Kaja K. Jasinska

University of Toronto

Research focus
Kaja Jasinska is a cognitive neuroscientist fundamentally interested in the brain systems that support language, reading and cognitive development across the lifespan. She studies how early-life experience can change the brain’s capacity for learning with the goal of understanding how experience and biology jointly shape human development. She uses neuroimaging technologies including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS) neuroimaging technology in combination with genetic and behavioral metrics and analyses to gain new insights into the biological underpinnings of language, reading, and human cognition.

My plans for the fellowship period
My research program examines reading development in environments with a high risk of illiteracy by investigating how (1) inconsistent access to reading instruction, (2) limited time and/or resources dedicated to learning, and (3) reading in a new second language impact healthy/typical cognitive and reading development.
Firstly, I plan to conduct systematic research on how sporadic access to language and literacy instruction (in a second language) impacts children’s reading outcomes. I evaluate language, cognitive, and reading development using standardized assessments, and collect indicators of school attendance and labor involvement in children during a critical age for reading development. This reveals how the typical developmental trajectory for literacy responds to periods of interrupted instruction. Crucially, this approach informs when in development reading is most susceptible to the negative effects of missed schooling.
Secondly, I plan to develop and implement evidence based instruction for literacy to ameliorate the negative consequences associated with problems identified beforehand. Instruction approaches will be developed based on the findings gathered, and informed by existing research on reading development and instruction and implemented in the community. I will compare reading outcomes associated with different instructional approaches, adapted from existing methods with the goal to establish sustainable education practices.

How will my work change children’s and youth’s lives?
In Sub-Saharan Africa, one third of children who complete primary education, remain unable to read adequately. Challenges to successful reading development include a highly variable age of first literacy instruction, often in a new unfamiliar language, in resource-poor contexts. Failure to acquire literacy compromises a child’s potential for future educational and vocational success. This illiteracy crisis requires education that is maximally conducive to a child’s learning. My research program is designed to improve our understanding of the cognitive basis of learning in poverty with the specific aim of providing classroom-implementable solutions that optimize children’s literacy and cognitive development in early life and promote sustainable life-long learning. Using the latest tools of cognitive neuroscience, it measures the impact of diverse and impoverished learning environments on a child’s acquisition of literacy. This makes possible the development and application of optimized literacy programs that best protect against and/or ameliorate the effects of poverty on child development. Such information yields new insights into optimal reading instruction in resource-poor classrooms, bridging child development with education policy.