Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Babies, Brains, Nature and Nurture

Here's an very interesting discussion on brain development. This is very helpful for parents to understand how they can best help their baby or children learn!

Dr. Stuart Shanker is a Distinguished Research Professor of Philosophy and Psychology at York University and currently serving as Director of the Milton and Ethel Harris Research Initiative (MEHRI), an initiative whose goal is to build on new knowledge of the brains development, and help set children (including those with developmental disorders) on the path towards emotional and intellectual health.

Information regarding the interview:




Here's the interview with him:




There's an interesting segment regarding Teens: scroll to 0:44:0 and it goes through 0:45:30


Thursday, January 01, 2009

The 3 Parts of Reading


Reading has three INTEGRAL parts and all are necessary, these are not presented in any order:

  • Phonics
  • Sight Words
  • Contextual
Phonics are the pieces of the puzzle, the sound components that make up words. Speech alone is only 1/2 of phonics. Its the association with the spoken sounds to the letter or letter combinations which make up the written word.

When the brain (and in the case of people who were very early exposed to reading -- meaning seeing the words while being read to at a very early age, the BRAIN associates these phonetic letter combinations and many sounds for one letter -vowels- into the subconscious.)

Phonetic reading in the beginning when taught to children in a methodical way is mechanical, (this is the typical 5-6 yo) but as the brain experiences the relationships, it comes to a point when it becomes automatic and it is done lickety split. Its true that as adults after reading for a long time, we no longer use this mechanical process until we come to a contextual or unknown word.

Once a word is learned, it moves over into the sight words bank of KNOWN words.

Sight Words are words that are either memorized, learned through phonetic means or learned through a contextual process -- even if only learned as a word on a card and memorized by sight with its vocal pronunciation they are all ways in which the brain maps these words. As we are exposed to books, reading and the symbols of things, this supply of known Sight Words grows.  The more we read, the larger this Sight Words Bank becomes over time.  Even if the phonemic code is never directly taught, it is subliminally recorded in the brain. Eventually this phonemic coding is accessed when words are looked up in the dictionary, where we see yet another set of symbols to aid with the phonemic code to sound out the word. In the effort to learn to write the rules of spelling also come into play.

Contextual is where we guess the meaning of a word based upon the place we encounter it. The essence of the meaning is derived from the context in which it is used. We also guess the pronunciation of a word, and depending upon how many words are in our 'sound bank'  we do apply some sense of phonics -- whether it is mechanically or experience taught, our brain does eventually map a phonetic code. How strong or weak it is also depends upon the amount of reading experience the learner has had. As more experience is gained then the ability to sound out new words increases.

When this happens we don't know HOW to read the word, but we typically SOUND it out phonetically with the code as our brain understands it.  As we re-encounter this new unknown word, it eventually also moves into our Sight Words bank, because the meaning is applied. Eventually to pronounce it right becomes refined through the process of hearing others saying the word correctly, reading a dictionary to learn the meanings of the word and a code which describes the phonetic or correct sounds for the word. It is through this process these that Contextual words  also become KNOWN and move into the Sight Words Bank.

I'm not saying that there is any ORDER of these three, with which we must learn to read.  However, everyone DOES learn through these three parts of reading.

ALL THREE are needed.

Bottom line, the more practice in the process of reading, the easier and more second nature reading becomes. 

In my experience, I've encountered cases where as children, adults never learned to read good until they got a good dose of being INSPIRED to read.  We know that it is through being inspired one becomes motivated to overcome any obstacle in achieving a goal or means to an end.

In the case of reading, I know of adults who didn't read well at all in school and avoided all reasons to read, especially refusing to ever read out loud. But finally decided to participate in their read-alouds. By so doing their children were learning to read, but the parent found that their inability to read well diminished. It was through this process of taking their turn they discovered they became rather fluent verbal readers.

I will say that the best way to improve personal reading ability is through reading out loud! IN addition to reading books, The McGuffey Readers are also great tool -- they include instruction for elocution in reading, where the rules for emphasis are applied etc.  I highly recommend them to parents to study and practice their reading -- or for students who ask for help in improving their reading! 

McGuffey Third Reader is on Emphasis.
McGuffey Fourth Reader is on Articulation: Vocal, Sub-vocals and Aspirates

I'm a believer that the older a child is who is learning to read, the more mechanical it is and more effort or work it takes for the brain to learn the process. -- Its not that it can't be done, or that it has to be done earlier, but in the ideal situation, because of brain development -- it is actually more natural for the brain to learn the process of reading at around age 3 -- it is an optimum time because of the way the developing brain works.

90% of a child's brain is developed by age 5.

The synaptic activity by age 5  is 1/4th it once was at birth to age 2.5.  So its in this earlier window where LESS EFFORT is required for the brain to learn the association of written word to sound through input visual, auditory and kinesthetically (verbally) and as fine motor skills develop later then written to get it from the brain back out again.

Its important to be aware that there are distinct and developmentally appropriate methods for teaching reading to babies. Do not subject children younger than age 6 to the traditional mechanical methods (used in school) when working with a very young child. Older children 6+ must learn through a mechanical process because basically what is happening is having to re-map the brain, through the existing synapses now that the brain is mostly formed, this is why many children have difficulty learning how to read, are often labeled as having a reading disability when in fact they DO NOT! To apply the process of learning to read as a blanket to all children, should be at a specific level at a certian age is like saying all children at 12 months should be walking or they're 'behind' > which is obviously an absurd belief.

The Very Young Child (birth to age 3) forms the synapses very naturally and easily. The older one is when they learn to read, the more work it takes.....and we all know the bottom line to motivate learning to read when they're older is through inspiration -- the learner MUST have the DESIRE in order to learn it.

Think of adults who DECIDE they must learn a Foreign language. 

The process for learning that new language is done through a methodical and mechanical way. Think of older children who are not yet reading well, or fluently -- they MUST WANT to read, in order to be motivated to do the necessary work to learn to do so.  They can and they will once they decide that the need to do so, their focus on the process is amazing once they get the VISION of the blessings of being fluent readers.

Brain pathways for reading

As an educational consultant who helps parents find books for their children, the number one question I'm asked is "what can we do because our child is having such difficulty with reading?"

First of all, let me say the problems with reading are not usually a weakness or learning disability of the child, rather it points to the methods and process of how and when the child has been exposed to the reading in a relational way, specifically the written word. Before we point blame at educators, parents, or pass the problem off on a disability, lets note that the experts in the field of reading education have always said -- they all catch up around 5th or 6th grade.

Quite a generalized statement -- too bad it doesn't come with an explanation. I will attempt to explain -- This great 'mystery' of teaching reading has everything to do with the brain development of the child from birth until the day they show up in the classroom. This place in time is sometimes referred to as "The Window of Opportunity" and I will do a follow up post on specifics.

The early or late factor is actually about the types of experiences the child has with words and books long before he ever walked through the doors of a school!

So for starters, the truth is children do eventually catch up. For some it doesn't take all that long, for others it may seem to take forever, the bottom line is -- so long as they have an interest in reading.

This is all about timing. The debate goes round and round over when to formally begin to teach reading. Lets look at how the brain develops to see when the optimum time for learning to read is easier vs more difficult. Early or late, a child can and will learn to read.

Babies learn spoken language and understand it long before their ability to speak. The same is true for sign-language. But in general, no one seems to think that the written word can be understood as early, well why not?

Speech Language Pathologists will tell you that if there is obstruction of the hearing mode, it directly affects speech development. The brain wires the phonemic sounds of the native language during these crucial first 2 years of life. So if hearing or seeing are affected, then, these two channels of mapping the brain are vital to creating the infrastructure that reading depends upon.

Brain research has discovered that the neurons in the brain at birth are firing off up to 1,000 trillions of connections a second. It basically records channels to everything it gets exposed to. Heat, cold, quiet, loud, bright dark. All the senses provide the input. Seeing, Hearing, Smell, Taste, Touch, etc. When those things are not involved, the channels available for those tasks drop of significantly.


This process is all about the amount of time the brain synapses are exposed to the various elements of reading (there are 4 major pieces) and WHEN, (early or late) in their brain development this exposure takes place. The more frequently those passageways are used to connect useful information, (the phonemic coding, letters, sounds, and their combinations into words) this process links together into a complex neural network from which their ability to read will emerge.

Its all about exposure and repetition.

This process the brain creating this network, from which the process of learning to read comes from can done be over a short period of time (when exposed to the pieces, in a relational way early) , or can take a very long time (when this relational exposure is done later.) This depends upon when in their brain development this 'building project' is being specifically happening.

Children are born, wired for learning -- more so from birth and significantly less by age 5. Ninety percent of a 5 year old child's neural network is formed, and the synaptic activity for mapping learning activity has dropped off significantly. Learning to read later means the brain has to work through this lower synaptic activity channel. It also relates to where the brain decides to put the reading center, and the distance it is, from the language center of the brain.

If the neural network has not been exposed early to the phonemes and their relational symbols and combinations, the resulting network has to go a greater distance to connect the information.

It is therefore a process of exposure and repetition. Early exposure requires less repetition to form the process of reading fluently than late exposure, which will require more exposure and time to end up with a similar result of fluent reading.


Reading can be a playful, fun and engaging process.

What is essential to the late reader, involves the need for them to be inspired (either from outside himself or from within.) The inner drive and motivation which comes through inspiration plays a major role in being a driving force to work through any challenge. When their own personal desire to learn gets fired up, then their motivation to do the work necessary (mentally) that the subconscious brain will connect the dots. Forcing the idea that a child must read by a certain age, expecting them to perform when they just aren't really ready to do so, tends to backfire in the whole process. When they avoid, the subconscious brain will slow the process down, and causes it to take longer.

Are their playtime activities associated with connecting the dots to the pieces of reading, words and sounds together, written word and action together, etc? Most young children today are amused by the TV/Videos that do not offer much, if little of any relational meaning, most of it not at all, which delays this process significantly. (media watching is a passive brain activity, learning to read and reading is an active brain activity.)

Other factors involved was the infant talked to with regular spoken language--(rather than baby talk i.e. mispronunciations because they sound 'cute' -- ask any speech language pathologist and they can tell which families actually speak to their babies, vs those that either don't talk at all or talk incorrect spoken language, they can identify the affects of temporary hearing loss from chronic ear infections.) The vocabulary of the understood language of children is also a base from which the brain uses for phonemic cataloging.

Learning with fewer sensory wired modes, takes twice as long, or worked more frequently compared to the same time one would learning with significantly more sensory modes over a shorter period of time.

As parents, the bottom line is, we must ensure to show joy in the process of learning. Young children can learn to read naturally and easily so long as they are exposed to the linked elements in a fun, engaging and playful way.

Remember a babies work is his play. Engaging the older child in various forms of "play" with the educationally rich materials he is bound to learn to read so long as we don't treat the process as a chore. Realize the subconscious, will resist when forced to perform in a manner it is not ready to.
When the child exhibits his will to tackle a problem he can overcome it -- personal drive and motivation play a significant part in the learning curve of the older learner.

Just like learning to play a musical instrument. The earlier the exposure, physical experience with and the amount of practice with it all affect the individual's ability to learn quickly and achieve mastery.

I like to think of reading as the musical score of our spoken language.