When I see a child who can read a word like “elephant” but mixes up “a” and “the,” I know her parents are wondering why, just like Emma’s mom was.
“Please tell me how Emma can read the big words but struggle with the little words. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?” she asked.
Yes, big words words should be harder than little words. But it really depends on how meaningful the word is to the child. Meaning helps with storing it–and retrieving it later. For example, Emma told me how she remembers the word “elephant”:
“The “p” hangs down like a trunk!”
I can tell you that I was impressed! She had come up with a great mnemonic to make this word meaningful. When I asked her how she could remember the word “the,” though, all I got was a blank stare.
Storing Words in Our Brains
That’s because “the” (and all the other “function” words) are not memorable. Essential, yes, but not memorable. Fortunately, the majority of readers will not have lasting problems with these non-meaningful words. If they see the word enough times, they will be able to store it in their “sight memory.”
That’s because “Neurons in a small brain area remember how the whole word looks — using what could be called a visual dictionary,” said Maximilian Riesenhuber, PhD.
But what about a reader who has an impairment in this small area of the brain? Is that what caused Emma’s persistent difficulty with those less memorable words? No one can say for sure unless Emma were to undergo fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) testing. And that is reserved for research, as in Dr. Riesenhuber’s study on how our brains see words as pictures.
What If We’re Not Storing Words
Yet we can say for sure that extra effort will be required for readers like Emma to store whole words away. That is precisely what makes “multisensory instruction” essential for all struggling readers. And while the “why” of multisensory instruction is, if you pardon the pun, a “no-brainer,” the “how” is indeed the tricky part. What is the right combination of visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile inputs for each individual child? The clear answer is that it depends.
In graduate school, one of my professors described her experience with one particular student, a fourth grader who could not read. After a couple of tutoring sessions, it became clear to the professor that the student was most engaged while writing. So the professor increased the “kinesthetic” element of the multisensory equation. She incorporated elements of a very old methodology called the “Fernald” method, essentially asking the child to write everything as they worked. It slowed the session down to a snail’s pace, and the professor told us how she herself felt like she would collapse from boredom. But one day, the child said, “It’s helping me.” Of course, that changed everything for my professor.
And what was my professor’s point in telling us this story? To instill in us the necessity of:
- building a toolbox replete with methods and strategies
- attentively tracking a student’s response to instruction, and
- deftly revising to find the combination that makes things “click” for that particular student.
“Always remember,” she said. “Reading programs do not teach kids to read. Teachers do.”
Get the Best Help You Can
So if your child is struggling with reading, what should you do? Get the best help you can for your child. Interview reading professionals to find one who:
- has wide and deep knowledge of reading remediation and multisensory instruction
- can effectively monitor your child’s progress
- is willing and able to “tweak” instruction to meet your child’s individual needs, both instructionally and motivationally.
And the next time your child confuses “of” and “for” but reads “alligator” (or squirrel?) without skipping a beat, perhaps you can find some comfort in not having to wonder why.
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