9 Tips for Teaching Right-Brained Learners
There truly is a difference in how children process learning
It is human nature to doubt what we do not personally experience. It is also human nature to accept as correct what we are most familiar with. When confronted with someone who is wired differently from ourselves, it is human nature to urge them to just try harder to think and process the way we do so naturally.
While I understood for most of my life that other people have opinions or preferences that differ from my own, I never really grasped until recently the concept that people truly think and process in vastly different ways. I can read and study and research about left-brained processors all I want, but I cannot truly understand that way of thinking because it is not at all how I think.
Where this distinction between right and left brain processors makes the most difference is in the classroom
To put it in simplest of terms, our educational system takes a linear, analytical approach to teaching children. Those children who are linear and analytical by nature, of course, do well within that system, as do other children that have a good support system at home and at school, or who have a whole lot of determination to make it. There are so many children, however, who struggle to varying degrees. Those children experience failure not because they are not capable, but rather because the material is presented in a linear way – something these children just don’t know what to do with. Teachers who teach in a traditional way teach in the way that is accepted and often persist even if vast numbers of children are lost in the system.
So how can a teacher make material for friendly to the right-brained learner?
Key points to remember when teaching to the right-brained processor
- They have naturally pattern-seeking brains
- so they need to see all the body of learning at one time
- and won’t do well if they are fed one detail at a time in a prescribed order
- by an adult who thinks they need to be taught every detail, one at a time.
Tips for making reading more right-brain friendly
1. Display all sounds from day one.
Introduce them casually in whatever order you want (most effectively by using stories and visuals), and then practice a sound at a time (Kindergarten and 1st grade). Be sure to use stories, body motions, and images as vehicles for teaching the sounds… not chants or memorization.
2. Fill your walls with words from day one.
One wall can be a traditional word wall with columns of alphabetized sight words, another can be a wall of really big, colorful words that you know are way above their grade level, organized into three groups: NOUNS, VERBS, and ADJECTIVES. If you are in a classroom with children older than first grade, you can also add categories for ADVERBS and PREPOSITIONS and CONJUNCTIONS. Fill that wall with words you introduce one a day, modeling the use of the word orally as you write short sentences on the whiteboard or chart paper. I prefer chart paper because you can leave one sheet posted for a whole week as you add to it, a word a day. Once you have introduced the word, modeled its use, used it in sentences, and the children have done so as well (preferably in a little notebook with a date by each entry), move the word to the Big Words Wall. Do this all year and watch what happens to your children’s vocabulary.
3. Don’t limit content.
I know firsthand that school districts have lists of words that are to be introduced, one at a time, in a prescribed order. Don’t listen to that! There is no such thing as a first-grade word! Words are for any age child, and the more words you display and use and play games with, the more incredibly your students will advance.
4. Teach every spelling for each sound at one time.
I know it is accepted practice to teach first graders vowel/consonant/silent e as a spelling pattern that is ok for their level of understanding. If you teach that spelling for long A in isolation, you will confuse your right-brain processors the minute they encounter another word with long A that is spelled another way. As early as kindergarten, you can display a chart with all the sound spellings for Long A with lists of words that follow each spelling pattern, and they will not only easily grasp it but will also be able to use that information. Specifically, you can teach in kindergarten that Long A is spelled:
- A-E as in cake
- AY as in pay
- AI as in paid
- EIGH as in eight
- AIGH as in straight
- A as in paper
- EA as in steak
- EI as in vein
- EY as in they
5. Avoid memorization.
Ok, so I just put up a totally left brained chart that is trying to look a bit right-brained. The reason the chart in point 4 is left-brained is because while it does list the spellings for Long A in a global way, it just imparts the information and waits for the children to memorize it. There is no possibility for pattern-seeking, and remember, right brain processors must be able to seek patterns in order to make meaning. So, what is more right brain friendly is to display each sound spelling at the top of a long strip of paper hanging vertically on the wall, then let the children help you find words that follow that pattern and write them on the paper as you encounter them. They will learn to group words according to similar spelling pattern.
6. Learn by doing.
Children can see and hear a factoid, such as that AI says long A, but they have to be able to DO something with that knowledge in order to learn, remember, and be able to truly use it in real life. One way to let children use and thus remember learning about Long A spelled AI: Generate other AI words with the students, letting them write the words on little cards. Then challenge the children to use the words they just wrote on cards in a little story, also allowing them to illustrate their story. If they are truly beginners and need to tell part of the story with pictures, great. Just encourage them to use their AI words as labels on their pictures. You might follow this lesson with one that focuses also on AY as a spelling pattern for Long A. This pattern most of the time appears at the end of words while AI appears inside a word. The students will have fun sorting words into two groups if you supply them with words on cards, half of them with AI and the other half with AY words.
7. Involve the body in movement.
Instead of just asking the children to remember that the A comes before the I in that sound spelling, body spell the sound so that their movements will help them remember the sequence of the letters. Here is AI body-spelled:
What children do with their bodies, they remember in their brains.
8. As often as possible, share new material within charts or graphic organizers.
Remember, right brain processors learn best by snapping mental pictures of the material to be learned. So if you have all the information in a format that they can look at and remember, their rate of learning will astound you. If a right-brained learner doesn’t “learn” the concept the first go-around, please don’t show them the same lesson again. Think about how to organize the information in a way that's compatible with their brains.
9. Go from whole to part.
All of these points, 1-8, are inter-related to a degree. Starting with the whole and then teaching the part is similar to what I said about showing students the global whole before teaching little points. But really, there are several different applications for this same principle. Right brain processors need to see the goal before they can learn the pieces we often believe we need to teach them first to help them learn the concept. It goes terribly against our grain to start by showing a child a stylized word such as “TOGETHER” or “THROUGH” before we’ve taught them to chant the ABC’s, sounds, short vowel sounds, and how to sound out words with various phonics rules.
The honest truth is that while we are attempting to lead a flaming right brain processor through all those tedious little learning steps, what their brain is doing is getting hijacked by the burning questions, “What is this for?” “What am I going to make out of all these little pieces?” And they might stare at you blankly at times. Most frequently those blank stares are interpreted by adults as the child’s inability to learn. But really, the blank stares should be our signal that they are unable to learn the way we are teaching them.