Training in the arts, reading, and brain imaging

Wandell, B., Dougherty, R. F., Ben-Shachar, M., & Deutsch, G., K. (2008). Training in the arts, reading, and brain imaging. In C. Asbury & C. Rich (Eds.) Learning, Arts, and the Brain. New York, NY: Dana Foundation.


This series of studies uses neuroscience methods to investigate the relationships between: (1) aesthetic ability, arts education, and improvement in children's reading ability; (2) visual arts exposure and phonological awareness and (3) visual arts exposure and math calculation abilities. As part of these studies, the researchers developed new tools for identifying brain regions involved in the development of reading skills, tools that analyze what neuroscientists call diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) data. This research was conducted in conjunction with the National Institutes of Health-funded longitudinal study of reading development.

Key Findings:

  • The amount of music training received by children in year one of the study was significantly and positively correlated with improvement in their reading fluency over the three-year period of the study.
  • The researchers found a relationship between brain structure and both reading ability and phonological awareness using DTI data.
  • The researchers also found a strong, positive correlation between visual arts experience and phonological awareness in year one. This effect dissipated with time, which the researchers state is a phenomenon commonly observed in literature on child development. Such dissipation researchers suggest may be due to the fact that children find many ways to learn and thus one input (e.g. visual arts experience) that has a strong early impact may lessen its impact with time as children broaden their palette of learning tools and experiences.
  • Preliminary study data also suggest that visual arts exposure may be correlated with improvements in children's math calculation abilities.

Significance of the Findings:

These findings suggest a relationship between aesthetic ability, arts education and reading fluency, particularly phonological awareness, a skill closely related to reading ability. Exploratory findings also suggest a relationship between math calculation abilities and exposure to the visual arts. Both findings may hold promise for understanding the relationship of early arts education instruction to student success in reading and mathematics. Furthermore, DTI analysis shows promise in furthering the understanding of the neural basis for the development of cognitive skills.


The researchers used the following tools for data collection: (1) an arts education questionnaire that they developed to explore students’ experience in the visual arts, music, dance, and theater; (2) a modified version of the Child Temperament and Personality Questionnaire (CTPQ), used as a measure of aesthetic ability (Rothbart & Baker, 2003); (3) standardized tests of IQ and reading fluency (unspecified); and (4) the Woodcock-Johnson III Calculation test, a test of mathematics skills. Forty-nine children age seven to twelve participated in the study. Their parents completed the arts education questionnaire and the CTPQ. The researchers used a statistical test to examine what elements of the children’s aesthetic capacity and arts education experience correlated with reading skills. They also used DTI data to explore how reading capacity relates to brain structure and pathways.

Limitations of the Research:

The small sample size and reliance on simple statistical tests of correlation pose limitations to the research concerning causation and generalization. The researchers caution that the relationship they find between music training and reading performance does not mean that music training causes improvements in reading as, “It is possible that children who are intellectually capable of pursuing musical training are also ready for reading” (p.53). IQ and reading fluency tests were not specified and only one test of math ability was used and in the first year of the study only.

Questions to Guide New Research:

What is the relationship between arts experience, a variety of math skills or arithmetic processing (i.e., recall, estimation, exact calculation), and brain structures? Is there a biological indicator of math skill development?