Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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What happens in the brain when we read?

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Image by Наталия Когут from Pixabay

If we are a fluent reader we have a massive number of words stored in the occipital lobe of the left brain, which takes just 1/6 of a second to recognize each word and we read smoothly and effortlessly.

But that only happens if we have learned to read by recognizing the sound made by each letter. If we have learned to read by memorizing each word individually, our brain frantically searches the word pictures stored on the right side of the brain, then switches to the left side to decide what the word means. 20-25% of the oxygen used by the body is used by the brain, thus we soon become physically tired if we struggle to read like this.

It may sound contradictory to say that using memory storage on the left side is somehow different from using memory storage on the right side. The difference is in how that memory was stored in the first place. When we learn to read by phonics, we are teaching the parietal lobe in the brain how to recognize the word and what it means. After the parietal lobe has decoded a word a number of times it downloads that word to the occipital lobe for instant retrieval whenever needed.

When we learn to read by whole word recognition it is like having the pictorial part of the brain, on the right side, take a snapshot of the word. That takes far more memory and makes it more difficult to sort out all the pictures to recognize the one that matches the word on the page. Yet this is the method by which reading has been taught in the public schools for 75 years or more.

There was a time when most people in Canada and the USA were fluent readers; the literacy rate was at least 95%. That was back in the day when everyone knew that phonics was the only way to teach reading. The change in the method of teaching reading has been accompanied by an explosion of illiteracy and learning problems.

It is said that 40% of children will pick up the letter-sound correlation even if it is not being taught. Another 30% will eventually catch on. The remaining 30% will be labelled with some kind of learning disability. Many methods have been invented to help them learn to read, with only minimal success. Almost all of these individuals could learn to read if they were given direct instruction in phonics. That’s the way it was done years ago.

Children who have difficulty learning to read are often diagnosed as being dyslexic. A very small percentage of these children actually have the neurological condition that makes reading difficult. Even for those, the only workable solution is intensive instruction in phonics. Some children complain that the lines of type do not march straight across the page but wander up and down. Often the real problem is that their eyes are searching desperately here and there for some clue as to what this word means and the eyes lose track of where they started out. The solution to this problem is phonics, perhaps aided by a ruler or card to hold under a line of type.

There are programs in use that claim to use phonics, but don’t. Any program that uses flash cards or other visual aids is not based on phonics. Pure phonics focuses solely on the letters with no other visual distractions. Once the sounds are learned, a child learns how to blend the sounds together to make words. Every word needs to be sounded out, every time it is encountered, until the brain is able to instantly recognize it. Most children progress very quickly at this.

With proper instruction in phonics boys and girls learn to read at much the same rate. Without that instruction, girls learn much more quickly that boys. It seems that the female brain is more intuitive or flexible. What this means is that with our current method of instruction in the public schools most girls become fluent readers and at least half of the boys will struggle. The great majority of functionally illiterate people in the English-speaking world are men.

Some of the behaviour problems exhibited by boys in school may simply be due to the fact that they struggle to read and find it difficult to understand what is being taught. All subjects in school are dependent upon the ability to read. When a boy acts out the usual response is to implement some kind of discipline or behaviour modification. Maybe helping them learn to read would be more effective.

Reality, Respect, Responsibility

A modest proposal to revitalize the education system

1. Reality

Education should be geared towards teaching children how to think, not what to think. This means equipping them to be literate, numerate and articulate. Those are the fundamental skills that will enable them to learn everything else they will need to learn in life. Children should master these skills at each level before moving on to the next level. Teachers who are unable to teach these skills may be social facilitators, but they are not teachers.

Great self-esteem may help you get a job, but won’t help you do the job. Self esteem without work skills will leave you unemployed and feeling the world has let you down.

2. Respect

Twenty-five years ago a co-worker mentioned that her high school daughter had come home and said that her teacher had told the class that it would be best if they didn’t tell their parents what they had talked about in class that day, “They might not understand.” It told me a lot about that mother’s relationship with her daughter that her daughter did tell her. It also told me a lot about that teacher’s lack of respect for parents.

Children are being taught in school not to respect the values of their parents or the historic values of most of the people of our country. That does not bode well for the future of those children in the work place and in society. It does not bode well for the future of our society.

The best and most natural environment for the development of children is a home with a father and mother, preferably the same father and mother all through their growing up years. Evidence shows that children from such homes grow up emotionally healthy and stable and make more useful contributions to the society they live in. Teachers, and the whole educational establishment, need to respect the home and its values. Then parents could also respect educators.

3. Responsibility

A child should not be protected from the consequences of his or her actions. Blaming someone else will not lead to a better outcome the next time. They should know that they are accountable for their school work and their conduct.

But children are not identical peas in a pod. There are differences in learning abilities and in learning styles. Parents and teachers should try to learn what works and what does not work with each child. The child should be accountable for doing the best that he or she can.

My wife has a younger sister who never learned to speak clearly and never did well in school. The school had a speech therapist and other resource personnel, but this girl was passed on from grade to grade with only minimal attempts made to help her. Her home situation was deplorable. We lived several thousand miles away. One time when we were home on vacation my wife tried to help her sister make the sounds that she did not say distinctly. I heard her begin to enunciate them more clearly. But we were soon gone and neither the home nor the school was any help.Her adult life has been miserable. We wonder if some intensive one on one help might not have made a big difference. Why does a school have these “experts” if they are not responsible to do that?

Reality, respect, responsibility. I have only brushed the surface, but I feel that much of the malaise in our educational system is due to the neglect of these principles. And far too much emphasis on things that do nothing to prepare children for real life.

Lowering the basket

A cartoon appeared in the Québec City daily le Soleil a couple of weeks ago depicting a gangly young student on the basketball court attempting to make a basket. The basket was placed at waist level and the coach was saying, “We have an excellent success rate.”

There would be cries of outrage from students and parents alike if such a thing ever happened in high school sports. However, the title of the cartoon was “Department of Education Exams,” implying that it does happen in the classrooms.

One hundred years ago, the academic basket was placed at the standard height of three metres. It has been surreptitiously lowered at the rate of two centimetres per year so that it now sits only one metre from the ground. Educational bureaucrats and teachers unions point to the excellent success rate as evidence that public schools are still doing their job.

The change has been so gradual that it has escaped the notice of most parents. Yet students are now graduating from university with limited literacy skills and unable to do basic math without a calculator. Occasionally a copy of an old exam is circulated and we realize that one hundred years ago students who had completed Grade Eight had more genuinely useful academic skills than many university graduates today.

Some parents are supplementing the shortfall in the public education system themselves or by hiring private tutors or sending their children to commercial learning centres such as Kumon, Oxford or Sylvan. Others have withdrawn from the public system altogether, opting for home schooling or private schools. These children are the fortunate ones, employers will readily discern their abilities and advancement opportunities will open up before them.

What about those who succeed in hitting the one metre high basket of the public school system? They are the ones complaining that employers are unfair.

Illiteracy in Elementary and Secondary Schools

[The decline in the public education system did not begin yesterday. These paragraphs are excerpted from a book published almost 60 years ago. The difference today is that most people accept this as normal – they don’t remember a time when things were different.]

Is it possible that this timidity, this excessive appeal to “interest”, this consequent concern with the modern, the familiar and the simple in theory, combined with a multiplication of methods and techniques, is responsible for the well-known fact that up to the end of the intermediate or junior high school stage many Canadian pupils cannot read?  This is not a wild accusation.  It is based on statements in the programmes of study, all of which deal with the problem of remedial reading at every stage, some of them at considerable length.  Moreover, teachers in social studies and mathematics are warned that difficulties may arise from their pupils being unable to read.  One high school mathematics teacher asserts that this is literally true, and that pupils need help in deriving any meaning from problems expressed in perfectly grammatical and unambiguous English.  Programmes of study warn teachers to beware of this, to adopt remedial measures, and to guard pupils (aged thirteen to sixteen) against perils like “absolute owner” and “toll bridge” – children, by the way, who have received years of instruction in “dictionary skills.”  It is not suggested that if they can derive no meaning, either from the context or from the dictionary, they should not be in even a junior high school.  It is never suggested that there should be a pons asinorum over which non-readers may not pass.  It is simply assumed that many secondary school boys and girls cannot read.

To this frank admission of the schools that many of their senior pupils cannot read must be added the very frank accusations of universities and other institutions that too many secondary school “graduates” cannot write.  The matter has been much discussed, particularly in those universities which are compelled to introduce remedial English courses – from which it must be admitted students emerge still with a very feeble paragraph sense.  It is not easy to begin to teach things that should have been learned ten years earlier, and the student who has spent the years in poised if not polished oral composition undoubtedly lacks motivation for wrestling with the written word.  A recent comment on this matter comes from the University of Toronto, where, it is reported, the president, deans and professors join with becoming modesty that when the students fail in engineering and other examinations because they cannot write English, the fault undoubtedly rests with the university.  There is, in fact, just the faintest hint that some professors at this university cannot speak English.  Can these professors be the products of Ontario’s progressive schools?

– from So little for the Mind, by Hilda Neatby, Professor of History at the University of Saskatchewan,  copyright 1953.

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