scientists’ with us for the day, learning about their brain, and being part of science that helps others. With this incredible community spanning MIT colleagues, our participants, their families, local school collaborations and organizations, we strive stronger toward resolving the challenges associated with reading difficulties.  

Where can people learn more about this work?