Over the decades, the debate has raged over which method of teaching reading is most effective. New methods emerge, are rejected after a few years, are later recycled, all while a segment of our young population continues to emerge from 1st grade unable to read. These children are studied, sorted, and labeled in a variety of ways, and in many cases endure attempts at remediation. The number of high school students who cannot read seems to be growing despite the mandates and programs aimed at preventing such failure.
The purpose of this approach to teaching of reading is to provide a method consistent with how a child learns best so that every student has a chance of achieving success.
Many children seem unable to imbue abstract symbols with meaning, which is necessary for memory, recall, and the subsequent use of those symbols in meaningful ways. Many studies have been conducted on both the brain and learning, and on, more specifically, how the young child learns, but the results of these studies have not been applied to practice in such a way that methods of teaching reading have been significantly impacted in positive ways. Reading is still taught much the same way it has always been taught. The problem of illiteracy is widespread and significant, and without success in reading, children will become increasingly more at risk throughout their lives.
What is missing from our traditional approaches to teaching of reading? Research has shown that visual and kinesthetic modalities are powerful means of learning for young children. However, very few studies have been conducted to determine if the use of visual and kinesthetic connections between symbol and meaning, and the connection of the new elements of study to prior knowledge will significantly improve student ability to learn to read.
If breakdown in learning to read occurs in the area of meaning-making for abstract symbols (letters), is it possible that if visual and kinesthetic connections between symbol and meaning were used in teaching abstract symbols, and if each new concept were connected purposefully to prior knowledge, children would successfully learn to read?
I believe that if these connections are provided for all children (including at-risk children) they would experience success in learning to read. I further believe that if this type of method were used in regular kindergarten classrooms, most of the children who would have been at risk for reading would achieve success and thus avoid the discouragement of failure. It is not that this approach is primarily remedial; rather it operates in a way consistent with how a young child thinks and learns.
According to Renate Nummela Caine and Geoffrey Caine in Making Connections: Teaching and the Human Brain (Addison Wesley 1994), one of the marvels of the human brain is its capacity for various types of memory. The work of Leslie Hart (Human Brain and Human Learning, Kent 1999) also explores the marvels of the body and brain connection. Various types of learning are stored in differing locations in the brain and body.
These “types” of learning include visual, kinesthetic, rhythmic/rhyming and so forth. Motions, which comprise the successful execution of a task, become so automatic that we are not even aware of thinking about how to perform these tasks. Examples include the art of riding a bicycle or playing a memorized song on the piano; skipping rope; dancing to music; or typing a paper. Each of these skills is comprised of myriad motions that combine fluidly into a smooth, rhythmic execution of task. Where are those memories stored? In the cerebellum. Once memories of body motions are stored in the cerebellum, they are powerful resources for memory recall.
Because visual stimuli are recalled with 90% accuracy, there is little more powerful than visual images for learning and recall, yet we often do not utilize this incredible tool in our teaching methods. Much is said about visual learners, and we think we have met these learners’ needs when we provide certain lighting, colorful paper, pretty illustrations, and colored pens for them to write with.
It would be far more effective to provide images that are directly tied to the content/meaning we want the child to learn. These images become virtual snapshots which are stored in the visual spatial cortex. Instead of spending time trying to get a child to memorize a string of abstract symbols such as a series of letters in a word (which to the child might appear to be a mass confusion of forms) why not present the material in such a way that a snapshot is taken and stored instantly in memory? Easy in and easy to recall.
According to Leslie Hart and others, the brain is a pattern-seeking organ. A pattern may be an arrangement of form, such as a face that is familiar. The face of a child’s mother, for example, is one of the most familiar patterns to a very young child. Other patterns, however, have become familiar to the child by the time she begins school. These patterns make up her prior knowledge - the context of all she is familiar with. According to Piaget, the young child is in the stage of development during which she deals primarily with the concrete world. She is not well equipped to deal with abstract or symbolic material (which is exactly what letters and numbers are). It is apparent, then, why using other avenues of learning is critical.
If we imbue the mysterious symbols that form our words with some sort of connection to tangible, visible, known elements from the child’s own world, learning WILL occur. As a matter of fact, I have found that not only do children learn far more quickly, easily, and successfully, but they often don’t even realize that they are learning. Learning through these modalities is like playing to young children.
In Human Brain and Human Learning, Leslie Hart states: “... assumptions have been made: that if a subject is fragmented into little bits, and the student is then presented with the bits in some order that seems logical to somebody, the student will be quite able to assemble the parts and merge with the whole - even though never having an inkling of the whole” (103). Somewhere, sometime, somebody determined that the proper sequence for teaching reading is to present a child with a series of ordered symbols (their ABCs), and ask him to memorize the symbols and later specific groupings of these symbols (words) so that he will be able to recall them rapidly and extract meaning from them. He is given no rationale for the necessity of learning these symbols, no context for the task, and no goal that would explain the point of the exercise.
Granted, some children have no problem digesting these 26 symbols, and can even sing-song a sample word and the sound that relates to each symbol.
For other children, the task is not only confusing and meaningless, but nearly impossible. For those children, 26 symbols, their matching sounds and sample words appear as a gigantic jumble of nonsense which adults earnestly desire them to “learn” and recall, and amazingly enough, make sense of and use. I picture an adult dropping a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle on the floor and asking a five year old to correctly assemble the picture those pieces represent.
In their book Making Connections, the Caines speak of the “locale system” [O’Keefe and Nadel (1978)] which registers a continuous story of life experience [the prior knowledge or patterns of things familiar]. They claim, “the locale system must clearly be able to deal with rapid shifts in context and must also register an ‘entire’ context at a glance. One of its key features is its “indexing function” (47). They go on to state that if this indexing is to occur rapidly [indexing is the retrieving of facts and ideas from within that continuous story] there must be many strong connections, which contrast sharply with responses that are learned by rote (such as sequences of letters in spelling a word)...”(47).
The authors claim that these significant connections are made while learning from significant experience. “...new items become meaningful quickly by virtue of their being packaged in relevant, complex, and highly socially interactive experiences” (47).
RelevanceThe child must also have a rationale, be shown the “why” of learning symbols, and must see from the beginning how these symbols are used. There is a need for relevance, meaning, and excellent connections to the concrete world in order for many young children to make sense of this thing we call reading.
The child must also have a rationale, be shown the “why” of learning symbols, and must see from the beginning how these symbols are used. There is a need for relevance, meaning, and excellent connections to the concrete world in order for many young children to make sense of this thing we call reading.
The Caines state: “That same memory system [the formation and use of thematic maps - O’Keefe and Nadel] is engaged when we use stories, metaphors, celebrations, imagery, and music, all of which are powerful tools for brain-based learning” (47). When a child is taught a first concept (for example: short sound for A) by using a story, a visual, and a meaningful body motion, a solid beginning is made.
An additional study that is marginally related to this one is “Promoting Conceptual Understanding Through Pictorial Representation,” a study published by authors Kellah M. Edens and Ellen F. Potter in the Spring 2001 issue of Reston. The authors speak of Wittrock’s (1989) generative theory which provides a “theoretical basis for promoting conceptual understanding (Mayer, Steinhoff, Bower, & Mars 1995).” They also make reference to Paivio’s “dual-coding” theory (1990): “Specifically, Paivio (1990) argues that information is coded and represented both visually and verbally in memory. When information is coded in both visual and verbal systems with a correspondence between them, a generative process has occurred.”
The authors are speaking of understanding and learning having a far broader base when there is more than one pathway to memory. We all know this. We have studied this in school and yet our knowledge has not reached far enough. We are still teaching reading the same old way.
In the Easy-for-Me™ Teaching Manual, the sound of A is introduced through visuals, story, and motion. Lesson 2 introduces the sound of T through a story that builds on the story of A and includes a visual and motion. Lesson 3 blasts the relevance issue into high gear by combining the two sounds into a word the child can read, write, and immediately use. The child is reading and writing his first word in Lesson 3! By Lesson 20, he will read his first book in the Easy-for-Me™ series!
The Easy-for-Me™ Reading Program is a careful blend of solid phonics instruction and sight word acquisition, combined with structural analysis of words. Add to that base an in-depth focus on phonemic awareness and manipulation, fluency and comprehension, and you have a recipe for success.
The Alphabet Teaching Cards provide young children with a visual reminder of the shape and sound for each letter by virtue of their design. Each letter is stylized to resemble a concrete, known object from the child’s prior knowledge. For example, A is stylized to resemble an anthill. If a child were to close her eyes and conjure up an image of an anthill, the silhouette that would appear in her mind’s eye would look like the silhouette of the symbol for capital A. The accompanying story explains how A came to be shaped like A rather than the little hill it started out being. No memorization is required. The story and the visual provide instant learning. Add the kinesthetic component by having the child “experience” the anthill by tenting her arms over her head mimicking the shape of capital A. The motion directly reflects the symbol being learned. Provide many more relevant connections by taking the child outside to see a real anthill, or constructing an antfarm together. You are building a rich context around the learning of the sound and shape of A, one that encompasses natural science.
SnapWords®: The sight word lists that we use are comprised of the Dolch list of words, Fry 300 words, and the Fountas and Pinnell 500 Frequently Recurring Words. All the words are stylized so the words themselves will resemble the meaning of the word. Not only is the visual image a means for learning and recall, but it shows the child that the word is a meaningful, understandable whole, not a string of symbols. Beyond that, the visual lends a rich meaning, a context, a real world connection to the word. Students passively learn that the reason we read is to distill meaning from the text and that reading goes far beyond word calling. Again, a rich context is provided for each word.
The Easy-for-Me™ Books are a critical tool in the learning to read process. Using this method, after learning only 8 sounds and two sight words (A and ON) children are able to decode/read two books! Adding 21 more sight words to the 8 sounds allows them to read a total of 7 books. They learn to USE their new knowledge before they have too many elements to manage. Decoding with only 8 sounds allows the child to focus on the skills of decoding and segmenting rather than on managing so many sounds and words. For those children who desperately need to know WHY they are learning something, being able to read a book will show them the reason. For those global learners, relevence means success.
The great good news is that the Easy-for-Me™ Teaching Manual is not only kid-friendly, but it is supremely teacher friendly because every little step is laid out for the teacher to follow. Just like we don’t like to expect children to fill gaps left in the system, we don’t like to leave gaps for teachers either. The experience is now complete. Join us, won’t you, in moving into a new paradigm of learning made easy?
- Child1st, CEO, Sarah K Major