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I am interested in examining some case studies here in my blog to look at applications of neuroscience, careful assessment, and individualized intervention.

For the first case study, I actually chose a student that I did NOT get to work with!

I have spoken about this situation elsewhere on my blog, as well as on some Facebook live videos that I have posted.  It has troubled me – it is EXACTLY the type of situation that I want to educate around.

The Scenario:

A mother phone me about her son in Grade 3.  Another tutor had been providing a specific reading program – one that focuses on phonics and features animated cartoon letters.  This tutor was no longer available, and the mother was looking for another provider of that same program.

She asked me if I could provide this program.

My answer? “Yes, I can administer that program … but I won’t!!”

I pleaded with her to consider other treatment alternatives, but ultimately, we did not end up working together.  She was adamant that animated cartoon letters were the right choice for her son, despite our discussion.

This is tragic … that program WILL NOT WORK.  It is going to cost the parent money.  It is going to cost the family time.  And it is going to cost that poor kid in Gr. 3 … because he is going to work his tail off, get nothing for it, and further reinforce the growing sense of shame – that “he is stupid” and “there is something wrong with him”.  Lamentable.  Preventable!

I was unsuccessful in dissuading this particular parent, but hopefully I can persuade YOU to think more critically about how we teach our kids to read!

So, what is there to discuss?

Point #1:  Young readers have different brains than older readers.

As young children are being exposed to print and literacy concepts, they really key in on the visual information.  Brain imaging studies show that young readers have more activation in the occipital lobe than older readers.  The occipital lobe is where visual information is perceived and processed.  This makes sense.  Young readers are learning about letter concepts and learning to form letter shapes.  The brain is learning to recognize and differentiate all of the letters.  Lots of exposure to the shapes of letters and the features of letters is quite beneficial through pre-school, Kindergarten, and early Gr. 1.

As readers mature and begin to decode across the early grades, we see more activation through the parietal lobe, in the visual association areas.  What does this indicate?  Letters are successfully being recognized and processed visually, and NOW the priority of the brain has shifted.  The letters are visual symbols that represent spoken language – sounds and words.  NOW the brain is trying to connect or associate letters with words and sounds.  The brain is trying to consolidate the VISUAL information of letters with the SOUND and MEANING information of language.

Driving the Point Home:

So, what is the takeaway?  A child in Gr. 3 CANNOT be left STUCK at the visual processing stage.  A program that is focused on recognizing letters is NOT APPROPRIATE for this child’s brain.  It is activating the WRONG AREA of the brain.

Point #2:  Processing – and Associating – Visual Information

Typically developing readers learn to recognize letters – whether they are upper case, lower case, even upside down!  Whether they are drawn in the sand or made out of Play-Doh … or turned into animated cartoon letters.  Their brains can do it all when it comes to recognizing letters.

Case StudyHow? Children with a typically developing brain adapt and specialize cells in the brain around letters, and they become efficient at processing letter information.

Children with a learning difference do NOT.  Their brains do not adapt and specialize.  These children are very poor at processing letter information.

If a child is in Gr. 3, and he is having difficulty pairing letters with the corresponding sounds (called the Alphabetic Principle), suffice it to say that this child has difficulty recognizing letters AND associating those letters with sounds (or recognizing whole words).  The likely culprit here is an area of the brain known as the Angular Gyrus, which is important for integrating visual and spoken information.

Driving the Point Home:

This child needs to get their brain organized around the alphabetic principle – the idea that visual letter symbols represent spoken sounds.  THAT needs to be the focus of instruction.  As visual information is not being integrated, we may want to control the stimulus – e.g., teach very representative letters first, only teach lower case, and AVOID letter confusion (b, d, p, q, g).  Makes sense, yes?  Do you know a child in Gr. 1 or beyond that still struggles with letter reversals?  Research has proven that this is a LANGUAGE-BASED error – not a visual error!

My point?  This child is having difficulty associating visual information.  The LAST thing you would want to do is DISTORT and PERVERT letters by turning them into cartoons – making them less representative and even HARDER to recognize!

Point #3:  Functional, Integrated Activities that Engage the Entire Literate Brain

To read, children must recognize a word on the page, activate the corresponding sounds in the brain, and then either blend these sounds together or recognize the word, thereby extracting the meaning of the word.  That’s reading.

To accomplish this, the brain needs to activate the frontal lobes, the visual processing area of the brain, the sound processing area of the brain, and the language processing area of the brain.  AND then these three areas need to “talk”.  Neural activation and neural connection across literacy areas are MANDATORY.

In a younger child’s brain, we sometimes work only on sounds (phonological awareness).  Or we may work only on vocabulary – meaning.  And we may do activities that are focused around visual processing – recognizing letters.

Once kids are at about mid-Grade 1, we can no longer AFFORD to work on discrete skills in isolation.  We MUST provide literacy activities that are going to ACTIVATE and CONNECT all the literacy areas of the brain.  Doing anything else is disillusioned, and we are fooling ourselves and cheating children.

Driving the Point Home:

A program with cartoon letters will activate the visual processing area of the brain and provide some activation of the sound area of the brain.  It will also allow some communication between these two areas.

It does not activate the language processing area of the brain, and it is therefore ineffective.  It is not integrated.

Further, often the sounds and letters are addressed in isolation.  This does not help children to build, recognize, or know WORDS, and therefore has little impact on ACTUAL READING PERFORMANCE.  It is not functional.

It is also less likely to engage the frontal lobes – the attentional and memory components of reading.

Lastly, many elements of this program occur in the visual-auditory modality.  They talk about letters and sounds.  However, it does not engage the motor cortex as much as functional literacy tasks like writing and spelling.

Simply put, the program is inadequate in what is needed to learn to read.

Again, functional and integrated tasks that activate and connect all areas of the brain are what is needed to make a difference!

** Note that animated cartoon letter programs can be useful for younger readers!  There is nothing inherently wrong with such a program.  Where people are misled is that such a program is not typically appropriate for readers beyond mid-Gr. 1.

And for a child with Learning Difference – a brain that is not organized around letter-sound correspondence – it could be the OPPOSITE of what is needed!

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