From 1968 to 1972, as a public school teacher and reading specialist working toward my doctorate in education, I taught first-grade and third-grade classes at the Malabar Street School in East Los Angeles. I was one of a select team of teachers doing daily in-service training with Dr. Constance Amsden to assist in the development of her innovative three-year program, “The Malabar Reading Project for Mexican-American Students.” 1Paul

Being invited to join the faculty at Malabar was a pivotal experience for me, as it was there that I discovered how true learning can always be identified by the satisfaction it brings to children. I also realized at Malabar that the most effective teaching acknowledges learners where they are and then fosters in them the independence to explore the new and unknown.

Through my prior studies of reading curricula, I was familiar with a continuum of reading instruction at three states of learning: the independentinstructional, and frustration levels. These theoretical levels became real for me during my tenure at Malabar. As the program included reading instruction to students age six to twelve (for most of whom English was a second language), we determined that state-adopted textbooks were typically at the frustration level—culturally as well as linguistically—for 90 percent of the children.

Despite the widespread belief that reading is the simple, linear decoding of language, it is not. By my understanding of the process reading must build upon a person’s existing associations, so the reader can later express in their own words what they’ve read. Neither word analysis nor word recognition alone is real reading, as they don’t engage the whole brain in a way that builds on what learners already know and want to talk about (See Editor’s Note).

A child listens to a meaningful communication of language and, over time, makes it his own by expressing it in his own words. Pen in hand, he discovers that his ‘scribbles’ can also capture meaning, and he reads back the code he created and goes on to be entranced by other written codes. If the child cannot first hear speech sounds and perceive them as meaningful, he won’t have a reason to speak them or write them as his own. Teaching young children to read by phonetic analysis may teach many the code, however it fails to engage the child’s natural creativity, expression, and joy of learning. The code is important, yet reading is a language process that transcends it. The child may passively sound out phonemes that he is trained to decode, but he won’t actually be reading language. The rhythmic sounding out of phonemes may provide the word dissection and analysis that benefits spelling, but this must never supersede the active, inventive construction of meaningful expression that is at the heart of reading.

Research on beginning reading concludes that, for new readers, the ability to sound out and recognize vocabulary words is essential. According to researchers, “Deficient skill in mapping between the alphabetic representations of words and their spoken counterparts is the chief barrier to comprehension of text.”2 Decoding new words is important, but it is not the same as reading whole language. Recognizing phonemes is only one of the many skills required of young readers, including effective eye movements, listening comprehension, sight recognition of words, and spelling. Yet the most important skill in reading is recognizing that it is “talk written down.” Without this awareness, thinkers rarely move past the inhibiting frustration of overanalysis.

At Malabar, even with the best educational intentions, teaching by the state textbooks would have set those children up for frustration and failure and kept them from discovering their intrinsic interests and abilities. So we taught using a whole-language approach3 , always addressing phonics and word analysis separately from the reading lesson. Seeing reading as a language skill, we helped the children write stories and booklets—which they also illustrated—in their own words. These written expressions of their own thoughts they could read independently, take pride in, and eventually use to create a bridge to their grade-level textbook.

Thus, as the Malabar students in grades one to three would complete two or three of their own handmade books, they began to be able to read the mandated textbooks. We took care to ensure that the vocabulary and syntax were always engaging learners’ curiosity at the independent and instructional levels—never the frustration level. At the instructional level, we introduced new (and often challenging) vocabulary words that students could discover from the context of the story. The children became independent-level readers, and began enjoying the experience of reading on their own. In a three-year period they went from the third to the 50th percentile on standardized test scores.

From my Malabar years I developed a keen knowing of whether, at any given moment (and eventually in any given subject area), a learner was working at the independent or instructional level, and actually learning, or was stuck at the frustration level and not really internalizing the meaning. This knowing formed the basis, in Edu-K and Brain Gym courses beginning in the 1990s, for Gail’s and my development of the integrated high-gear (independent) level of Got it! and integrated low-gear (instructional) Getting it stage, and even for the unintegrated high and low gears, where a student is at the frustration level and not really learning at all. Through the years, parents and educators as well as learners themselves have shared with us how noticing these distinctions help them seek out both the expressive (familiar, independent, and high-gear) and receptive (novel, instructional, and low-gear) elements that work together in all active learning.

More than 40 years after my work at Malabar, I find that in many of today’s schools, reading expectations are still set too high—for both challenged and gifted students—without assessment of the skills a child has already gained. Using my own whole-to-parts approach, I’ve worked internationally with thousands of children and adults. In this cross-cultural work, I find that I can call on the distinctions of the independent, instructional, and frustration levels to help learners attune to the valuable skills they already have, and to support them in discovering their own learning pace and becoming self-initiating learners. Δ

1 Amsden, Constance. A Reading Program for Mexican-American children, Third Interim Report. Final Report. ERIC database, 1969. (ED039961).

2 Comprehension and Decoding, Patterns of Association in Children with Reading Difficulties, Shankweiler, Lundquist and Katz, © 1999, Scientific Studies of Reading 3(1), 79-94

3  See also Research Nuggets

Editor’s note: Through his review of the literature of approaches to teaching reading, Paul was 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.  

For more information, see Brain Gym®: Teacher’s Edition, © 2010 by Dennison and Dennison. The Learning Flow (page 18), shows the whole processing continuum, starting with conscious thought (integrated low gear or Getting it) and building in self-reflection and feedback, until the physical skills become implicitly learned (Got it!)—that is, automatic and integrated into function. The concept of High- and Low-Gears are also central to Brain Gym® 101: Balance for Daily Life.

© 2013 by Paul Dennison. Updated 2017. All rights reserved.

Brain Gym® is a trademark of Educational Kinesiology Foundation/Brain Gym®  International. Click here for the name of an instructor in you area.



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