The objective of this study was to investigate whether phonological processes measured through brain activation are crucial for the development of reading skill (i.e. scaffolding hypothesis) and/or whether learning to read words fine-tunes phonology in the brain (i.e. refinement hypothesis). We specifically looked at how different grain sizes in two brain regions implicated in phonological processing played a role in this bidirectional relation. According to the dual-stream model of speech processing and previous empirical studies, the posterior superior temporal gyrus (STG) appears to be a perceptual region associated with phonological representations, whereas the dorsal inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) appears to be an articulatory region that accesses phonological representations in STG during more difficult tasks. 36 children completed a reading test outside the scanner and an auditory phonological task which included both small (i.e. onset) and large (i.e. rhyme) grain size conditions inside the scanner when they were 5.5-6.5 years old (Time 1) and once again approximately 1.5 years later (Time 2). To study the scaffolding hypothesis, a regression analysis was carried out by entering brain activation in either STG or IFG for either small (onset > perceptual) or large (rhyme > perceptual) grain size phonological processing at T1 as the predictors and reading skill at T2 as the dependent measure, with several covariates of no interest included. To study the refinement hypothesis, the regression analysis included reading skill at T1 as the predictor and brain activation in either STG or IFG for either small or large grain size phonological processing at T2 as the dependent measures, with several covariates of no interest included. We found that only posterior STG, regardless of grain size, was predictive of reading gains. Parallel models with only behavioral accuracy were not significant. Taken together, our results suggest that the representational quality of phonology in temporal cortex is crucial for reading development. Moreover, our study provides neural evidence supporting the scaffolding hypothesis, suggesting that brain measures of phonology could be helpful in early identification of reading difficulties.
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