My students – the ones who come to me to improve reading and spelling abilities – have a story about mult-syllable words when they arrive. Most of them don’t believe they can read or spell them. They have a lot of experience with big words being tricky, hard to predict, and hard to work with.
So even when I teach them the fundamentals of reading and spelling multi-syllable words, these stories are still there. I might work with a student for several weeks on multi-syllable words, gradually increasing the number of letters and syllables they image, read, and write. And yet, if I ask them if they are good at big words, they will probably say no. The story and memory of how hard it used to be is still so powerful in their memories.
The great thing about kids though is that we can turn those stories around by having fun and being playful. Once I feel certain my student has internalized multi-syllable breaking and can recognize how to break a word up into chunks just by sight, I give them this word to read:
It has 14 syllables! It’s also totally fun to say and laugh over.
For students that have also developed strength with multi-syllable spelling, I ask them to figure out how to spell Supercallifragilistic Expealidocious. Another 14 syllables of total silliness.
In both cases, we have fun reading and spelling enormous words. And the playfulness and ridiculousness of it takes the pressure off the exercise. More importantly, it’s one of those moments that builds genuine confidence. My students always want to show off their handiwork or read the lake name to their parents.
And we start to write a new story – one that is full of possibility and success.
Analyzing syllables in a big word takes the scary out. Multi-syllable words can be really tough for students with reading or spelling difficulties. There are so many sounds to track, unusual prefixes and suffixes to remember, and what seems like an endless number of exceptions to try out.
But did you know that every syllable of every word has one and only one vowel sound in it? Vowels give words voice. Try shouting your name without any vowels and you’ll see what I mean!
Beth becomes Bth → Bth! Bth! Bth!…. not very powerful!
Because there is only one vowel sound in every syllable, identifying the vowel sounds is an excellent way to start breaking up multi-syllable words. Even if you don’t know what this made-up word says, you can be confident it has four syllables:
Once you break the word up so that each chunk only has one vowel sound, this big, weird collection of letters becomes four tiny, easy to read chunks.
I believe kids have the right to an opinion about how they spend their day and deserve to have their voices heard. That includes time spent at school.
Kids don’t have the same agency as adults. They don’t get to wake up every morning and literally choose for themselves how they spend their time and energy. (Many adults might argue they don’t have that agency either, but truly at a basic level we all do.) It is our responsibility to ensure that their desires and opinions are considered.
Even better is to teach them how to advocate for their position without our help.
Last night, I was interviewed on an internet-based TV show called CreateChatter TV. Having never been interviewed before, I was more than a little nervous before it started. I think it went well though! (Never mind that my cat yowled pretty insistently a couple of times – she really did not like being locked out of the living room!)
If you didn’t get to watch the interview last night, I’ve got a recording of it here. (Note: Apologies for the annoying commercial before it starts!) Toward the end, I mention a promotion I’m offering on my Homework Without Tears package for viewers of this show. And since you are my lovely blog readers, you get to watch the show and take advantage of the promotion, too!
Viewers last night asked some really great questions:
What are some things parents can do to encourage students to do well in school?
Are there any side effects from the instruction Bright Brain Studio provides?
What do teachers do that make learning more difficult for students?
Do you have any additional questions I didn’t answer last night in the interview?
In last night’s episode of Royal Pains, Hank, the main character, got surprised into giving an interview about his work on the Today Show with Matt Lauer. Hank completely freaked out, stumbled over his responses to questions, sweated through his shirt, and basically bumbled his way through the interview.
Next Monday, I’m doing a live interview with the hosts of CreateChatter TV and I’m a little terrified. I really hope I don’t pull a Hank!
You can watch me live – it’ll be reassuring to know folks who are interested in Bright Brain Studio are watching – and even ask me questions during the show. I’ll be talking about my Intensive Instruction and Homework Without Tears programs, as well as anything else the hosts or viewers want to know.
Here’s the link to watch the show live. And don’t worry, I’ll post a link to the recorded video later in case you can’t watch it live.
This is such an important topic because identifying the core brain processes that are not being supported can absolutely transform the learning experience.
Except, it’s also sometimes really hard to see.
For example, I create mental imagery automatically when I read. This ability to visualize the ideas in the story increases my comprehension of the words. I do it so naturally and automatically that I don’t even notice I’m doing it most of the time.
However, I do know what it feels like to be reading words and not comprehending even a tenth of the content. In college, I was determined to graduate with a degree in French, despite getting started late on completing the classes. (I had worked for three years to be an Advertising major and switched focus in my senior year.) In my last year of college, I crammed all of the upper level French literature classes required for my degree.
I was reading medieval French poetry, plays and short stories from the renaissance, and more modern anti-colonialism novels. In French.
I have vivid memories of sitting with my literature texts and two enormous dictionaries. One with French words defined in French and a French → English translation. I’d read a passage and have to define half a dozen words before I’d understand it.
While I could read the words, my ability to create mental imagery for the text was hindered by my limited French vocabulary. I wasn’t processing the meaning of the text.
I tell this story because I think it’s easy for us to think everyone can process information as easily and quickly as we do.
It’s hard to step out of our experience and recognize that some people, especially students, need additional support. And it’s only once we can recognize what sorts of processing issues are contributing to frustrations and difficulties at school can we provide the kind of support our students need.
Have you heard the audio clip of my conversation with a client about this? (It’s on my welcome page, but I’ll include it here too if you’d like to hear it.)
Also, and just for fun, I discovered this totally unscientific survey that purports to give you a better picture of your processing strengths. It’s from a blog I love that focuses on organization and decluttering strategies. If I wrote a quiz like this, all of my questions would be related to education or reading or math. I like that we can get a better sense of how our brains process information from a quiz about housecleaning! And, of course, those strengths carry over to how you process information for learning, too.
When I started knitting six years ago, I was given a crucial bit of wisdom from my friend and knitting teacher, Allison. She assured me that all of knitting is based on two kinds of stitches, the knit and purl. And that actually, purl stitches were just the opposite of knits. If I knew how to do those two things, I could knit anything I wanted.
She ended up being totally right. Knitting can get very complex, but the fundamental techniques are all based on the knit and purl. Allison taught me both the mechanics of knitting and gave me the confidence boost I needed to be fearless in developing my knitting skills.
And it makes sense. When kids have a solid understanding of numbers, the number line, and basic addition and subtraction, they are capable of building on those skills when learning more complex math.
Math skills build on themselves. Students learn to add after they learn to count. They learn multiplication after they learn addition and subtraction.
But what about the students who were introduced to addition and subtraction before their basic understanding of numbers was firmly established? What if their class shifted into multiplication when they were still using touch-point or counting on their fingers to add 6+7?
MU researcher, David Geary, notes in his research that, “once students fall behind, it’s almost impossible to get them back on track.” He says his research “reinforces the idea that math knowledge is incremental, and without a good foundation, a student won’t do well because the math gets more complex.”
What I think he means by this is not that students who lack these skills lack the capacity to learn them, but that school curricula do not have the capacity to close that gap. Once the student falls behind, there is little opportunity in the classroom environment to go back and stabilize those math fundamentals.
And yet, this is exactly what struggling math students need.
It’s like asking a new knitter to knit a sweater without ensuring that those basic knits and purls are easy and automatic.
The primary math skills that Geary has identified as critical to future math success are:
number sense and understanding the concept of quantity
ability to go back and forth easily and quickly in translating numerals (knowing the symbol ’4′ represents four blocks or four crackers, etc)
ability to break complex problems into smaller parts
understand number line and relationship between numbers on the number line
stability with some basic facts
The missing component in this discussion though is some reflection on what might be causing the difficulty in acquiring these skills.
I believe classroom teachers are intensely interested in providing instruction that focuses on these skills. It’s not from a lack of exposure to the concepts that some students continue to struggle.
What’s missing is an understanding of how the brain processes information for math. Some students’ brains are absolutely wired for math and they pick it up naturally as they are exposed to the concepts (with some practice, of course!)
Other students’s brains are wired differently (not wrong) and need targeted instruction that strengthens the neural connections needed for strong math skills. School curricula are not currently designed to do this.
And, if you’re wondering, this kind of targeted instruction that focuses on strengthening the brain’s connections for math is exactly what I do at Bright Brain Studio! Whether my student is eight years old or in 8th grade, I ensure that he or she develops a firm foundation in the math fundamentals of basic number sense, arithmetic, and solving word problems.
I talk more about the specifics of my techniques in my email newsletter. Check it out!
I just sent out my first newsletter, Bright Brain Studio Open House, to my email subscribers. And normally the info I send to my subscribers will be special content only they have access to.
But I just couldn’t help myself this one time. The information is just too important not to share it with you.
(I’m going to have to work on this a bit because I have a feeling I’m going to think this every time I send out a newsletter! The emails are truly special.*wink*)
Anyway, this first newsletter is part of my Open House series, and is an introduction to my Studio space and my teaching philosophy.
Here’s a snippet:
This learning environment is a reflection of my teaching philosophy:
~~ Learning should be fun! ~~
We have toys and props and games — all ways to bring movement and playfulness to our work.
In my experience, most learning centers that offer instruction to struggling students have adopted what I call the “clinical model.” The physical space and the language used to describe the instruction are steeped in borrowed metaphors from doctor’s offices, treatments, and interventions.
I find this perspective troubling because fundamentally I don’t believe there is anything wrong or broken about my students. They don’t need a treatment or a prescription.
Reading may be hard. Math may be hard. But there is not something wrong with the kids.
They need instruction that is customized to support them, rigorous enough to strengthen the connections in their learning without being painful, and an infusion of fun, creative play.
You can read the whole thing here. Want to be a part of the Open House series? You can sign up for the newsletter here. I look forward to sharing a lot more about the actual process I use to transform students’ experiences with learning.
I used to joke that after my midlife crisis, I would work towards becoming a neuroscientist. (I really love studying the brain enough to contemplate another decade or so of school!)
I’ve realized in the past couple of years though that I love working with people too much to ever commit to working in a lab or just doing experiments. I care less about the research itself than about the practical applications of the findings.
Thus, I read a lot of articles about recent discoveries in the brain sciences.
And today, my mind was literally blown by a recent article from eScienceNews.
In this MIT study, scientists have discovered new information about how the brain holds onto information in our working memory (the short-term, need-it-right-now memory). Basically, the right and left hemisphere each have their own capacity for holding onto visual information – two things each.
So if I show three items on the right side of your visual space and show just two on the left side, you’d have a harder time remembering the things you saw on the right. It was overtaxed.
The article also suggests that “cognitive therapies for improving working memory should present information in a way that trains each hemisphere separately.”
This has exciting implications for the work I do with students to improve the brain’s ability to store visual information using the Seeing Stars® program.
Students who struggle with reading and spelling (and sometimes math) often have difficulties picturing the letters (symbol imagery) in a word, even if they just saw them.
For example, if a student is learning the sight word “through”, a weakness with symbol imagery might result in him forgetting the ‘r’ or rearranging the letters.
One way that I stimulate the brain to strengthen symbol imagery is by having the student look at the word and then write it in the air with his finger (airwriting). Invariably, the word is written in the student’s visual space so that it crosses the midline and stimulates both the left and right hemispheres.
After years and years of seeing airwriting develop symbol imagery in students that literally didn’t process letter information that way before, I know the technique works.
However, this article has given me three lines of thought about ways to tweak the airwriting step for more efficient brain training.
1. What if airwriting works as well as it does precisely because it utilizes both the right and left hemisphere without overtaxing one?
2. Could the development of automatic symbol imagery (the ability to “see” words in the mind’s eye) be accelerated if each hemisphere was stimulated separately?
3. Might some students make slower progress in developing symbol imagery if they are not working both hemispheres equally?
I don’t know the answers to these questions yet. I’ll need to play with this new information for awhile to see.
Expect to see more articles on this topic as I test these ideas and determine if and how this research can benefit my students.
I totally agree with Gever Tulley’s theory in this video that by allowing children to interact and learn from dangerous things (like playing with fire or learning to handle a pocketknife) they are actually developing true safety skills. At the heart of this video, Tulley’s message is the same as mine — give kids the freedom and ability to learn and grow.
Often, schools operate under the idea that kids can only learn or be safe if their options are removed and their agency restricted. I worked with a student once whose elementary school required students of a certain age to write exclusively in cursive. Enforcing the rule, despite whatever writing style was most supportive for individual students, became the focus of the instruction.
I think the opposite is true. I think we can think big about what we want kids to learn and then be very flexible about how that learning occurs. For example, learning to write clearly and expressively with ease is the most important thing with my writing students. I will explore all sorts of options to make that writing easier for them. Want to print? Fine. Want to type? Sure. Want to say and record the ideas and then transcribe them. Absolutely!
The result is often the dissolution of a lot of anxiety about performance and a realization that learning skills like writing can actually be fun.
What has been your experience with giving your child more options or freedom?