Before Reading There Was...
As it turns out, reading skill is built upon a combined skill set that has been a part of the human mind since, well, before humans.
From the dawn of time, humans have communicated through story and art. It is this art of storytelling that has been, in large part, responsible for building up these subskills.
The auditory, visual, and kinesthetic components of the way we think, communicate, and in the modern world, read. No surprise, various studies have documented the positive effects of story reading on literacy in children.
This practice, in various forms, is a logical precursor to reading skills. The skills developed through experiencing stories lay the groundwork for reading skills.
On top of those fundamental skills, if they are in good order, then the fundamentals of reading are taught. Phonetic awareness, orthographic processing, and so on.
Then, if all goes well, through the magic of neuroplasticity, we become readers. Our brains actually rewire to combine all of the underlying fundamental skills with the learned academic skills and we become readers.
Most elementary school teachers will tell you that when a child learns to read it is more of an Aha moment than a continuum. Of course, reading skills do continue to develop over time, but there seems to be a moment in time where a child just “gets it”.
This likely marks the moment when the brain has found a way to restructure itself in such a way that all those combinations of abstract characters on the page represent a meaning.
There, of course, is a structured build to this moment (academics). Letters and various combinations of letters first have to be recognized to represent the various sounds (phonemes) of language. These must be further combined to represent words. Some of these words themselves being abstract concepts and others merely being an abstraction of a physical thing.
Abstractions built upon abstractions.
It’s quite an amazing thing our brain does to transform itself in such a way as to interpret all of this. And especially amazing that we are each doing it individually without a pre-existing innate mental roadmap.
We each, as individuals, transform our brain to interpret these layers upon layers of abstractions into thoughts almost as easily as downloading them matrix style.
Realizing a little bit about the process should help us to understand that there is a lot going on at a base level. Additionally, a transformation (neuroplasticity) has to take place. Unfortunately, problems can occur with either.
The fundamentals can be weak or neuroplasticity can be inhibited.
Think of the base level as the way our brains operate. We think using a number of lower level skills. I’ll call these skills micro-skills. The sum total of these micro-skills makes up our intelligence. And since each and every one of us has different strengths and weaknesses in each of these micro-skills, we are all intelligent in different ways.
Add to that that we all tend to use each micro-skill in different ways and we quickly see that this thing we call thinking and intelligence is not at all universally uniform. It is different for everyone.
These micro-skills can be categorized as either auditory, visual, or kinesthetic.
Within the auditory skills, we have micro-skills such as:
- Auditory discrimination, which allows us to differentiate between sounds.
- Auditory closure, which allows us to process sounds more quickly
- Auditory memory, which allows us to hear those sounds internally in our mind, aiding in overall memory as well as associating them with meaning.
These are predominantly functions of the brain, not the ears.
We then have the visual micro-skills such as:
- Visual discrimination, which helps us to quickly visually tell the difference between letters.
- Visual closure, which is another visual efficiency mechanism.
- Visual memory, which allows us to recall things visually internally.
These are also predominantly functions of the brain, not the eyes.
And then finally there are the kinesthetic micro-skills. These are the most overlooked yet probably the most important intelligence skills. There are a variety of reasons why these kinesthetic skills are so important, but for now let’s quickly talk about one, spatial awareness.
Spatial memory and proprioception are our brains strongest form of memory. Shortly after we are born, we first and foremost learn to understand our bodies and their surroundings. Babies, when they first begin to learn, start working immediately on determining “what is me, and what is not me”. They, of course, do this by sticking things in their mouth. “If I bit this toe it hurts, must be me”.
Our spatial understands grow quickly and form the foundation for our other forms of learning. Everything integrates with the spatial. Our visual and auditory systems both interpret space constantly. Even though most of us don’t recognize that we do this. We see where things are and we also hear where they are. We recalculate constantly when moving our bodies in relation to those things.
Spatial recognition and proprioception (our awareness of our bodies position in space) are what tie the other major senses together. The auditory, the visual, and even the vestibular are perceived both individually and as a whole in the emergent spatial sense. And therefore, it is this kinesthetic related spatial perception that creates the unity between our senses.
Our spatial awareness and proprioceptive senses are critical. Without them our other senses can only operate independently, not as a unified learning system. And without this unified, whole body learning, learning is confusing and stifled, if not impossible.
Yet, for some odd reason, our education system seems to ignore this all to important kinesthetic aspect of learning. Students are all but strapped to their desks and not allowed to move. Eliminating their ability to build their brains with the kinesthetic.
When Reading Education Doesn’t Work
As we have learned, these learning micro-skills and their unification through the kinesthetic, form the basis of all learning, and especially reading.
Reading is a skill that is built on top of the fundamental skills. So it should seem obvious that if any of these underlying skills are deficient, then there will be a problem in learning to read. Since there are such a large number of these underlying micro-skills there are any number of possible problems which will cause a difficulty.
And we, as humans, tend to want to diagnose that one problem micro-skill and fix it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t usually work that way.
The problem is two-fold.
The first is that even when testing identifies which learning system, auditory, visual, or kinesthetic, it is nearly impossible to define it further.
Finding where the problem area is is largely a process of elimination. So, for example, we can eliminate the visual, but we cannot drill down to the exact auditory problem.
Secondly, even if one system is ruled out as individually not a problem, it is also how this system works with the other systems that is a factor. In other words, the brain just won’t be nailed down to an exact diagnosis. It is not a machine. It is a complex system that even the most advanced neuroscientists are only beginning to understand.
There Are Answers
Fortunately, despite the fact that we cannot know the exact mechanisms, we can still help the brain along. Much is actually known about what does work. This knowledge comes from a variety of disciplines. Educational therapists, teachers, mind-body practitioners, psychologists, and neuroscientists have all made parallel observations about what does work. And together, this body of knowledge has brought us to a point where there is no need for a child with a specific learning difficulty to go on suffering and not live up to their potential.
We can build up the weaker micro-skills as well as use techniques to increase neuroplasticity. Allowing the brain to rewire and rebuild itself as only it knows how.
What Does Not Work
Unfortunately, the most common method implemented when there is a reading difficulty is more reading practice. This can have the undesired effect of turning the child away from learning altogether.
Reading practice is effective when it works. But when something is not working, continuing to do it and expecting different results is not only non-effective, it can be damaging.
Unfortunately, this is what is most often prescribed. Backing up and approaching the problem at a deeper level, whether this is taking one step back to the phonological level or two steps back to the even deeper learning processes of the micro-skills (or both), is a far more intelligent and effective approach.
As parents, educators, and researchers, we can use this more intelligent approach to help our children reach their full potential.
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