Storing Words in Our Brains

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.

Storing words in our brains elephantYes, 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.

Storing words in our brains alligator squirrel


Need help finding a professional? A great place to start is the International Dyslexia Association. Click here to go to the Nurturing Literacy Resources page. You will find a link to the IDA’s state-by-state Provider Directory.
And if you have a question, you can ask me here:

Ask Tara

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Emotional Booster Shots for Struggling Readers?

When I see a child struggling with reading, I can generally pinpoint the best “in-the-moment” support to offer. (I’ve been working with kids for more than twenty years, so I should be able to do so!) But sometimes what a child needs most, quite simply, is some emotional support: a chance to release the frustration that comes with reading challenges.

And I know how easy it is to miss that need. My most poignant lesson came when my son was three.

He called from the playroom with alarm in his voice, “Mama, I cut my knee!” I ran to the playroom, feeling the same sense of alarm I had heard in his voice. How bad was it?? And right behind that: How did it happen?? (I cleaned that room myself to make sure it was SAFE!)

As I entered the room, I could see a very small line of blood dripping from his knee.  Whew, no trip to the ER…just a bandaid! But my mind was still racing, trying to figure out what could have injured my little boy. He looked right at me and, with a quiver in his voice, repeated that he had cut his knee.

I kneeled in front of him and asked “Where?” I was hoping to figure out how I could make the playroom safe again for him.

“Right here,” he said as he pointed his little finger at his knee.

He had missed my question, of course. I knew where on his BODY he had cut himself. I could see the blood!

After another moment, though, I realized that it was actually I who had missed him. He wasn’t calling out to me because he needed me to make the playroom safe again. He was calling out to me because he needed me. Period.

But in my shock and desire to protect him, I had immediately launched into problem-solving mode. Luckily, his response helped me catch myself, and I was able to give him the TLC he needed so he could get back to feeling good.

And that’s what happens so often to our struggling readers. Learning to read is a struggle, and they are frustrated. As parents, we want to “fix the problem” so our children are not hurting. So we ask them to practice reading out loud. We encourage them to sound out the word, despite their increasing frustration. We tell them they are doing a great job-even though they feel anything but successful.

But maybe what will help most in that moment of frustration is if we meet that child right where he or she is:

  • Acknowledge that reading is hard work.
  • Remind them that it’s ok to take a break.
  • Offer hugs liberally.

In other words, put the “band aids” away for a moment, and offer your struggling reader an emotional booster shot. It can go a long way on the journey to becoming a proficient reader.


Writing about this topic of “being in the moment” reminds me of one of my favorite books. It’s a beautifully illustrated story (based on a Tolstoy story!) called “The Three Questions.” A boy sets out to get answers to three seemingly simple questions. He does get his answers–through an exciting twist in the story–and the answers are profound.


The Three Questions [Based on a story by Leo Tolstoy]

I love this book because it is accessible on several levels–a perfect read aloud for the whole family!