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.

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.


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.

Kids Need a Keyboarding License to Type

Keyboard skills

A message from Fred Lewis:

“Please read this article (Typing is the key to learning computer software). Kids need a keyboarding license before using a computer….just like a drivers license to drive.  Only Read, Write and Type does this. Middle school is way too late to teach touch typing.”

Teachers are waking up to the importance of typing skills for using just about any software program. But mostly they start too late–after hunt-and-peck habits have settled in. However, thousands of children are learning to type IN FIRST GRADE as they learn basic phonics skills with Read,Write & Type.

8 free lessons at www.talkingfingers.com.

The Danger of Teaching “Sight Words”

I read a question from a parent yesterday (on “Classroom Talk”), asking how to help her child learn the long list of sight words that the first grade teacher gave her child. This is my response:

“Children in first grade should not be given lists of sight words to memorize. They should be learning to decode (sound out) and encode (write) regularly spelled words, NOT MEMORIZE THE VISUAL APPEARANCE OF WORDS.

First graders should be learning to identify the sounds in words they say and link letters to those sounds. This is called phoneme awareness and phonics, and these are the critical skills for becoming a good reader. Your first grader should read words like GO and SEE by knowing the sounds that those letters stand for, and sounding out the words. As he does this often, his brain will start to automatically recognize the words. This will enable him to sound out and read or write any regularly spelled word independently. He will not have to visually memorize lists of words, except for those few that are “outlaw words” (don’t follow the rules), and he should only tackle these after he’s mastered phoneme awareness and phonics.

If he is not learning phoneme awareness and phonics at school, teach him at home. Try asking him to read some nonsense words like MUN or SAF. If he can’t do this, ask his teacher whether she is teaching him to sound out words. If you want him to be a good reader in second grade, teach him these skills NOW yourself. There’s lots of good information on the web about how to become aware of the sounds in words and link those sounds to letters.”

Phoneme Awareness vs Phonics?

The National Institute for Literacy has some good tips for teaching phoneme awareness (being able to identify the separate sounds in words) a critical skill for learning to read.

National Institute for Literacy

However, they suggest that 20 hours of class time should suffice for teaching phonemic awareness. Since close to 70% of American 4th and 8th graders cannot read proficiently, and since phoneme awareness and phonics are the two most frequently found deficits in children who struggle to read, perhaps we need to re-evaluate whether students are really learning this skill in the 20 hours of instruction they receive. What do you think? Are phoneme awareness and phonics separate skills? Or should they be linked so that children understand why they are asked to become aware of the sounds in words?

I would love to hear your thoughts.

The Learning and the Brain Conference

I just attended and made a presentation at the 25th Learning & the Brain conference in San Francisco—USING BRAIN RESEARCH TO RAISE IQ AND ACHIEVEMENT.  My presentation was in a section titled How Will New Brain Technologies for Cognition and Memory Change Education, Learning and Aging? I talked about how to maximize the efficiency of neural pathways for reading and writing—a topic I have discussed previously in my blog, and am just about ready to publish in my new book Raising Skilled Readers and Writers.  Watch for a release date!

I came away from the conference with some interesting books:

The Curious Incident1. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

a novel by Mark Haddon.

This is a real charmer of a novel about a bright and quirky boy, trying to solve the murder of a dog, who encounters many of the problems that misfits face in our society.  Anyone who has had contact with a child dealing with autism spectrum difficulties will recognize his literal way of thinking and his perplexities as he tries to understand the people around him.  You can’t help but love his honesty and earnestness, as he goes about solving his mystery. (more…)

Travel as Education

Travel can be one of the most educational experiences imaginable.  Even short trips that require hearing a new language, or seeing a new culture, or living in a new way (like camping) can make big changes in a child’s life.

Jeannine sailingIn 1970, my husband and I took our two children, Matthew (13) and Melissa (11) on a voyage that lasted 18 months.  We sailed a 31-foot sloop from New Orleans to West Africa and down the coast as far as Ghana.  We did “school” as we went, and the children learned sailing, piloting, marine biology, and we stayed amidst other cultures for periods of time—the Azores (Portuguese), the Canaries (Spanish), Senegal (French) etc.

We needed the kids to take watches and help with activities like cooking and boat maintenance, so they learned lots of everyday skills about how to take care of themselves in the world.  As part of “school” we asked them to keep a log (diary) of their experiences.  I would make suggestions from time to time about their writing and help with spelling, grammar, etc.  We eventually published a book called “Voyage of Aquarius” (including the most interesting logs of all four of us) about the experience of crossing the ocean in a small boat.  But we never got around to publishing the story of our adventures going down the coast of Africa and 300 miles into the interior up the Gambia River.

Matthew wrote some fascinating entries that I have just compiled into a book for middle school students called ”Our Big Blue Schoolhouse”.  It includes some wonderful photos taken by Matt, a professional photojournalist. If you are interested in this book, you can email me at herron at talkingfingers dot com.

What To Do About Your Child’s Media Time?

child watching tvIn my last post I wrote about the fact that this generation is spending 7.5 hours/day or 53 hours/week on TV, video games, music, and Internet socializing. The number of hours has increased dramatically since 2004 (then it was 4 hours/day) largely because of mobile devices that can play movies or games or provide the Internet anywhere.

Is this something that parents should be concerned about?  I think so. And it is the responsibility of parents because most of this happens after school. But what can be done? Here are three ideas.  Maybe you have more, and can share them with our readers…

  1. Model for your children.
  2. Have conversations at dinner or before bed where you really pay attention to what they think about some issue.  Tell them what you’ve been thinking, and that you’re going to write it down so you won’t forget it. If they see you writing, if they see you putting thought into some letter to an editor or a politician, or a poem or song, or your diary, and you talk about why it’s important to you, they will follow your lead.  Let them see you pursuing new knowledge yourself. It’s good for the aging brain as well as the developing brain!


Is Your Child Engrossed in Media 53 hours/week?

children engrossed by media

A new study put out by Kaiser Family Services tells us that children are using media like TV, music, and internet social media more than 7.5 hours a day—that comes to an average of 53 hours a week of mostly passive experience! Yes, they text, but what kind of thought goes into texting or tweeting?  Are their brains really processing and analyzing and digesting new information?  Unfortunately, no.


Dramatic Success with an Autistic Student

QWERTYHere is a letter I received from a speech pathologist that I met at a dyslexia conference in Seattle.  She was sitting at the same coffee bar and heard me introduce myself to my neighbor.  She leaned toward me and asked earnestly, “Are you the Talking Fingers Jeannine Herron?”  I said “yes, I am” and she started singing me one of the Wordy Qwerty spelling songs!  She knew them all!  We have corresponded from time to time since then….

Dear Jeannine,

I am now using Read, Write, and Type with a low-verbal, severely austistic ninth-grader here in my new state of South Carolina, with amazing results!

Her teachers had not thought that she could read or spell, and they have been put off by some of her behaviors.  It turns out that she has been frustrated, because the staff assumed she could not learn.  They were skeptical when I brought in my computer and started her on the program, but she took to it like a fish to water.  I add comprehension work to the story activities and encourage verbal imitation and responses.  We are almost half way through the program, and it is changing her entire curriculum- the teachers are now focusing on teaching her to read and write, which is increasing her communication skills- her parents are thrilled!  She was previously thought to be unable to sustain attention to any activity; however, with skilled support, she works on Read, Write & Type for 50 minutes, and I think would happily do more- Read, Write, and Type is changing her life.

I do not exaggerate the results from your programs, Jeannine.   Now, each week when I come in the door, she is visibly excited and independently brings pencil and paper and sits down to work; she then insists that we write in her communication book to home what we did on Read, Write & Type that day.  Best of all, the teachers now know she can read and spell words, decode simple sentences, copy the sentences from the stories and re-read them, write grocery lists and engage in real literacy learning activities at school.

But you know I have used the Talking Fingers programs successfully in many environments, both clinically and in school settings.  In fact, I have yet to find a student, thoughtfully placed, who did not respond to  Read, Write & Type..  Whenever I have an opportunity to provide a dyslexia evaluation, I include Read, Write & Type, and Wordy Qwerty in my recommendations for parents.

I am now serving a very poor, rural, southern school district as a speech-language pathologist.  This district needs to spend what little money they have very wisely for kids. Your programs are so economical compared to others!  I have shown some special educators the Talking Finger programs, and they would like me to spend some training time this January, showing them the program and sharing my results.

All the best for 2010!

Jane Coolidge, SLP-CCC

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