Hi, I am Jeannine Herron, a research neuropsychologist living in San Rafael, California. I have been the principal investigator on four reading research studies funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) and I have developed a line of educational software that helps children ages 6-9 learn how to read, write and type.

Through this blog I hope to share my passion for education and the things I have learned over the years as a researcher, teacher, mother and now, a software developer. My goal is to make reading fun for young learners, and help them develop the habits and skills that will assist them in learning for years to come.



PHONEMES OR DICTEMES

George Lakoff, cognitive linguist at UC Berkeley has written eloquently about the power of words to “frame” ideas. He says, “What has been learned from the brain and cognitive sciences is that words are defined by fixed frames we use in thinking……”
We are influenced by the language we use to “frame” ideas. Literacy is a topic that concerns us all, and as we search for better ways to introduce literacy to the young, and modify instruction to implement research findings, it might be interesting to consider how a word like “phoneme” frames our ideas about how to teach alphabet knowledge.
When the essential skill of phoneme awareness is discussed, the word “phoneme” leads one to conclude that a phoneme is a sound—a sound being
something that is heard. (“Phon” from the Greek means “sound” and the suffix “–eme” according to Webster, is a significantly distinctive unit of language structure). What if we used the word “dictemes” instead?
We know from brain, behavioral and cognitive research that awareness of the segments of words (usually referred to as phoneme awareness) is critical for skilled reading. Remembering and manipulating something received by the ears is difficult. That’s why we repeat a telephone number to ourselves (or aloud) as we look for the pencil to write it down. The motor system is helping us remember.
Identifying these word segments and keeping their sequence in mind is easier for the motor (speech) system than for the auditory system. Children can feel that their mouths are moving to make the sound units in words. But we mostly teach them to “listen” for the sounds in words, rather than also showing them how to “feel” themselves making those sounds. It is a lack of the ability to identify and manipulate the individual units in words that is consistently found in children who have difficulty reading. So, if current instruction is not successful in teaching this skill, how might we improve instruction?  more later…..

Put Your Reading Where Your Mouth Is!

A number of new discoveries can now shed light on what happens in the brain as children learn to read, and how the kind of instruction children receive can set the course for their reading future.

One remarkable discovery gives us a new understanding of how skilled readers can look at thousands of words and instantly recognize their meaning—an unfamiliar experience for an alarming number of American youngsters.

How do they do it? According to Linnea Ehri, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, the sight of a word triggers its pronunciation, and it is this pronunciation that has been stored in memory for convenient access along with the meaning of the word. Our lips may not be moving when we read, but our brains are “talking”.

Ehri ‘s studies show that trying to recognize thousands of words from their visual appearance alone (pattern recognition) is almost impossible.  It is the “speech memory” that is the key.  How do you remember a new telephone number as you walk to the phone?  You say it to yourself. How do you decode and store a new word that you encounter as you’re reading Anna Karenina or Harry Potter?  You “sound-it-out” and pronounce it.

……..I will continue to post blogs about the relationship between speech and reading.

Excellent Book About Reading

I’m reading a new book about reading by Mark Seidenberg– Language at the Speed of Sight. He carefully and adroitly explains what science has learned about how children learn to read, and describes the huge gap between what science has learned and how reading is actually taught in most schools.  He cites studies that show that teachers are tending to cling to old ideas rather than looking for new discoveries from cognitive and neuroscience reading research.  Here’s a great quote from John F.Kennedy: “[t]oo often we hold fast to the cliches of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

[JFK Commencement Address at Yale University, June 11 1962]

Fortunately, Seidenberg also suggests some good ways to bridge this gap.  I highly recommend this book and so does the NY Times.

Talking Fingers Resumes Blogging

This blog reflects my 40 years of experience with reading research, from neuroscience labs to classrooms.  Seriously concerned about the problem that 2/3 of America’s children still are struggling to read, we have applied and received  grants from the National Institute of Child Health & Development  to develop and do research with software to help children learn to read.  Our mission has been to provide instructional materials that implement what science has found about how children become skilled readers.

One thing Talking Fingers has emphasized over the last 30 years is the importance of speech and a speech-to-print approach to learning to read.  I’ll talk more about this in blogs to come. But here are two quotes to start out this conversation about the importance of speech:

 

“The process of learning to read must be understood as a reorganization of the management of oral speech, its transformation from an automatic process (dealing with whole words) to a voluntary, consciously regulated process (segmenting words into individual sounds), which then becomes automatic with practice.” D. B. Elkonin

 

“Learning an alphabetic code is like acquiring a virus [that] infects all speech processing, as now whole word sounds are automatically broken up into sound constituents.  Language is never the same again.” Uta Frith

 

Consciously noticing that your mouth makes different sounds when you say a word is what Elkonin describes as a “reorganization of the management of oral speech.” You must add a new group of pathways and connections in your brain’s speech center. What you have always thought of as whole words must now be also thought of as a string of sounds. It is not an easy task, and phoneme awareness is the skill that is most frequently missing in children who struggle to read. It is the organization of these pathways, and the habitual use of them that enables us to instantly recognize words and decode new words.

Making Speech Visible

FINALLY! My book, Making Speech Visible, is done and published!  It has been a major preoccupation for the last year.  I have tried to synthesize my 35 years of reading research into a simple and readable book for parents and educators.

I am 74 this year, and there comes a time when you want to put what you have learned into the hands of others.  So, Making Speech Visible is also biographical. It includes short vignettes about how I got interested in reading research and what people said to me along the way to move me in one direction or another.  I have pursued this one path most of my life—finding and communicating evidence that writing is the best path to reading.

(more…)

How to Improve your 1st Grader’s Reading Skills

(A note from our good friend and ambassador, Fred Lewis:)

What I’ve learned from my ten years of volunteering in school computer labs: The MOST important grade for increasing efficiency and reading skills in school is FIRST GRADE. And first graders can definitely learn to touch-type. No matter what the obstacles (and there were many) it’s important to encourage each kid to really learn to touch type. It takes practice, but with Read, Write & Type the practice is fun! Kids have such a wide variation in how their brains are wired, there’s a huge difference in practice time to learn the sound-to-keystroke (letter) habit. But the practice is worth it, because they’re learning the skills they need for reading and writing at the same time. And if they master the keyboard they are much more efficient and confident in their writing all through the rest of their school years.

-Fred Lewis

Recommended Reading: Proust and the Squid

Proust and the Squid

Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf (HarperCollins, 2007) is the most well-written and inspiring book about the reading brain that I have ever read.  What a remarkable writer!—a rare thing among scientists.  If you are interested in how the brain works to develop skilled reading, do yourself a favor and read it!

Read an excerpt from the book here.

Here are some quotes from the book that I would like to share with you:

“Reading is one of the single most remarkable inventions in history; the ability to record history is one of its consequences.   Our ancestors’ invention could come about only because of the human brain’s extraordinary ability to make new connections among its existing structures, a process made possible by the brain’s ability to be shaped by experience.  This plasticity at the heart of the brain’s design forms the basis for much of who we are and who we might become.”  Maryanne Wolf, Proust and the Squid, HarperCollins, NY, 2007

“Reading can be learned only because of the brain’s plastic design, and when reading takes place, that individual brain is forever changed, both physiologically and intellectually.” Maryanne Wolf, Proust and the Squid, HarperCollins, NY, 2007

A Call to Improve Reading with Writing

child writingI want to recommend a new report from the Carnegie Corporation of NY called WRITING TO READ: New Evidence for How Writing Can Improve Reading. It is an urgent call to include more writing across the curriculum. According to findings from the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 34 percent of 4th grade students and 43 percent of 8th grade students score at the “basic” level, (only partial mastery of grade level reading) and 33 percent of 4th graders and 26 percent of 8th graders scored “below basic” in reading. The picture for writing is even worse: two-thirds of 8th grade students and three quarters of 12th graders score at “basic” or “below basic” in writing. This is a tragic situation that must be addressed, starting at pre-school and kindergarten. Take up the challenge!

Find out more and download the report here: To Improve Reading, Teach Writing (on the ASCD Inservice Blog)

To Teach Reading, Start with Speech

Speech is the foundation of reading, but we teach from print-to-speech, rather than from speech-to-print. A four or five year old may have difficulty generating natural curiosity about two-letter blends or the number of syllables in a word (as taught by traditional phonics instruction). Likewise, there is nothing inherently interesting about an initial or ending sound. Activities like identifying initial sounds, or clapping syllables, or counting phonemes, are isolated from meaningful words and are aimed at listening for phonemes rather than saying them.

speech

However children are curious about how whole words get on paper because they already know a lot about spoken words. Piaget and Vygotsky both noted the role of curiosity, and observed that learning occurs when new information is linked to previously learned information. The purpose of the alphabet is to make spoken words visible. Therefore, instruction in the alphabet should demonstrate how it can be used to represent (previously learned) spoken words. Start with a few letters to sound out and spell words like CAT, HAT, FAT, SAT, and then gradually introduce new words that add to the previous letters and sounds already learned. Your child will be building new neural pathways for reading closely linked to what the brain already knows about words—their pronunciation and their meaning.

Teach Reading Properly from the Beginning

Letter shapesRecent brain studies are concluding that the automation of letter-speech sound processing takes many years to develop because it is not just the learning of an association, but a neurobiological integration process involving the linking of speech and reading networks. The young reader must combine a large number of paired-associate memories (26 letter shapes, 40 speech sounds –26 more if he learns both capital and lower case shapes) and organize them in his brain in such a way that they can be combined and recombined in immediate and instantaneous access to word pronunciations and word meanings.

To achieve automatic visual word recognition, these networks must begin to accomplish with one stroke of attention what originally required dozens. The young brain must systematize the work to be done and must develop a system of automatic habits corresponding to the system of tasks, because reading (unlike speech) does not come pre-wired. As reading is first introduced, the brain organizes and stores the information wherever it is processed. If the instruction involves pronouncing and segmenting whole words, and linking letter shapes to those spoken sounds in a systematic way, these new networks, over time and with practice, will be linked efficiently to word pronunciations and meanings.

Therefore it is important that early instruction in phoneme awareness and phonics encourages children to attend to their own physical production of phonemes as they segment words, and builds new reading skills on the neural foundation of existing speech networks.

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