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.
The following statistics are taken from www.ed.gov, the federal department of education site. I thought it might be eye-opening to see how far we till have to go in teaching reading and writing. Although these statistics are depressing, it is necessary to keep a goal in mind. Our educational system needs help big-time. You can use the statistics to apply for grants for school support from foundations and corporations.
“Too many U.S. students are not becoming proficient in basic academic knowledge and skills in reading, writing, mathematics, and science. For example, on the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 33 percent of fourth-graders and 26 percent of eighth-graders cannot read at the basic level; and on the 2005 NAEP 27 percent of twelfth-graders cannot read at the basic level. That is, when reading grade appropriate text these students cannot extract the general meaning or make obvious connections between the text and their own experiences or make simple inferences from the text. In other words, they cannot understand what they have read.
A similar picture emerges in the development of writing skills. According to the 2002 NAEP writing assessment 14 percent of fourth-graders cannot write at the basic level, 15 percent of eighth-graders cannot write at the basic level, and 26 percent of twelfth-graders cannot write at the basic level.
On the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy, 14 percent of adults demonstrated no more than the most simple and concrete literacy skills. These adults are able to sign their names and can locate information in short prose texts, but are unable to read and understand material presented in pamphlets or newspaper articles. Another 29 percent of the adult population demonstrated basic prose literacy skills, but could not perform moderately challenging literacy activities, such as summarizing a text.
Given the increasing need for literacy in the workplace (Barton 2000), it is unsurprising that more than half of adults with below basic literacy levels are unemployed. In addition, adults with a basic mastery of prose literacy skills also confront challenges in the workplace. Approximately 38 percent of those individuals are currently unemployed.”
We were on port tack in the middle of the Atlantic, moving fairly smoothly toward landfall in the Azores. Our family of four was on the way from New Orleans to West Africa in our 31 foot sloop. After some rough days, it was a relief to keep my food down and enjoy being at the helm. Melissa, 11, was reading in the hammock, and Matthew, 13, was wedged in the companionway typing his log. I had been encouraging him to use our little portable typewriter, because he was left-handed and had considerable difficulty writing legibly. I was sympathetic because I could remember my own elementary school tears, trying to write as a lefthander. I remember forcing myself to turn the paper to the right and hold my hand under the line so I wouldn’t smudge the ink.
Matthew used the left-handed “inverted” hand posture when he wrote, cocking his wrist and using the larger muscles of his wrist and arm rather than the fine motor coordination of his fingers. The letters ran together as if his mind was racing ahead of his fingers. He missed details, like dotting i’s and crossing t’s. He didn’t notice his spelling errors and could hardly read what he wrote.
A recent article in Education Week bemoans the fact that students are using cursive less and less, and in some cases, do not know how to read cursive. They still seem to do pretty well at printing, and reading what someone else has printed. Interesting! My daughter is a calligrapher and loves forming letters in different “hands”. But those flowing letters may become over the next years more of an art form, rather than an everyday functional way to put words on paper.
It’s true that typing on the computer has become an easier way for all of us to write. Should we go back to cursive? The educational goal for writing is for children to be able to express their thoughts in text and to edit and refine those thoughts in order to communicate clearly and effectively. If this process is easier using a word processor—no erasing, no throwing out the paper and starting over—then children will spend more time writing and enjoy it more. Research has shown that children write longer stories and make more edits and revisions when they use a word processor. Isn’t that what we want to encourage?
However they do not write more easily on the computer if they are “hunting and pecking”. They need to learn how to type. So why are we waiting until fifth grade or later to teach children to type, when they can learn it in first grade? It’s actually easier to press keys than to bend their little fingers around a pencil and form letters. Why not help them do both? They could establish a touch-typing habit early, so writing can become as enjoyable as possible. What do you think?
The most common way to introduce children to the alphabet code is to link letters-to-sounds in order to decipher or “decode” words on a page—that is, to read. Children are shown letters or clusters of letters and are told that those visual squiggles on a page represent sounds or words. But starting with the visual squiggles is putting the cart before the horse. The brain will organize reading better if we reverse the process and link sounds-to-letters instead!
The brain of a newborn is already listening to sounds and trying to make sense of them. Very young children need to have lots of experience listening to spoken words, watching adults or siblings as they speak, and responding to the speech they hear by using their own voices. As the brain builds its capacity for speaking and understanding speech, it organizes a vast data bank of the sounds of words, the meaning of those words, and the complex motor commands that are required for saying those words. These elements are so well organized that this information can be accessed instantly.
The left half of the newborn brain, like a closet, comes with two built-in “shelves” for storing these important elements of communication—the ability to receive meaningful words (UNDERSTAND) and the ability to express (SAY) meaningful words. Humans have been talking for so many thousands of years that our brains have evolved to set aside these two locations—the UNDERSTAND shelf and the SAY shelf– for this specific purpose. These shelves automatically start piling up with vocabulary as babies learn new words. The more the better!
Beware of what you may read in your email. The paragraph below is being passed around the internet with the statement that only great minds can read it (55 out of 100 people), and that spelling isn’t important because you can read any word if the letters are all included and the first and last letter are in the correct place. You will draw a disastrously mistaken conclusion if you infer that children can read this way, or that this has any relevance to learning to read. Here is the paragraph. See if you can read it!
i cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid, aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno’t mtaetr in waht oerdr the ltteres in a wrod are, the olny iproamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whotuit a pboerlm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Azanmig huh? yaeh and I awlyas tghuhot slpeling was ipmorantt!
Things People Have Said to Me That Changed My Life
Pilgrim’s Rest, Mississippi, 1965
“First, I’m gonna learn to read and write. Then I’m goin’ home an’ teach my daddy!”
She was sitting alone on one of the church benches, watching some other five year olds play with the rocking horse. As co-founder and program director of the Child Development Group of Mississippi, I was visiting one of our many Head-Start projects stretched out across Mississippi that summer of ‘65. We had 5,000 children signed up in a frighteningly racist state. It was the very first Head-Start project in the country.
I wondered why she was not joining in the play. As I sat down beside her, she smiled shyly, reaching over with curiosity to touch my blond hair.
“What do you want to do here at Head-Start today?” I asked. She looked thoughtful for a moment, then her dark face lit up with a huge smile.
“First, I’m gonna learn to read and write. Then I’m goin’ home to teach my daddy!” There it was, right in my face. The enormity of our task. The power and importance of literacy.
If you have been reading this blog, you are aware of the importance of phoneme awareness and phonics to the development of early reading skills. You may already have more knowledge now than your child’s teacher. Parents can find out whether their children will be taught reading well by asking their teachers a few questions:
“Do you think it is important for children to learn that words are made of individual sounds?
How do you teach this skill? Do you teach a specific sequence?
How many sounds do you teach?”
(If teachers say they teach all 40 sounds of English, hurray! If they say they teach the sounds of all 26 letters, you should probe further.)
Writing and reading are relative newcomers, answering a growing need to turn spoken communication into some kind of permanent record. For small tribes of hunters and gatherers, oral traditions and histories served well enough. But when people began to gather in larger numbers, and grow crops and trade, longer lasting records of spoken words became necessary. Spoken sounds could not be recorded; they drifted away into the air. What could be devised to stand more permanently for a contract between traders? Pictures and marks on clay worked for a while, but were limited in their usefulness because more and more pictures were needed to record bigger messages. This process was slow and cumbersome–a more efficient system was needed.
One can imagine some Sumerian only a few thousand years ago pondering this problem, saying “Aha! I only make a limited number of sounds with my mouth when I speak. I’ll make a different mark to stand for each sound I make when I say a word!” And the alphabet was born! It has taken a very short time to progress from marks in clay, to ink on velum, to Gutenberg type on paper, to computer print-outs.
Is there really anything new to say on the subject of reading and reading difficulties? Indeed, there is! Recent advances in medical imaging technology have made it possible for the first time to look at the brains of both skilled and dysfunctional readers while they are engaged in the act of reading and chart the strikingly different ways in which their brains are working.
The most dramatic new discovery is that if dyslexic readers are provided intensive special tutoring and improve their reading skills, one can literally see that the brain changes its pattern of activity to produce a more efficient way of reading. These new insights, based not on theories but on the actual brains of actual readers have led to new ways of thinking about how to introduce children to the alphabet and to reading, and how to prevent reading difficulties.
Reading is a new human skill. Humans have been using some form of language in verbal communication for about two million years, but reading and writing have only been around for a few thousand. We don’t know what early language sounded like but whatever its form, it’s pretty clear that language, and the capacity of the human brain to organize and express it, changed and evolved over the eons to accommodate more and more complex conversations. Mothers found ways to tell their children how to keep out of trouble, and fathers found ways to brag about the hunt as the family gathered around the stew pot.
I’m going to digress from the topic of reading for a moment. Have you been wondering why so many children seem to be affected by autism-spectrum difficulties? I have. Here’s some interesting news from the M.I.N.D. Institute at Davis, California. The M.I.N.D. Institute has been searching for clues to autism’s increase. Although the criteria for diagnosing autism have broadened and children are being diagnosed at an earlier age, these factors don’t explain even half of the huge increases in California cases.
The Institute reports,
“The incidence of autism by age 5 in California has increased from slightly over 6 in 10,000 children born in 1990 to more than 42 in 10,000 for children born in 2001.”
This is an estimated 600-700% increase! Less than one-tenth of the increase can be attributed to inclusion of milder cases, and only 24% of the increase can be attributed to earlier age of diagnosis. Another 120% is possibly attributable to changes in diagnostic criteria. So, really only about one third of the increase can be explained by those factors
So what’s left? The environment! The Institute suggests that a careful look at environmental exposures is warranted, especially for their possible affect on genetically susceptible children. They are doing some fascinating studies that I will try to comment on in future blogs.