This young girl in Gr. 3 came to see me after having completed a Psychoeducational assessment as well as a language assessment. She hated homework, did NOT like writing, and did very little reading for enjoyment. Spelling was significantly challenging for her. Some letter reversals were evident in her spelling sample.
The Psychoeducational report indicated that she had phonological processing scores in the 91st percentile, which is very high! However, when I completed a more in-depth assessment, I discovered that she had significant difficulty with non-word tasks vs. real-world tasks. I also noted that she was significantly stronger at sound-segmenting tasks when compared to blending tasks. Lastly, she demonstrated significant difficulty with rapid symbolic naming tasks. This contrasted with average scores on the non-symbolic naming tasks.
During dynamic performance assessment, she made numerous errors that indicated she was not effectively applying phonological awareness tasks. For example, her errors failed to represent all of the sounds in words (e.g., spelling “sport” as “spot”); she also spelled some syllables without a vowel, which is a violation of English orthography rules.
From our assessment work, I made a hypothesis that she had inefficient connection between neural pathways; and that specifically, her brain was not efficiently processing information through the angular gyrus – an area of the brain that is important for linking and consolidating visual information with verbal information (speech and language information).
This explained why she was not accurately representing sounds in spelling (e.g., not using enough letters). It also explained why she would look at the first letter and guess a word; however, the word that she’d guess didn’t make sense given the letters (e.g., than –> that).
What may be happening in this type of reading error is that the brain is prioritizing and compensating with visual processing skills, and not reconciling that information with the sound information. The two areas of the brain are not talking.
Usually In this scenario, a typical brain would ALERT itself. The brain would recognize that the letters in the word “than” do not match the speech sounds when you say “that”. The brain would recognize the mis-match – the letter “n” does not ever make the sound /t/ in English. Most emerging readers will self-correct if they make an oral reading error like this. Most maturing readers will actually catch this error BEFORE they read it aloud (or not even MAKE an error in the first place – they would accurately process the written word!)
This is the role that neural connections and important information processing areas in the brain play in reading – they link the way a word looks, the way it sounds, and the what it means and “wire” this information together so words get stored long-term.
Children with difficulty connecting information between these brain areas do not ever get words stored “robustly” and accurately in long-term memory. Which, incidentally, also explains the significant spelling difficulty.
When we go back to this child’s developmental history during our interview and file review, we discover that this girl suffered from childhood seizures. This is further support for our hypothesis that there are under-developed or disorganized neural pathways between the occipital, parietal, temporal, and frontal lobes.
We have explained why these reading and spelling errors are taking place.
However, it gets worse … these errors are likely to PERSIST.
This error, and other errors produced during assessment, are confounded by inattention and poor self-monitoring in the frontal lobes. In order to make progress, this student must alert to these errors and process or reconcile those errors. This is the role of the cingulate gyrus, the thalamus, and the limbic system in the brain. However, given her medical history and reduced attention and working memory scores on the Psychoeducational assessment, we don’t predict that self-monitoring and meta-cognition/meta-awareness are going to be strengths; and this is precisely what we saw during instruction. She did not recognize or self-correct her errors without support from the Literacy Instructor.
We leveraged phonological processing skills such as segmenting by teaching her to APPLY them. Using a speech-to-print approach activated the sound processing area of the brain FIRST; then we mapped those sounds onto letters to activate – and connect – the visual processing area. We used mnemonic strategies with visual prompts and manipulatives as memory placeholders and taught a process of how to approach unfamiliar words. Once a word is identified and “processed”, then we can address areas of weakness – such as reviewing the word by blending the sounds or syllables together to arrive at the word, and further consolidate it in long-term memory.
This got the brain activating, connecting, and utilizing multiple areas synchronously. From there, we integrated functional, integrated, and contextual tasks to be sure to teach our target words is a way that STICKS. In other words, it’s not enough to recognize words, you must activate the meaning, and be able to comprehend a word in context. We used multi-linguistic lessons to teach the letter patterns and language rules that govern English orthography.
In other words? We tuned up the brain, and then systematically taught the rules and patterns of reading and spelling.
From there, we taught strategies for review and self-monitoring to activate the frontal lobes and attentional centres DURING that act of reading.
Individualized Instruction makes all the difference
Careful assessment gave us access to her Learning Profile. From there, we built a custom-tailored instructional process to teach what was missing. We were able to leverage her stronger skills and address areas of weakness. She learned a PROCESS, a SYSTEM, to approach unfamiliar words. This gave her some level of independence. It also gave her confidence and began to shift her emotional state around literacy tasks. We talked the orthographic patterns and rules – the Alphabetic Principle and the Code that must be unlocked to read, write, and spell. We helped her engage the whole brain during literacy tasks, enabling her to store (and retrieve) words accurately and permanently in long-term memory – which led to increased reading accuracy and fluency, comprehension, and spelling abilities.
Do you wonder what is missing in your child’s learning plan? Do you ever wonder what could be possible for your child or student?
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