Dr. Beth A. O’Brien joined NIE in August 2012, within what is now the Education and Cognitive Development Laboratory (ECDL) of the Office of Education Research (OER). She came from the Developmental and Learning Sciences program at the University of Cincinnati’s School of Education in the USA. Previously she held appointments of visiting assistant professor at the Feinstein School of Education and Human Development at Rhode Island College, research assistant professor in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development at Tufts University, and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Cognitive Sciences. Trained as a cognitive psychologist at Tulane University, she has conducted applied research investigating the role of functional reading skills in typical, at-risk and dyslexic readers.
Dr. O’Brien’s research interests involve cognitive processes contributing to reading development, including the relation between orthographic processing and fluency, bilingual factors related to reading and fluency development, biliteracy development, as well as how learners vary and interact with different instructional environments. More and more children are learning to read for the first time in a language different from their primary language spoken at home, or are learning reading and writing simultaneously in two languages. This presents a fresh set of challenges for learners and educators with regard to optimal learning environments, and the identification of learning disorders.
Dr. O’Brien’s recent focus in this area includes new methods for measuring silent reading fluency based on non-linear dynamics analysis, and novel applications of interactive technology-based digital design for phonics instruction. Ongoing projects will have practical implications for multilingual learners.
Research Interest in the Neuroscience of Learning and Education
Increasingly, neuroscientific findings contribute to a fuller understanding of reading processes by specifying the neural substrate and mechanisms related to symptoms of dyslexia, in addition to the cognitive constraints of reading multiple orthographies. These methods supplement, and help to refine cognitive models of different forms of reading (fluent, dysfluent, bilingual). Further work at the intersection of dyslexia and bilingual research can address outstanding questions regarding how dyslexia may manifest across a bilingual’s languages, how reading fluency develops bilingually, and how domain general skills (executive functions, working memory) relate to bilingual forms of dyslexia in terms of neural structures and cortical dynamics. Neuroscience models from neuroimaging, such as the cerebro-cerebellar working memory network of Chen & Desmond (2005), could reveal linkages between symptoms and cognitive mechanisms of learning disorders across languages, for example. Also ERP paradigms, such as MMN, can elucidate the cortical dynamics related to implicit learning for language and reading across different types of learners. These methods may stimulate practical ideas for the teaching of language and literacy.