In my 45 years as a reading teacher, I’ve never sat next to a child and listened to him decode symbols or sound out words. And that’s because, for me, this would be making the code more important than the language it represents.
At my learning centers, the children were always busy making books—telling stories that I wrote down for them that they then drew pictures for. Sometimes they would listen to these books, or to other descriptive literature and poetry, as I read aloud. Or they might be learning cursive handwriting while writing down their own life stories for themselves. These children were actively exercising their visual, auditory, motoric, and tactile skills, and constructing ways to integrate these into their own functioning.
A big part of what makes us human is our desire to tell stories and otherwise express ourselves. Language is something not to take apart, but to put together—something by which we create connections with our world. Through our planet’s long history, our ancestors drew pictures that later became an alphabet, in order to record, recall, and communicate their experiences. Reading is the miracle that resulted from these marks and symbols. Codes were created and agreed upon that could later be decoded by others in order to pass on the culture to the next generation. Every child who learns to read and write recreates this miracle.
Yet humankind has long assumed that reading capability is inherent to all children. We forget that reading isn’t a natural function to which we’re born, but one that must be learned. A child identified as having dyslexia, a perceived difficulty in learning to read, doesn’t have a medical problem—he has simply not yet experienced the relationship of language to his own drawings or marks on the paper. He hasn’t yet discovered how to invent his own reading and so create his own miracle.
Reading, the decoding and neural encoding of written alphabetic symbols for their meaning, is a human invention that reflects how the brain rearranges itself in order to process written speech. “Human beings were never born to read,” writes Maryanne Wolf, a Tufts University cognitive neuroscientist and child development expert, in her remarkable book Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, who goes on to explain how reading evolved over millennia—from the decoding of cave drawings, to symbols that became an alphabetic code, to the complex sentence forms that we read today.
Wolf understands reading as we do in Edu-K—as the creation and mastery of a lexical symbolic code that represents experience for later recall or re-imagination. Reading, a totally man-made ability that has helped create the human brain of today, entails much more than focusing on linear input, one word or phoneme at a time. Wolf suggests that “the evolution of writing and the development of the reading brain give us a remarkable lens on ourselves as a species, as the creators of many oral and written language cultures and as individual learners with different and expanding forms of intelligence.”
The brain has no center or location for the function of reading as it has for seeing, listening, moving, and touching. The miracle of reading requires the interconnection of many separate and specific neural locations. Through an engaged exploration of symbols, each child teaches himself as his brain automatically makes these connections.
Not all children learn in the same way, and learning to read seems easier for some than for others—just as methods to teach reading work better with some learners than with others.
Xavier, age 8 and in the third grade, appears bright and curious, yet was not keeping up with his classmates at school. When his parents took him to be privately evaluated, he tested as being more than a year behind grade level in reading, writing, and spelling. On a referral, they brought Xavier to see me. Reading for me at my office from his school reading book, he pointed to one word at a time and sounded it out, pronouncing each syllable carefully as his classroom teacher had instructed him to do. When asked to recall and relate what he had read, he was able to remember only one or two isolated words.
During his session, Xavier chose from a wall poster the Brain Gym activities he wanted to do. Together we did the Cross Crawl, Lazy 8s, the Calf Pump, the Footflex, Arm Activation, and the Gravity Glider. In the process, his parents and I watched him shift from a passive posture to a more active way of carrying himself and speaking.
To help make reading more meaningful, I invited Xavier to make friends with 15 of his own favorite words. His parents and I shared his excitement as he thought of the words and I wrote them down for him on index cards: elephant, popcorn, airplane, zebra, and so on. Xavier agreed that every day he would trace the letters for each word with his fingers as he said the word aloud and thought about its meaning. By the time he said goodbye that day, he already recognized the words elephant and zebra by sight.
After two weeks of tracing his words and doing Brain Gym activities with his parents, Xavier returned to my office ready to read for me again. I could see by the way he sat and held his book that he was now experiencing a better sense of balance. He was now able to move his eyes to track horizontally across his visual midfield without excessive head movement. He was reading fluently, in the same way that he spoke, rather than focusing on separate phonemes, without effort and with enthusiasm and full comprehension—my definition of reading comprehension. We celebrated a miracle, as Xavier was now able to report back what he read in his own words. How, his parents wondered, did a few simple movements and activities help Xavier to read so much more effectively?
Because learning means adding the new to the old, the natural flow of learning to read begins with the recognition of what we already know. It requires simultaneously holding what is already familiar (stored as a verbal code) and relating new information, coming in, to that associated experience. Reading is first and foremost a flow of communicative language. Visual skills such as pointing the eyes to each word are, though important, incidental to the mental process of reading, and need to be so automatic and stress-free that the auditory-language processes can proceed without inhibition. Meaningful speech must always lead—never follow—the visual analysis of the code.
Effective reading of the code for meaning requires, just as it did for our forebears, the skillful integration of the auditory (say it), visual (see it), kinesthetic (write it), and tactile (feel it) areas of the brain, as well as the ability to interpret such received information as meaningful by relating the new to prior experiences.
When students like Xavier seem dyslexic, analyzing a linear progression of disconnected sounds one word or syllable at a time, and not yet able to immediately recognize those symbols within an expressive language context, they’re lost in the details of deciphering the code and are not even hearing the content. In my work with children diagnosed as dyslexic, I emphasize that reading (and, in fact, all of the language arts skills, including writing and spelling) be experienced on the visual midfield, where the left and right brain hemispheres can be accessed at the same time, for both immediate recognition of the new and the subsequent, almost simultaneous, neural breaking of the code to make it into familiar language.
The miracle of reading requires an instant recognition of new information in a meaningful context, followed by confirmation of the symbols or code, not the other way around as it’s usually taught. Thus the natural flow of learning requires a fresh perception within a context of previous experience. We learn the symbols so well that we hardly ever notice them.
As stated by psychiatrist and writer Iain McGilchrist in his book The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, “the first apprehension of anything is by the right hemisphere while it remains new . . . soon taken over by the left hemisphere where it becomes familiar. Knowledge of the whole is . . . followed by knowledge of the parts.”
Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, Maryanne Wolfe, © 2007, HarperCollins.
I Already Know How to Read: A Child’s View of Literacy, Prisca Martens, 1996, Heinemann. This valuable little book offers Marten’s insights as a professor of language education on her three-year observation of her daughter Sarah’s self-initiated exploration of reading and writing from ages two through five. This view can help us recognize the ways children (in our modern world, surrounded by written media) are naturally literate, and how they will “invent” writing and reading on their own, when given the opportunity. Informative reading and writing samples present Sarah as a natural inquirer who actively constructs symbols.
The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, © Iain McGilchrist, 2012, Yale University Press.
Editor’s note: Through his review of the literature of approaches to teaching reading, Paul is well versed in the work of Russell G. Stauffer: The Language-Experience Approach to the Teaching of Reading, ©1970 and Teaching Reading as a Thinking Process,©1969, Russell G. Stauffer.
*In Edu-K we keep phonics separate from experiences with reading. For more about our whole language and move to read approach, see: 5 Minutes to Better Reading Fluency; Independent Reading: A Path to Self-Initiated Learning; Discovering the Reading Midfield
To read the Italian translation of this article, La Lettura è un Miracolo, click here.
© 2013 by Paul E. Dennison. All rights reserved.
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