The Impact of Hemispheric Dominance on Learning to Read
As is often the case when we discuss people in terms of classification, we tend to over generalize and label people. This is certainly the case when discussing right- or left-brain dominance. I would love to have a dime for every time I’ve heard someone say, “I’m right-brained” or “I’m left-brained.” When I hear those terms, a picture flashes into my head of a hemisphere in the brain running around on little legs and bare feet.
The fact is, we think and learn using both sides of our brain. Having said that, however, it is a fact that each of us has a dominant hemisphere that dictates our learning strengths, impacts our view of the world, and determines how we function in it. It is particularly important, then, for us as parents and teachers to understand our children’s dominant learning styles and adjust our practice to those preferences. If we don’t, chances are very good that the children will struggle with academics to one extent or another.
The functions of the hemispheres
A person’s dominant hemisphere is usually the one that processes incoming information, and the less dominant hemisphere can be strengthened through practice. If we want to help our children learn to the best of their abilities, it will naturally help for us to know which are their dominant hemispheres, and which are their less dominant ones. Armed with this knowledge, we can teach new information in a way that is best received by their dominant hemispheres, and then we can review or practice that information in ways that involve their less dominant hemispheres. Doing this will strengthen the connection between hemispheres and improve the children’s ability to do well with reading.
The hemispheres go to school
Academic skills associated with the left hemisphere include:
- Symbols (letters and numbers)
- Language (spoken and written)
- Working with details and facts
- Following directions
- Listening to spoken language
Academic skills associated with the right hemisphere include:
- Haptic awareness (recognizing objects through touch
- Spatial relationships (where things are on a map, relationship of one object to another in space)
- Shapes and pattern recognition
- Mathematical computation
- Sensitivity to color
- Singing and music
- Art expression
- Feelings and emotions
(See Unicorns are Real: A Right-Brained Approach to Learning by Barbara Meister Vitale, p 11)
Hemisphere dominance and reading
Hemispheric dominance has everything to do with learning to read. This might explain why so many, many children are struggling to learn to read and why some don’t learn. In spite of our society's focus on trying to make sure every child learns to read, we have not yet embraced the notion that maybe it is not our children that are at fault when they don’t learn to read but is instead the fact that we often continue to insist on a wholly left-brained approach to teaching reading. Also very much to the point is that when children are entering school, they are at a developmental stage in which their right hemispheres are developing rapidly; this means that children at the age for learning to read are not as developed in their left hemispheres!
This left-brained approach has been in place for decades; it has been endorsed and blessed by national associations, and it is taught in all our teaching colleges. It is no wonder that we educators are comfortable in believing that this method of teaching reading is right. But what follows that assumption is that children who cannot learn in that universally accepted way of teaching reading are broken, disabled, and incapable. Sadly, it is one reason why thousands of people grow to adulthood unable to read.
Specifics of how teaching reading is related to hemispheric dominance
1. The traditional way to teach reading is from part to whole using specified sequences of learning. We
teach in little steps and expect the child to remember the little pieces until he gets to words in a book. This is perfect for dominant left-brained children! Right-brain dominant children take in information exactly the opposite way. They work from whole to part. What does this mean really? Right-brain dominant children must first see the final product, the goal, the whole thing, and the whole pattern; only then can they make up a way of learning and remembering. If you give a right-brained learner a sequence of little steps to learn, he cannot learn them well because this is not how his brain processes. He will be unable to remember the steps because he needs the final product in order to make sense of the steps. The perfect way to send a right-brained child into a coma during language arts is to ask him to learn the blends, for instance (bl, pl, pr, sl, sw, etc.)
2. Left-brain dominant learners think just fine using symbols. Right-brain dominant learners learn most easily through touch, the senses, and body movement. Their strong suit is not paper and pencil exercises. Phonics worksheets fall perfectly into this category of activities that are difficult for right-brained learners.
3. Left-brain dominant learners are most secure when they have a sequence to follow. For example, step by step directions, guidelines, rules of thumb, and details they can check off. Right-brain dominant learners are random in how they perceive. With these children, it works really well to surround them with learning and let them notice patterns and make connections.
For instance, it is the rule in most classrooms that the teacher should teach words in a particular sequence and only put on the word wall the words as dictated by school or district. Because I am a right-brained person myself, my classroom walls were covered with words from day 1. Literally every wall had words. Some were high-frequency words in alphabetical order, others were huge words grouped by part of speech (that were considered way above the grade level of my students). What I found was that my little rebellion worked in the favor of the children in my classroom who automatically began noticing patterns in words (the “part” in the phrase “from whole to part.”) They noticed, for example, that the “tion” in “nation” showed up in really big words like “vacation” or “abdication” and because they noticed this on their own, they remembered it.
4. Left-brain dominant learners are logical and work through a problem step by step. They start with a little tidbit and begin to logic through to the answer. “If this is fact, then this is also fact.” Right-brain dominant learners rely a lot on their intuition. Where this becomes a problem for them is when they have to explain or justify their answer using words. For example, a right-brain dominant child might solve a math problem by visualizing images or shapes in his mind, but when it comes to translating images he saw in his head into words and words in a sequence, he will likely struggle.
5. Left-brain dominant learners are usually quite verbal. They usually acquire and recall words a plenty. They think in words, or so I’m told. Right-brained dominant learners are not primarily verbal. The stronger the image in their mind, the more important the concept is to them, the less they will be able to translate that into words. Let them draw a picture or make something with their hands to show what they see. Interestingly enough, some right-brain dominant people can communicate in words best when they can write or type—it is a tactile activity that frees their mind from the need to verbalize the words, which I suppose adds an extra layer of left-brainedness to the process.
6. Left-brain dominant learners can hear, absorb, and deal with abstractions. By this I mean things like math rules, equations, phonics rules, spelling sequences (letter sequences). You can give them a rule, which is an abstract concept, and they can remember it and apply it to a problem in their homework. Right-brain dominant learners do not learn this way. They do not handle abstracts. They need examples, analogies, stories that explain why, and a habit of relating to known objects to help them remember abstract facts.
How do I know if I have a right-brain dominant child?
Good question! I’m so glad you asked! First of all, make a habit to pay very close attention to your child. A dominant right-brain child will:
- Tend to daydream
- Lose track of time
- Have a hard time expressing ideas in words
- Tend to handle, touch, pick up objects
- Have difficulty with verbal directions
- Communicate non-verbally (body motions, faces, etc)
- Remember faces, places, events but not names or numbers
- Be active
- Embellish a story at times
- Like to handle things and bepretty good at taking something apart and reassembling it
- Rather attempt to put something together without following directions
- Maybe be good in athletics
- Be impulsive
- Not sit still in his seat very well
- Have a messy desk, room, backpack, etc.
- Sometimes go into a room and forget why he went there
- Intuit a right answer, but might not be able to show proof
You might find it helpful to help your child take a casual online quiz that will point you in a direction of which hemisphere is dominant. Of course I am not sure how utterly scientific this test is, but I did take it myself.
It was no surprise to find out that I am 5 parts left-brained to 15 parts right-brained!
I have a right-brained dominant child. So where do I go from here?
While most of the traditional teaching materials are geared perfectly to left-brain dominant learners, there is hope for your right-brain dominant children. Here are some suggestions for helping right-brained learners read.
1. Start with whole words. Talk about what the word looks like. Use it in a sentence or five. Have your child come up with a body motion that reflects the meaning or shape of the word. Find the word in books. Have your child write it and draw a picture of it or build it out of materials of some kind. Or, check out our sight word cards that already include pictures and body motions.
2. Post the words on the walls of your school room. Post LOTS of words. For instance, if you introduce the word PLAY, post lots of words that have the AY ending. If you introduce OVER, post other words that have the ER ending. Never introduce a piece of learning in isolation from other similar or related items.
3. If you introduce small words such as PLAY or OVER, play around with bigger words that contain those smaller words such as PLAYGROUND or OVERPASS.
4. Introduce words from a story well loved by your child. You do not have to introduce particular words in a particular sequence. Your child might want to learn DINOSAUR first. So, do that word first! Whatever the child’s brain is captured by, he will learn and remember.
5. Use drawing every day. I always began school with very young children by giving them lots of coloring and drawing implements in flat boxes that allowed for easy access. Avoid broken or grimy crayons! Let the child draw whatever is on his mind and then begin to work on labeling the picture. For instance, if your child draws a dinosaur in his back yard, ask him what he drew and how he would like to label the picture. If he says, “I have a dinosaur for a pet,” help him write those words, and then put any word that is new on a card on the wall. This is how many young children acquire the ability to read.
6. Look for teaching materials that utilize images, body movement, rhyme, and other right-brained teaching elements.
7. And finally, do all you can to affirm the beautiful design of your child’s mind!