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Science: While Kids Have Varying Abilities, Good Teaching Can Determine Whether They Realize Potential

Good teaching allows kids’ natural reading abilities to shine through, new research suggests. In contrast, in classrooms with poor teachers, children perform at a more uniformly low level, even though their geneticallybased abilities may vary widely.

The extent to which reading ability is the result of genetics or environment has been the subject of much debate. In a study published in the 23 April issue of Science, Jeanette Taylor of Florida State University and colleagues analyzed reading skills, as reflected by the Oral Reading Fluency test, of identical and fraternal twins in elementary school in Florida.

“When children receive more effective instruction, they will tend to develop at their optimal trajectory,” Taylor said. “When instruction is less effective, then children’s learning potential is not optimized and genetic differences are left unrealized.”

By comparing the scores of twins, who share either 50% or 100% of their genes, the researchers could estimate how much of the differences in the reading-test scores were due to genetic factors, environmental factors to which both twins were exposed, or environmental factors that were different for each twin. The researchers used the improvement of the twins’ classmates over the course of a year as a measure of teacher quality.

The results showed that the variation in test scores that was due to genetic differences was greater in classes with good teachers than in classes with poor teachers. Thus, genes and environment seem to interact in such a way that teaching quality either limits children or allows them to reach their natural potential as readers.

Listen to Robert Frederick’s Science Podcast interview with lead research author Jeanette Taylor of Florida State University.