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Profiles in Giving

Illuminating the “Reading Brain Circuit”

John Halvey, A82, A16P, understands how it can feel impossible to read. He was struggling through second grade when his teachers started accusing him of being lazy, of not trying hard enough. Halvey’s mother, who was also a teacher, didn’t believe them. She worked with her son, pursued a master’s degree in reading, and eventually diagnosed his dyslexia. “I survived high school, thanks to my mom,” says Halvey. “I wasn’t an academically obvious choice, but Tufts took a chance on me.”

Halvey, and his wife Kristin, A16P, have stepped forward in recent years to put a public face on dyslexia. One of their daughters is dyslexic, while their son has a related disorder called dysgraphia. Kristin also has other family members with dyslexia.

In part, that personal history motivated John and Kristin Halvey to donate $250,000 to Tufts in support of the work of Professor Maryanne Wolf, A12P, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development, and one of the world’s foremost scholars of dyslexia.

Unlocking the power of written knowledge

Wolf’s research on the neurological underpinnings of reading has illuminated what she calls the “reading brain circuit” and the complex processes involved when children learn to recognize letters, combine their sounds to form words, and link them to create meaning. When the connections in young brains develop ideally, children are able to unlock the power of written knowledge and to build on it. When the process happens differently or too slowly, as in dyslexia, such knowledge—and a child’s potential with it—remains locked up.

An even stronger impetus behind the Halveys’ gift involves unlocking that potential in all children, and on a global scale. Wolf has joined an ambitious effort to develop basic literacy tools for more than 170 million children worldwide who have little or no access to schooling—a project she calls “the largest, most important research of my life.”

The project, supported by the Halveys’ philanthropy, centers on a radical premise: Tablet computers loaded with the right learning tools and provided to children with no instruction or adult oversight can lead the children to teach themselves to make the complex connections among letters, sounds, words, and meaning.

Wolf, who is collaborating with the MIT Media Lab, Georgia State University, and the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values, is cautiously optimistic about the results from a pilot project involving children from two villages in Ethiopia. Most recently, the Vatican has invited Wolf to present the project’s work to meetings of its Academy of Science, as part of the pope’s efforts to eradicate global poverty.

Making a difference

Despite his early struggles, Halvey went on to graduate magna cum laude from Tufts. He has written four books, and pursued a successful career at the intersection of technology, law, and finance. He is now a member of the School of Arts and Sciences Board of Advisors. Wolf remembers Halvey asking her, “What can I do to continue your work, your outside-the-box research and its potential for global impact?” His question—and his gift—came at the exact right moment.

“It’s the intellectual generosity and vision of people like John Halvey,” Wolf says, “that make the difference between something being impossible and something becoming a reality.”