Researcher Studies Child Learning through New Lens of an Old Debate

Key Findings

  • A parent’s genes can influence their child’s reading skills through inheritance and altering the environment.
  • Cause and effect of environmental mechanisms of parenting cannot be inferred without first considering genetic influences.
  • Environmental interventions help improve reading skills in children both with and without a genetic predisposition for dyslexia.

Nature vs. Nurture is one of the oldest debates in psychology. This discourse has since evolved, acknowledging the “interplay” of both sides. For her work on the interplay between genetic and environmental influences on individual differences in child reading, the Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences (FABBS) named Dr. Elsje van Bergen an Early Career Impact Award winner, as nominated by the Society for the Scientific Study of Reading (SSSR).

(Photo credit: cottonbro from Pexels.)

Dr. Van Bergen obtained her PhD from the University of Amsterdam, was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Oxford, and is now an Associate Professor in Biological Psychology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Her research integrates educational, psychological, and genetic science to study influences on child educational skills, with an emphasis on reading. She uses data from DNA and family histories, such as from parents and twins.

Other research on the relationship between factors such as the number of books in a home and the child’s reading proficiency has led to popular press articles presenting that these environmental factors “cause” children to learn better. “However, the story is more complex,” Dr. Van Bergen remarked, as we discussed how her research shed new light on this narrative.

Just because you see a link between something in the home environment and a child’s functioning, you cannot immediately conclude cause and effect.

– Dr. Elsje van Bergen
Genetic Confounding Model, adapted from: Hart, S.A., Little, C. & van Bergen, E. Nurture might be nature: cautionary tales and proposed solutions. npj Sci. Learn. 6, 2 (2021).

In her Genetic Confounding model (illustrated in the right figure), Dr. Van Bergen explains that shared genes between a parent and child can affect the child through biological and environmental effects, using the example of reading ability. Part of the effect may be attributable to direct inheritance from parent to child, or the ‘nature’ factor that explains a large share of the individual differences in children’s reading ability.

The model illustrates that the parent’s DNA affects their own reading ability, which then influences the home environment they create, such as the number of books they own. The number of books in a home, an indicator of the family’s reading habits, can then affect the child’s reading ability. However, to study such environmental effects, researchers first need to account for the genetic confound, as both the child’s reading skills and the number of books in a home are correlated with the parents’ genes. This nuance has important implications for parenting research more broadly.

“Just because you see a link between something in the home environment and a child’s functioning, you cannot immediately conclude cause and effect.” Dr. Van Bergen’s research is thus focused on examining cause and effect after controlling for genetic confounds. This specificity can help identify which environmental targets to focus on in interventions — an important consideration for resource allocation.

Researching interventions herself, Dr. Van Bergen and colleagues offered children from kindergarten to second grade a two-year intensive reading skills program. Importantly, half of the students had a familial history of dyslexia, a highly heritable disorder. Following up on the children later in their schooling, they found that the intervention benefitted reading skills for most children, regardless of a family history of dyslexia. Still, children with a family history were more likely to develop reading difficulties, but less so if they had received the intervention. Dr. Van Bergen’s findings suggest that, while a genetic predisposition is important, it is not deterministic, and the environment plays a key role in developmental outcomes.

Dr. Van Bergen strives to disseminate important findings such as these to the public. She also teaches a course to graduate students to improve their own ability to communicate findings to a non-science audience, a translational skill often left out of science education. She remarked that, “Taxpayers fund our research; it is our duty to communicate what we find.”

While a genetic predisposition is important, it is not deterministic, and the environment plays a key role in developmental outcomes.

– Dr. Elsje van Bergen

Dr. Van Bergen communicates her science broadly through newspapers, magazines articles, and on Twitter (@drElsje), as it has the potential to reduce stigma that some parents face from ‘parent blaming’ for child outcomes that have a genetic basis. To further address this stigma, Dr. Van Bergen also provides continued education for teachers and works as an advisor for reading education. She works to instill in academics, teachers, and parents what ‘heritable’ means and does not mean. For example, children’s ability to read and write is precisely due to the environment, because their teachers have taught them. Moreover, saying that reading ability is 75 percent heritable means that 75 percent of differences in reading ability among children are due to their genetic differences. Finally, given equal education, individual differences are largely due to innate predispositions and talents: children differ in how easily they can learn.

Potential for Future Impact

  • A deeper understanding of heritability, to inform researchers, parents, and teachers.
  • Improved ability for researchers to make causal inferences of environmental factors.
  • Identification of intervenable influences of child learning for resource allocation.

Dr. Elsje van Bergen is a recipient of the 2022 Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences (FABBS) Early Career Impact Award and was nominated by the Society for the Scientific Study of Reading (SSSR).

The SSSR ​Twenty-Ninth Annual Meeting takes place in Newport Beach, California, on July 13th -16th, 2022. See more about the conference here

Read more about Dr. Van Bergen’s work at the links below: 

Connect with Dr. Van Bergen: