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In an extraordinary research breakthrough scientists using new technology are able to watch the brain read.  From this we are learning how to improve the ways we teach reading to all new learners and especially to those who have difficulty learning to read, in particular the dyslexic learner.

The discussion of reading and the brain emerges from the work of Stanislas Dehaene (one of the world's most active researchers on the cognitive neuroscience of language in the human brain) and, in particular, from a careful analysis of his book Reading in the Brain: The New Science of How We Read, Penguin Books, 2009.

Dr. Dehaene is professor and chair of experimental cognitive psychology, Collége de France. He is one of Europe's leading cognitive neuroscientists who uses the new technologies of fMRI and other new imaging technologies to explain how the findings about brain function and plasticity should impact the delivery of education to the front line. His clear, evidence-based, factual, scientific approach presents an extraordinary picture of new possibilities for teaching, retraining, and recovery of brain function.

This work is reported through my own filter of three decades of experience in educational and neuropsychological assessment, educational program design, and delivery of remedial and rehabilitation programs at the Vancouver Learning Centre to children, youth and young adults with learning difficulties and differences.

There is so much in these exciting new findings to share!

I will begin with the priorities as they relate to children, youth and young adults whose learning differences have compromised the way they learn to read. This is particularly important because their success or failure at this core skill affects all other learning, and therefore their life, profoundly.

My purpose is to reveal to educators, parents, colleagues and students of neuroscience the best methods we can devise to enhance learning in academic subjects like reading and mathematics.  Essentially, I hope to enhance the development of cognition to 'personal best' levels based on the new findings on neuroplasticity emerging from research in Educational Neuroscience.

It is important to note that it is not the role of this newsletter to provide a comprehensive understanding at the level of the science reported. Instead, the role I have chosen is that of journalist to highlight the most important findings, to explain the basics in the simplest possible manner, so that the reader understands the important implications of this new data as they relate both to individual and classroom learning.  In so doing, I wish to bridge the gap between the silos of scientific inquiry at the university and the broad needs of educators to provide the best for their students.

I would also like to encourage readers to explore further and deeper and, if possible, to apply the findings to the children and youth now in front of us. The precious opportunity to become effective learners is too important for it to be compromised. We cannot afford to wait.  The generation now in the classroom will in their turn control the future of our country and our planet in very precarious times.

At the Vancouver Learning Centre, there is minimal delay between learning about the best approach to teaching from the evidence pouring out of the laboratories and universities all over the world and applying it to our teaching. This has been going on for three decades.  The program ideas that have emerged in this way have now been thoroughly tested. The best ones remain in the program battery, which continues to be extended and improved as new data emerges. For us, the proof is in the improved performance of the children and youth entrusted to our teaching care.

In this issue, we discuss the teaching of reading by the best and most efficient methods, especially to those who have difficulty learning to read.  Further, we relate the new findings about the brain, and what technology is now revealing about how we actually learn to read, to the process of developing the best educational practice in teaching, and especially teaching those with learning difficulties.

Why is learning to read so important?

In modern society, learning to read is the key skill that opens the doors to all other learning. This is because we are learning that literacy changes the brain itself! Reading thus becomes the very source of intellectual development over a lifetime.

How do we know this?


The Early Research

Alexandre Castro-Caldas examined the differences between literate and illiterate brains by studying Portuguese women, where the elder sister stayed at home to look after the family, and the younger sisters went to school and learned to read. (Castro-Caldas A., et al. “The Illiterate Brain: Learning to read and write during childhood influences the functional organization of the adult brain.” Brain 121 (pt. 6): 1053 -1063, 1998.)

The Subjects: 12 Portuguese women, 6 literate and 6 illiterate, were flown to the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm to undergo MRI and PET scans.

The Findings: The researchers found that the literate brain engages many more left hemisphere resources during a learning task. Indeed, they found that literacy affected the anatomy of the brain as a massive increase in the exchange of information across the two hemispheres created a thickening in the rear part of the corpus callosum (the bridge of connecting neurons between the two hemispheres) closest to the occipital (visual) cortex.

Why is this important?


How We Read

Written word processing starts in our eyes. Only the centre of the retina (the fovea) has enough resolution to allow for the recognition of small print. Our gaze must therefore move around the page constantly.  Whenever our eyes stop, we recognize only one or two words.  The words are then split up into many fragments and must be put back together before we can recognize them at speeds much faster than conscious awareness allows.

Our visual system progressively extracts letters, graphemes, syllables, prefixes and word roots. It sends the signals along two parallel processing routes.

  1. The Phonological Route (decoding) converts letters (symbols) into speech sounds.
  2. The Lexical Route (comprehension) gives access to a Mental Dictionary of word meaning. 

The Brain’s Letterbox.  There is a region of the brain located in the left temporal area (in the same place in readers of every language in the world) where the brain responds automatically in less than 1/5 of a second, a time span too brief for conscious perception, to extract the identity of a letter string (decoding) and send the information to the language areas in the frontal and temporal lobes to encode the sound pattern. A signal is then sent to the brain's dictionary (mental lexicon) to search for meaning (comprehension). Any failure at the first stage (breaking down the visual pattern to letters and sounds) usually results in a complete breakdown of the entire recognition process.

How do we know?

The mapping of the brain by earlier research, working with stroke victims with injuries in various parts of the brain, has now been confirmed by modern imaging technologies (fMRI) that can actually watch us read!


From Neuroscience to Education

We know that the acquisition of reading entails massive functional changes in children's brains.

  1. They learn to map letters into sounds and blend them together to make words (learn to decode).
  2. They establish a second parallel lexical route (learn to extract meaning, to understand, to comprehend).

The brain does not go straight from images of words to their meaning. An entire series of cerebral operations happens before each string is decoded:

  1. The brain takes each string apart.
  2. It recomposes the string into a hierarchy of letters, bigrams (two letters) and syllables.
  3. The meaningless string then becomes a word (blending).
  4. The brain searches its meaning banks to find a match (or not).
  5. The decomposition and recomposition stages have become entirely automatic and unconscious at speeds too rapid for conscious awareness.

For example.  Read this word: Lolligogomortoly

  1. You take the string apart.
  2. You unpack it into its parts – l-o-l l-i – g-o – g-o – m-o-r-t – o-l y.
  3. You recompose it as a word: lolligogomortoly.
  4. But your meaning search will come up blank (because I made the word up).

This is the same process all learners go through as they learn new words.

Sometimes meaning is established from the context (for a practiced and sophisticated reader).

Sometimes it is deliberately taught and learned in school or in a post-secondary context where new subject learning must always begin by attaching meaning to new vocabulary.

With this example, the goal of reading instruction becomes very clear.

The aim is to lay down an efficient neuronal hierarchy so a child can recognize letters and graphemes and easily turn them into the speech sounds of his or her own language.

All the other essential aspects of the literate mind depend on this first step. Without automatic ability to decode the phonics none of the following can happen efficiently:

  • the Reading for Meaning
  • the Mastery of Spelling
  • the Richness of Vocabulary
  • the Reading for Information
  • the Reading for Pleasure

Without phonological decoding of written words, reading efficiently is significantly reduced. Further, the process whereby written words are converted to phonemes must usually be taught explicitly.  It does not happen spontaneously.  It must be taught.  It must be acquired by each learner – through specific practice and drill.

Thus the debate about how to teach reading – by the whole language method or by phonics—must be laid to rest. Learning to read phonetically is clearly superior to learning to read by whole word recognition.  Further, the vast majority of children who are never taught phonics are at tragic disadvantage even though they appear to benefit in the early stages.  The best readers go on because they teach themselves phonics.  This is a much less efficient process than learning phonics in the first place.


The California Experiment

In 1987, spurred on by whole language advocates, the State of California, as part of its new language curriculum, passed bills favouring the whole language approach over teaching decoding skills.

In a matter of a few years, reading scores in California plummeted. In 1993-94 scores collected by the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed 3 out of 4 children in the state were below the average for their grade.

Whole language instruction was largely blamed and was officially abandoned, but whole language advocates were firmly entrenched in their position and belief that this approach is best suited to children’s needs.

For the citizens of those countries where this method was established and persists, reading skills suffer.  The consequences of compromised intellectual development of people who stop reading when school is out is the unexpected and unwanted result. How often have you heard the proud statement: “I haven’t read a book since I left school.” Of course, this is not true for all readers who learn this way, especially the best ones who manage to learn phonetic analysis themselves.

Now that we understand more fully why the phonic method has the best results, we can focus on the best methods to teach phonics. This is especially important for readers who have difficulty learning this vitally important skill. The mastery of reading lies in our ability to decode new words. Thus the teaching of phonics provides the ultimate tool – the ability to read and thus learn independently.

The first step and the core skill for a 21st century learner is the conversion of letters into sounds.

In English, learning to read is much harder than in other languages because speech sounds are not regular. Many letters and letter combinations can be pronounced in different ways. However, we can derive some consolation from understanding that time spent on learning to read has a tremendously useful impact on our brain.

Why do some intelligent children have much greater difficulty in learning to read than others?


The Dyslexic Brain

Brain anatomy of a dyslexic shows that a key area involved in the brain’s letterbox located in the left temporal lobe (see above) is disorganized.  Its connectivity is altered and several regions are insufficiently activated when reading. This means that the first step in attaching sound to symbol or learning to decode is disrupted. Therefore, in designing interventions great focus needs to be put to the task of teaching the learner to attach sound to symbol, to decode.

Remedial interventions will need to be targetted and intense to stimulate the neuroplastic brain to reorganize.

It must be noted, however, that not all children who have difficulty learning to read have the brain disorganization described above as the problem. Difficulty in learning to read in English can be due to mental retardation; hearing or visual deficits; lack of readiness skills; a developmental delay that comes from a variety of reasons such as poverty, family culture, learning English as a second language, etc.

All of these reasons, however, share some issues in common.

  1. We all have more or less the same brain structure, and we need to learn to read by attaching sound to symbol and converting to speech sounds in our own language (decoding).
  2. To actually learn, we need to be able to pay quality attention for long enough to make a memory trace.
  3. Though we have different abilities, for most of us the simpler the requirement, the more likely we are to achieve mastery.
  4. Practice is essential; people with different abilities need a different number of trials to achieve mastery.
  5. Timing is a central factor.  Children who have difficulty learning to read may take as much as four times as long to process each piece of information.  They can learn at their own pace.  Teachers must slow down.
  6. Teaching must be direct and explicit; it must be motivating enough to inspire both attention and willingness to practice.

Present day research has shifted to the importance of teaching phonological decoding as a first step in learning to read. This process must bring each learner to the level of mastery so that the second parallel process of shifting to find meaning into what was decoded can ‘kick’ into place automatically and quickly. Of course, the skill of understanding what is read also needs instruction and practice – but that issue will be dealt with later on in this story.


The Solutions

The most important precursor to learning anything to the level of mastery is being able and willing to pay attention long enough and intensely enough to make a memory trace that establishes the connections being taught.

I have seen children who have not achieved this first level readiness to pay attention for more than two to three seconds at a time by the time they are five years old.  But I have seen children who at 9 months old will focus for 20 minutes on a parent’s lap looking at books. By 18-24 months, many of these children will sing the alphabet song and even choose letters from an array of plastic letters to identify individual letters. By three years, many children whose attention to the printed word is practiced will give you the letter that makes the sound of A.

Thus in teaching anything to children either one-to-one or in a class, the first step is to train them to pay attention.

Do not try to teach anything until you have

  • Eye contact
  • Quiet hands and feet
  • Good posture for learning/good sitting behaviour
  • Verbal willingness to pay attention…Ready? The child should provide a signal or cue that they are ready. Request the word or a hand signal.
  • Present the new learning in its simplest form.

The second step is to train effective listening. This means they must be able to keep enough information in short-term memory on their first listen to reproduce what they heard. Thus ability to repeat 3-4 random numbers immediately is the minimum amount of information a child needs to learn to read.

Even more importantly, they must not only be able to repeat the three or four numbers, they must be able to do something to rearrange the numbers or act to use it to solve a simple problem.

For example: If you say 2 + 3 = 5, they must be able to retain the string before they can solve any problem or learn to manipulate the string to “Tom has 5 cookies. He gives 3 to Ava. How many does he have left?” The solving of a problem is a third level skill. Now they must listen to a short narrative, then they must pick out the relevant numbers, decide what operation is required and complete the loop by solving the proposed problem (5 – 3 = 2).

The ability to pay attention long enough and to listen effectively long enough to make a memory trace is variable among children. However, each learner must pay attention long enough to learn what the answer is.

Teaching children to read so that they achieve mastery of the decoding process in a timely manner is the best and most important investment the education system can make in the future intellectual development of its citizens. It is the responsibility of all elementary school teachers to ensure that the children in their care are able to read.

But what if it doesn't happen for some children in a timely way? Then every effort must be made to search out new, effective methods for these children.


Methods for Teaching Reading

At the Vancouver Learning Centre, three different methods of teaching the phonetic code are included in the programs of children who need to learn to read.  The method chosen depends directly on the tested and targetted needs of each learner.

1.  Selma Herr Phonics (an old-fashioned method of teaching decoding).

Best features: It uses a systematic (letter by letter, bigraph by bigraph, trigraph by     trigraph) method with lots of practice.

2.  The Queensland State Reading Program (a program used over decades to teach hundreds of thousands of Australian children to read).

Best features: It uses common and funny imagery (Australian humour) at the primary level to attach sound to symbol. e.g. “a is like an apple on a twig, c is for cake with a bite taken out. Reading Comprehension is integrated immediately using wonderful stories from classic English literature to teach both meaning and the values of good citizenship.

3. Renée Fuller, Ball-Stick-Bird Reading program.  This method simplifies the decoding process using capital letters first formed in the shape of a ball, a stick, and a bird (an angle). Sounds are immediately attached to symbols and the blending process begins on page 3.  Both reading words and an exciting story start immediately.

At the Vancouver Learning Centre, over the last three decades, we have been using these three methods alone or in combination to teach children with a variety of reading difficulties to learn to read successfully. Our graduates have gone on to successful academic courses at every level. These methods have proved their worth and will continue to be used.


The EduArt Method

In 2011, we have imported a new method of teaching reading in a stimulating format combined with writing and drawing.  Called EduArt this teaching program was created by Mona Brookes, the creator of the Monart Drawing Program (www.monart.com), which has been used at the Vancouver Learning Centre for two decades.

The EduArt method has been acquired by the Vancouver Learning Centre as the first Canadian centre to use this method of teaching reading.  Scroll down to read more about the EduArt method.

Teaching using this method will be introduced in September 2011 into all appropriate programs. It will be integrated with our other reading methods to programs of VLC learners who need to learn to read. Pilot studies for small groups using this method will begin early in 2012.  For further information on this new program or to discuss a VLC assessment and program for your child, contact Andrew Taylor at 604.738.2277 or andrew@vancouverlearningcentre.com.


The EduArt Method

Using the fun of drawing, so successfully developed in her Monart Program, Mona Brookes sets out to teach the lines, patterns and shapes of the letters in a disciplined manner, ensuring the eye's attention is focused on the letters' visual details. Then she teaches the children to attach sound to symbol by combining this with funny and interesting images and information; for example, by attaching the sound of the letter “A” to the image of “Ape” and to “Africa” while teaching interesting facts about both words.

Using a three-level entry system, Brookes provides stencils that cater to different levels of ability, thus producing an approach that is friendly to the multi-skill-level classroom, while at the same time making it possible to enter the system anywhere from preschool to Grade Three or even beyond. The method anchors what is learned by teaching the children to draw the letters using the lines, patterns and shapes mentioned above. At its very essence, Brookes makes the learning of reading and writing both fun and interesting.

The inclusion of learning to draw the letters using a correct pencil stance is both unique and a   bonus in three ways:

  1. It engages the fine motor cortex and the discipline of eye hand coordination right from the start, thus adding the power of doing to seeing and hearing.
  2. It makes the accurate and beautiful creation of the letters themselves a valued part of the process in the way we used to do when we taught handwriting, thus eliminating the need to teach writing as a separate skill.
  3. Children love to draw and when the drawing is presented along with funny and engaging images and important and thoughtful information, the process becomes intrinsically interesting and fun.  Children enter the field willing and even enthusiastic to practice, and therefore to learn to read and to write.

A Benefit to Teachers

The EduArt system is also a special benefit to those teachers whose phonics training was never appropriately anchored in their own schooling, even though to graduate from Teachers' College they had to have learned some system for phonetic decoding (even if they had to teach themselves). In teaching reading through the EduArt system with exciting and colourful graphics and prepared lesson stencils, the teachers will re-learn the phonic code themselves, making them better teachers and better readers for their own purposes.

Advantages for Children with Learning Disabilities

At the Vancouver Learning Centre we have been using Mona Brookes’ “Monart” system for more than two decades to teach learning disabled children and youth to pay focused attention to the visual details of lines, shapes and patterns. We have found that in addition to helping these clients learn to draw, their enhanced ability to pay focused attention to visual detail improves their abilities in spelling and reading.  New research in how the brain learns to read shows that this visual attention to detail depends on the brain’s fovea or central vision, the very same process we use in reading.  Thus, in children whose brain systems for reading are inefficient, as they are in dyslexic readers, this method provides extra practice and training in the very area that needs to be strengthened.  Furthermore, because creating or drawing the letter slows down the process for all learners, their slower rate of processing is more likely to be accommodated.

As a result we are excited to consider what benefits children with learning difficulties will derive if we extend their disciplined training directly to the core tasks of learning to read, write and spell. It is likely that children challenged with learning because of auditory processing difficulties but who are good visual learners who learn best by seeing and doing, will derive special advantages by using the EduArt system. Further, learners who are challenged by their language delay, especially second language learners, will benefit by the clear imagery that enables them to attach sound to symbol, which allows them to blend words even when they are unfamiliar with the sound of the word or its meaning.  Considering that the second parallel process in learning to read is a search in the mental lexicon (the brain’s dictionary) for meaning, the teaching of new vocabulary along with learning to decode is an additional bonus.

A Brain-Friendly System

From the perspective of Neuroscience, the EduArt method simplifies the learning task by reducing letter complexity to lines, patterns and shapes. Like the Monart System, it creates disciplined and focused attention to the way the letter looks, and supports the sound factor by    attaching meaningful visual imagery of easily recognized graphics like “A” is for “Ape,” which does not rely on the auditory processing systems alone. It thus both simplifies and enriches the learning experience.

Further, by adding the writing component in an integrated way, it increases the critical involvement of the visual motor system, sending the signals to different sites through the brain's circuits and pathways involved in learning to read and write.

Children with dyslexia and ADHD who have difficulty learning to focus their attention on the printed word will benefit by the discipline of learning the simplified lines, patterns and shapes of the letters. The interesting graphics and the drawing component will both help focus their attention and encourage the practice they need to create the memory traces in the brain involved in reading and writing.

Looking Ahead

In the future, as the research journey in Educational Neuroscience develops even more sophisticated technology, it would be of great interest to measure the impact of the EduArt system in enhancing the ability of learning-challenged children to master the core skills of reading, writing and spelling.

In the meantime, having a beautifully crafted full-service program in an electronic format that makes it easily accessible in this post-modern world provides a wonderful opportunity for educators, who need to raise the bar immediately on improving reading and writing outcomes.

We intend to put this method to work at the Vancouver Learning Centre and I recommend EduArt to parents and colleagues without hesitation.

Geraldine Schwartz PhD

 







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