Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Emergent Literacy

Children begin developing literacy long before they enter school. Unless they are disabled, all school-age children have acquired a fairly extensive oral language vocabulary and a sophisticated syntactic system. They have seen traffic signs and billboard advertising, printed messages on television, and printing on cereal boxes. They can tell the McDonald’s logo from that of Burger King and distinguish a box of Fruit Loops from one of Captain Crunch. They have seen their parents read books, magazines, newspapers, letters, and bills and have observed them writing notes or letters, filling out forms, and making lists. They may also have imitated some of these activities. Their parents may have read books to them and provided them with crayons, pencils, and other tools of literacy. All children, no matter how impoverished their environment may be, have begun the journey along the path that begins with language acquisition and ends in formal literacy. The teacher must find out where each child is on the path and lead him or her on the way.

The concept of emergent literacy is rooted in research conducted a number of years ago. Read (1971) reported on a study of early spellers who had learned to spell in an informal manner. The early spellers were preschoolers who were given help in spelling when they asked for it but were otherwise allowed to spell however they wanted. What surprised Read was that these young children, who had no contact with each other, created spelling systems that were remarkably similar and that, although not correct, made sense phonetically. For instance, er at the end of a word such as tiger was typically spelled with just an r, as tigr. In this instance, r is syllabic; it functions as a vowel and so does not need to be preceded by an e. For long vowels, children generally used the letter name, as in sop for soap, where the name of the letter o contains the sound of the vowel. Commenting on his findings, Read stated, “We can no longer assume that children must approach reading with no discernible prior conception of its structure” (p.34). Landmark studies by researchers in several countries echoed and amplified Read’s findings in both reading and writing (Clay, 1972; Ferreiro & Teberosky, 1982; Teale & Sulzby, 1986).

These revelations about children’s literacy abilities have a number of implications. First and foremost, teachers must build on what children already know. In their five or six years before going to school, they have acquired a great deal of insight into the reading and writing processes. Instead of asking whether they are ready, schools have to find out where they are and take it from there.

As children observe parents and peers reading and writing and as they themselves experiment with reading and writing, they construct theories about how these processes work. For instance, based on their experience with picture books, children may believe that pictures rather that words are read. Initially, children may believe that letters operate as pictures. They may believe that letters represent objects in much the same way that pictures represent objects. Using this hypothesis, they may reason that snake would be a long word because a snake is a long animal. Mouse would be a short word because a mouse is a short animal. As children notice long words for little creatures and little words for large creatures, they assimilate this and make an accommodation by giving up their hypothesis of a physical relationship between size of words and size of objects or creatures represented. They may then theorize that although letters do not represent physical characteristics, letters do somehow identify the person or thing named. They may theorize that the first letters of their names belong uniquely to them. Children need to see that other people’s names may start with the same letters as theirs but that some or all of the other letters are different.

Before children discover the alphabet principle, they may refine their theories of the purpose of letters and conclude that it is the arrangement of letters that matters. Through exposure to print, they will have noticed that words form patterns, and they begin to string letters together in what seem to be reasonable patterns. Usually, the words are between three and seven characters long and only repeat the same letter twice (Schickedanz, 1999). Known as mock words, these creations look like real words. After creating mock words, children frequently ask adults what the words say. The adult may attempt sounding out the words and realize that they don’t say anything and inform the child of that fact. Realizing that they can’t simply string a series of letters together, children may begin asking adults how to spell words or copy words from signs or books. As adults write multisyllabic words for children, they might sound them out as they write each syllable and also say the letters. Hearing words sounded out, children catch on to the idea that letters represent speech sounds. Since the the words they hear have been spoken in syllables as they were written, the children may use one letter to represent each syllable and one letter for the final sound and produce spellings such as jrf for giraffe.

If you have some insight into the child’s current schema for the writing system, you can provide the kind of explanation that will help them to move to a higher level of understanding. For children who are moving from a visual of physical hypothesis about how the alphabetical system operates to a phonological one, sounding out words as you spell them provides helpful information. Providing many opportunities to write also helps students explore the writing system.

Learning the Alphabet

Although it seems logical that students would learn letters by memorizing their shapes, that is not the way it happens. They learn to tell one letter from another and to identify particular letters by noting distinctive features such as whether lines are curved or slanted, open or closed (Gibson, Gibson, Pick, & Osser, 1962). To understand the distinctive features, students must be given many experiences comparing and contrasting letters. When introducing letters, teachers should present at least two at a time so that students can contrast them. It is also a good idea to present letters that have dissimilar appearances – s and b, for instance. Presenting similar letters such as b and d together can cause confusion. It is recommended, too, that upper- and lowercase forms of the letters be introduced at the same time, because students will see both in their writing.

What Is Phonics?

“Hooked on Phonics worked for me!” was probably the first time I had heard the phrase “phonics” being used. Hooked on Phonics was a Learn to Read product developed in the 1980s by a father who wanted to help his son overcome reading problems. The companies catch phrase became popular in the 1990’s, and was widely used in pop culture to make tongue-in-cheek jokes. 

Today, the term “Phonics” gets tossed around in education circles so often, it almost seems impossible to have any discussion about reading without the word being brought up. Yet when I pose the simple question, “what is phonics?”, to those using it, I get such a wide range of responses. In the nearly ten years I’ve been working in education, I have spent many countless hours helping parents understand what this term really means and its role in their child’s reading development. 

Phonics is simply letter-sound correlation, or the relationship between the letters and the sounds those letters make. For example, a child could recognize the letter b but not know the sound the letter b makes. Therefore, this student has letter recognition down for the letter b but doesn’t have the necessary phonic’s skills to associate its sound.

What is Phonemic Awareness?

To understand phonemic awareness, you first have to understand what a phoneme is. A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound in a language that holds meaning. Almost all words are made up of a number of phonemes blended together. Consider the word “bat”. It is made up of three phonemes: /b/ /a/ /t/ . Each of its sounds affects the meaning. Take away the /b/ sound and replace it with /h/ and you have an entirely different word. Change the /a/ for an /e/ sound and again the meaning changes.

Therefore, phonemic awareness is simply the realization that a spoken word is composed of a sequence of speech sounds. For example, phonemic awareness is knowing that the word cat is made up of three distinct phonemes (sounds), /k/, /a/, and /t/.

How is Phonemic awareness different than Phonics? Phonics is concerned with the written symbol (grapheme) and its correlating phoneme (sound), where as phonemic awareness is just concerned with the phonemes (sounds) in words. Below are two examples that should help clarify what this would look like for a student.

Example 1 – Phonics

Teacher: What letter does the word bat start with?

Student: The word bat starts with the letter b.

Example 2 – Phonemic Awareness

Teacher: What three sounds do you hear in the word bat?

Student: /b/, /a/, and /t/

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Great Debate

One of the oldest living debates in our nation’s history is the “Great Debate” over how children should be taught to read. The origins of this argument can be traced back to the 16th century when a man by the name of Martin Luther and his followers transcribed the bible from Latin into English. Luther and his followers invented Phonics as a means for teaching reading of the newly transcribed bible. The following 200 years saw little change to the system of learning to read phonetically. Most of the 19th century was defined by further developments of phonics teaching. Sometime in the 1880’s a man by the name of F.W. Parker devised a program that did away completely with Phonics in exchange for a system that focused on learning to read through writing of books. Many people believe that his approach of “reading is thinking” would prove to be the first known formula for Whole Word Learning.

During the 1920s, educators began to split into two sectors, the traditionalists and the whole word supporters. The divide amongst these two groups grew over time, in large part because of the studies that were done by each side to further prove the validity of their own approach. During the 1950s many articles were written that turned the debate into a political one, leading to the “Reading Wars”. In 1955 Rudolf Flesch’s novel, “Why Johnny Can’t Read”, supported the traditional approach to reading, which furthered heated the Great Debate for years to follow.

Today we see a very similar debate amongst the two parties. However, a third party, which consists of many supporters from both sides are supporting an approach that combines the two apposing approaches. This blended approach now adds a third element for further review on how reading is acquired.

Monday, November 2, 2009

What Is Brain Plasticity?

"The stuff that drives scientists into their laboratories instead of onto the golf links is the passion to answer questions, hopefully important questions, about the nature of nature. Getting a fix on important questions and how to think about them from an experimental point of view is what scientists talk about, sometimes endlessly. It is those conversations that thrill and motivate."
-- Neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga

Alvin Toffler, the noted author said, "The illiterates of the future are not those who cannot read or write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and re-learn," but what happens inside of the human brain to foster those events commonly described as "learning," which is the goal formal education? In order to avoid being among those illiterates of the future, how should we modify our classroom instruction so that it conforms to the latest research findings concerning the brain?

Cortical plasticity refers to the brain ability to continue exercising its flexible nature by allowing different areas of the brain to change as a result of experiences it gets in the outside environment. The brain is sturdy, delicate and flexible. A child’s early interactions directly impact the ways in which the brain gets physically connected or how it gets "wired-up" initially. With the acquisition of new knowledge or any new learning, the elaborate networks and structures inside the brain go through modification, re-organization, or some degree of cellular alteration. Those changes are seen in the brain’s chemistry, structures and functions.

The good news about neurons is found in the notion of cortical plasticity, which occurs in certain areas of the cortex. It can literally change the functional qualities of various brain structures depending on the regularity and type of new tasks that neurons are asked to discharge. The bad news is that any seldom used or unused neural networks get unceremoniously "pruned" away during one’s early years. Particular skills can be lost forever, if they are not cultivated during especially sensitive time periods during the first years of life in particular. High levels of stimulation and numerous learning opportunities at the appropriate times lead to an increase in the density of neural connections (the dendrites) and more brain real estate devoted to an emerging talent. Howard Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences identifies eight forms of human intelligence. Each of these intellectual comes with a matching primary area of the brain that (1) houses the cortical representations, (2) executes the motor outcomes, and (3) is connected with its myriad associated areas (see figure 5)

Figure 5- Multiple Intelligences Type of Intelligence Location or Primary Brain Area

Linguistic Left hemisphere, frontal lobes and left. temporal lobe (Wernicke’s area and Broca’s area)
Spatial Right hemisphere (posterior temporal region)
Logical-Mathematical Left parietal lobe and right hemisphere
Interpersonal Right frontal lobe, right temporal lobe and the sub-cortical structures in the limbic system
Bodily-Kinesthetic Motor cortex, basal ganglia, and the cerebellum (automatic motor skills)
Intrapersonal Both left and right frontal lobes, the (sub-cortical) limbic system, and the right parietal lobe
Musical Right temporal lobe


None of these intelligences will unfold naturally until the appropriate environmental conditions are present to allow it to develop and mature. In a model environment, the talents can be maximized with the cooperation of the appropriate gene set.

At the earliest stages of infancy, not only are all children biologically ready to learn from their stimulating environment and their interactions with other people, early brain development requires this. Healthy brain cells will perish if they fail to find a job to carry out during these critical early developmental periods. The lack of visual stimuli during infancy can permanently rob a healthy eye of its ability to see. If a child does not hear words by age of ten, he will have a difficult time learning to speak any language at all. Neurons that should have participated in the language processing, but instead find themselves lacking a role to play have only one of two options. They will be recruited to support another function with different neural circuit devoted to a contrasting specialty, or they will experience apoptosis, cell death. In brain terms, neuronal death occurs by way of a self-induced cell-suicide. In the case of language, the remaining brain cells that specialize in language processing are well-fed and well-nourished for most of one’s entire life. The others are gone and gone forever.

The ways in which the brain is stimulated (or not stimulated) in will determine the cortical complexity of any region in the brain, which is measured by the number of synapses and the nature of their connections to the various other parts of the brain. Brain cells constantly rearrange their one quadrillion-plus connections in response to extrinsic circumstances. All new learning, the external or internal stimuli that the brain encounters, promotes additional changes in the brain. In doing so, areas of the brain can adapt to any surroundings, quite different from other animals which operate solely by instinct and do so only within specialized limited environments. Human brains can adopt new functions based on the quantity and the quality of input received and processed by the brain.

In the 1980s, UC Berkeley’s Mark Rosenzweig discovered that a rat's environment affected both the weight of its brain, as well as the quantity and density of connections between and among its neurons. These are considered the best indicators of a rat’s ability to learn new skills or information. Boosting the immature brains with excessive amounts of growth hormones can also increase the number of neurons in rats.

In human beings, however, one’s level of expertise shows itself through major differences in the neural representations of the same information. When we compare brain-images of "novices" and "experts" performing the same task, or game, their differences are vividly apparent. Experts organize and interpret information in their brains in ways that are different from non-experts and, following input, that information is represented differently in their brains. Cortical differences are observable in the neural networks accompanying the development of a specific talent that an individual cultivates over time.

In music and in the game of chess, the "masters" develop elaborate semantic memory systems that permit a wide variety of ways to demonstrate the manner in which information is processed by their brain as compared to a novice. When comparing three pianists with varying experiences, we can observe distinct cortical differences in their brains. The pianists are (1) a 30-year-old pianist, who began piano lessons at the age of four, (2) a 30-year old pianist, who casually took up piano at age twenty-eight, and (3) a highly motivated 9-year old novice, who has been playing piano for slightly less than a year. All three pianists can play the exact musical piece, where the song is indeed the same, but each of the three performances shows completely different neuronal activities taking place inside their brains.

The areas in their brains that represent finger movements (the motor cortex) in each hemisphere of their brains will be different. The regions of the cortex that handle the reading of musical notations will also be different. Different neurophysiological circuits represent the different aspects of how that particular song will be processed in their brains and preformed by their bodies, but they will all reflect profound differences seen in each brain. These contrasts will be apparent, as each individual initiates a different set of signals for the execution of different physical commands, although they are all playing precisely the same song after reading exactly the same musical notes. The exchange of particular "musical performance" neural data flows more freely between the cortical areas of the brain in the more adept and well-trained brain. The attentional efforts are considerably less for the expert. The cortical differences can now be seen both in the performance quality as well as through brain imaging techniques.

In an experiment, expert chess players and novices were asked to memorize random chess pieces on a board. Under these conditions, the experts performed no better than the novices. However, when the chess pieces were in "game positions" that might replicate positions if two players were in the midst of a challenge, the experts’ recall of the location of each chess piece far exceeded that of a novice. The ways in which the accomplished players organized the information was clearly unlike the emerging talents of players with no prior chess experience.

Novice teachers and experienced educators will scrutinize the same classroom events and assign contrasting instructional significance to many of them. When at home or outside of her class, encountering information that can potentially improve preparation and instruction will likely be recognized by the expert teacher, but not her newer counterpart. How varied are these educators’ brains?

We see identical events taking place in reading and language arts classes. There are students with natural advantages in linguistic skills (girls), sitting next to students with limited experiences in the language spoken in class (foreign born), as well as children who have had absolutely no personal experiences that relate to the contents of the story (where the story is about yachting and a student’s limited inner-city life has never taken him to a harbor, let alone sailing on a boat of any kind). These students can be contrasted with those whose parents read to them at a very early age and who also demonstrate a more sophisticated usage of the language. (Age is an equally crude indicator of intellectual, motor, maturational development, since each brain develops on a different timetable).

The manner in which fictional stories will be processed in the brains of students in each of these groups will vary drastically, as will the level of detail in recalling a story and its composing elements. Meaning is not conveyed; it is evoked. Activating the appropriate neural pathways for reading and understanding a given passage assumes that a child has already developed the corresponding schema (the necessary background knowledge) fostering those neural connections. The human cortex operates best by patterns not by facts. But the patterns must make sense or the individual facts are the first recall casualties. Information that is difficult to comprehend or that has no meaningful context for an individual’s neural networks will be information that is difficult to remember. As a result, the idiosyncratic human brain and the manner in which we deliver formal instruction reveal major design errors. These known facts partially explain the successes seen in smaller classes particularly in the primary grades.

The experiential paradigms of two people might offer a similar contrast. Should they watch the same movie about a man escaping through the jungle, one might say that the film is entertaining, while the other finds it quite disturbing. Knowing that the latter individual survived the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia (the "Killing Fields") will help understand the differences in processing the same movie at the same time. When a class of students reads the same material, although the words and pictures are the same, the vast range of individual cortical representations and brain circuitry gives us a new level of understanding why some students relate to the material differently and some remember it considerably better than others. The neural representations to which the new material is connected inside the brain makes comparing one student’s performance with another for grading purpose an effort that defies logic. Such a system for grading students has all of the trappings of fool’s gold. We live and exist in completely different cognitive world’s that have shaped ours into distinctly different brains that defy these simplified comparisons.

The traditionally accepted position was that once neurons were lost, they were lost permanently and new neurons were never re-generated in the human brain. That belief is beginning to show ever widening cracks. For the past several decades, scientists believed that brain cells were a finite resource; that unlike other cells in the body, those in the brain did not reproduce. In spite of this eons-old "neuro-dogma," new evidence is suggesting otherwise.

Just as a blossoming young child goes through growth spurts, there seems to be a similar set of events occurring in the brain. The human brain appears to undergo surprisingly dramatic anatomical changes (fostering corresponding behavioral modifications) during seven key periods.

1. The first is the delicate brain-building and subsequent purging (where the least-used cells and circuits die out) processes, during the prenatal stages months. Prenatal substance exposure can trigger a disruption in any of these important early processes resulting in long term brain impairments (e.g., FAS- fetal alcohol syndrome and deficits caused by poor early nutrition).
2. Adjustments to a specific kind of environment drive the early postnatal brain alterations, during the first year of life. Here, important systems get switched on or not depending on the nature of the sensory input received from the environment.
3. Fine-tuning of skills takes place between the ages of three and six. Around 5 or 6, the brain has reached 90-95% of the average adult volume and is 4 times larger than it was at birth. These are the years when extensive internal re-wiring takes place in the frontal lobes (involving organizing actions, planning activities and focusing attention).
4. Between the approximate ages six and puberty, the parietal lobes begin to show a great amount activity. During this time, the skills for developing language and spatial relations reach their construction "peak." At the end of this period, the impressive growth and connecting rate falls off quickly. After puberty, mastering a new language becomes enormously challenging.
5. Immediately prior to puberty, another spurt in brain cell activity takes place in the frontal lobe (at age 12 in boys and a year earlier in girls). These neural construction projects are suddenly and strangely placed on hold and there is a substantial loss in the frontal lobes for a decade beginning in the mid-teen years.
6. Wholesale renovations take place during puberty and the teen years (hormonal changes, alterations in the body’s biochemistry, physical growth spurts, etc.). These massive changes are so incapacitating that there is now an increasing awareness of why teen-agers (along with chemotherapy patients) need to sleep longer, which more than justifies a later starting time for middle and high school students.
7. The last stage is adulthood, where (although the size of the brain remains the same) the trillions of connections in the brain continue to rearrange themselves constantly throughout our years as parents, workers, job-changers, spouses, etc. in our ongoing effort to adjust to our life, environment and circumstances. That the adult brain makes such neurophysiological changes is shattering many of the traditional assumptions about neural development in humans.

In the late 1960s, neurogenesis was discovered in the olfactory bulb, which houses the neurons responsible for processing the sense of smell. Later, researchers found that the hippocampus also replaced its neurons. The hippocampus receives partially processed sensory input from the sensory systems of the PNS and processes it into tiny morsels digestible by the memory-storage areas of the cerebral cortex. Neurons in the olfactory bulb were replaced almost monthly. In the hippocampus, brain cells were lost and restored at a much slower rate. Over the course of a lifetime, all of the neurons in our hippocampus are replaced 2-3 times.

For years, there were hints that neurogenesis might take place in humans. In the 1990s, researchers detected neuronal growth in canaries that were learning new mating songs. Just as young children must hear language before they can produce spoken words, young "normal" (neurologically and sexually healthy) male canaries must hear songs and develop the appropriate neural circuits for processing canary mating songs before they can sing them. Researchers found that the male cortex changes seasonally in order to produce the appropriate songs, but only as long as they are useful. When the cerebral cortex of canary female fetuses and young females were injected with male hormones, their brains also changed into "male" brains, and they were able to sing mating songs like their male counterparts who had been born as male birds.

Neurogenesis does occur in the hippocampus of adult macaque monkeys, which are phylogenetically very close to humans, since both species are Old World primates and have identical hippocampal structure and function. Researchers reported last year that in adult macaques, new neurons are added to three neocortical association areas (the prefrontal, inferior temporal and posterior parietal cortex), which are important in cognitive functioning

A generation ago, we would cautiously speculate about these neural activities and the corresponding structural transformations. At that time, our best evidence came by way of investigations permitted only due to misfortune or through autopsies following death. Today, not only can we observe brain plasticity, but we can also capture it pictorially with non-invasive brain-imaging techniques using perfectly healthy subjects, where we leave neither side effects nor scars.

Next Time We Will Continue with the subject of Learning

Articles and Columns By Kenneth:

Early Brain Development and Learning
A Two Part Series

What Everyone Should Know About The Latest Brain Research
A Four Part Series

Brain Basics For The Teaching Professional
A Seven Part Series

Kenneth A. Wesson
Educational Consultant

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Overcoming Dyslexia

Overcoming Dyslexia
Dr. Sally Shaywitz offers new facts — and new hope — about how every young child can become a better reader.

Kids who struggle with reading need extra help and lots of practice.

At a Glance:

• Reading problems often go undiagnosed until elementary school.
• When young children get prompt, intensive help, they can master reading.
• Kids with reading problems need to practice often; the brain learns from practice.
• If your child is struggling, encourage him to do something he is good at, such as soccer or art.

When a child struggles with reading, life can be hard: The ability, or inability, to read directly affects every aspect of her life, including her self-esteem. Unfortunately, almost 40 percent of 4th grade students in the United States read below grade level, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The large number of struggling readers is due in part to the fact that reading problems — namely dyslexia, which affects 10 million children nationwide — often go undiagnosed until children are well into elementary school, when it's much more difficult to address them.

However, we now know that reading problems can be identified in early childhood and, with the appropriate support, there is a good chance struggling readers will go on to become good readers. A groundbreaking study by researchers at Yale University School of Medicine revealed that when children are taught solid decoding skills (connecting sounds with letters) early on, and get prompt, intensive help in learning spelling, vocabulary and comprehension skills, they can indeed master necessary reading skills. In fact, researchers discovered — through comparing brain scans of struggling readers with those who received intense help — that the intervention helped "turn on" and stimulate the brain's reading systems.

To find out what it really means to have dyslexia and what you can do to help your child build stronger literacy skills, the editors at Scholastic's Parent & Child turned to Sally Shaywitz, M.D., a co-author of the Yale study and the author of the widely acclaimed book Overcoming Dyslexia: A New and Complete Science-Based Program for Reading Problems at Any Level. "Teaching matters," says Shaywitz. "You can change a child's brain when it comes to reading."

Parent & Child: What is the leading reading problem among young children?

Dr. Shaywitz: Dyslexia. People think it's a rare problem, but it's not. It's simply not true that reading comes naturally and easily to everyone. In fact, many boys and girls — including very bright ones — have a hard time learning to read. This problem is called dyslexia.

P&C: What challenges does a child with dyslexia face?

Dr. Shaywitz: For beginning readers, dyslexia involves an inability to notice and manipulate the sounds in spoken words. This deficit affects reading accuracy, and later, reading rate and spelling. Once a child develops an awareness of the sounds of spoken words, he can then link the letters to these sounds and go on to sound out new words. That's the key to breaking the reading code — and we have to help children who struggle to do it.

Very often, children who are dyslexic also have terrible handwriting. Their mouths have trouble forming sounds and their hands have trouble forming letters.

P&C: Do dyslexic children also see letters and words backward?

Dr. Shaywitz: No, that's a myth. And it's also a myth that dyslexia will be outgrown, that it's just a lag in a child's reading skills. Dyslexia is not outgrown; this means that children need to get help as soon as a problem is noticed.

P&C: What are the signs that might signal a young child is struggling?

Dr. Shaywitz: Children around age 3 and older may have trouble enjoying or learning common nursery rhymes, like Jack and Jill, or recognizing that in the "Cat in the Hat" rhyme, the common link is "at." A little later, they may have trouble recognizing the names or sounds of letters in the alphabet. I'm not talking about singing the ABC song, but about identifying a letter and knowing its name and then its sound. They may be unable to read or write their own names.

The good news is that this is a time of great hope. Until now, we didn't know why children were slow readers. Now we know, and we can help. We know we can prevent a child from developing a reading problem in the first place — or solve the problem early by helping at the first sign of a struggle.

P&C: You recommend "intensive intervention" to help. What exactly do you mean?

Dr. Shaywitz: A reading problem is very serious. Kids with reading problems need reading programs that are scientifically proven to work; they also need to have intensive intervention — not just 15 minutes or a half-hour a week. They need to practice often; the brain learns from practice. If we want a child to be a good baseball player, we say, "Go out there and throw that ball." Reading is not natural; speaking is. Reading needs to be taught, and it needs to be taught in ways that are proven to be effective.

P&C: What kind of support can a parent provide?

Dr. Shaywitz: Reading to your child is important, and especially reading books that rhyme, such as Dr. Seuss books. You can also make up your own jingles and stories that highlight a certain sound, like "sss."

From the time a child starts talking, you can help him break words into syllables. You can teach him to clap the number of sounds in his name, or the syllables in each day of the week. The idea is to pull apart spoken words.

If your child is struggling, it's equally important to encourage him to do something he loves and is good at, whether it's playing soccer or painting. Even though it takes a lot of time to help children learn to read, there has to be time for fun too.

P&C: What should a parent do if she thinks her child has a reading problem?

Dr. Shaywitz: The first step is to see your child's pediatrician, who can make a referral for further evaluation. For young children, the best expert is usually a speech and language pathologist.

P&C: In your book, you write about the special strengths of children with dyslexia. Please explain.

Dr. Shaywitz: A lot of successful people are dyslexic, including the author John Irving, the playwright Wendy Wasserstein, the financial expert Charles Schwab, and the noted heart surgeon, Delos Cosgrove, M.D. My husband [Dr. Bennett Shaywitz, M.D.] and I have developed a model: A dyslexic child has a weakness in decoding surrounded by a "sea of strengths." These higher-level strengths apply to comprehension, knowledge, problem-solving, and more. Children who struggle with dyslexia often see the big picture when others don't, and they often excel in life.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Language Development

Language has a number of interacting parts: phonology (speech sounds), morphology (word formation), syntax (sentence formation), semantics (word and sentence meaning), prosody (rhythm of speech), and pragmatics (use of language). All of these components develop at varying levels during the primary years after birth. Unlike reading acquisition, language development is largely considered innate, children are born to talk. Young children become masters of imitation as a means of learning words. However, not all learning is done through imitation. They also learn language through a constructive process whereby they create hypothesis about how language works. For example, they construct sentences such as, “Daddy goed running”, which is clearly something you wouldn’t hear from an adult. Creating a hypothesis about how language works, young children note that ed- is used to express past action and then over apply this generalization. With experience and feedback they adjust their hypothesis and learn that some action words have special past-tense forms.

There are critical periods for language development. The most intensive period of speech and language development is during the first three years of life (National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, 2003). By age three, children are talking in sentences and have a speaking vocabulary of 1,000 or more words. By Kindergarten, this could be as high as 5,000 or more words. The largest influence on the size of a child’s vocabulary is the quantity and quality of talk they are exposed to. According to many language experts, the most important thing parents and other caregivers can do for their children is to talk to them. The amount of talk directed toward infants and toddlers is related significantly to their verbal abilities and their later success in school.

Quantity and quality varies quite a bit from the most talkative parents to the least talkative parents. The least talkative parents use talk primarily as way of controlling and guiding children. The most talkative parents use talk in this way, but also provide extra talk that includes descriptions and explanations that is filled with more complex vocabulary and added positive reinforcement.

One extensive study, Wells (1986) found that some parents intuitively provided the greatest development for their children’s language. Instead of acting as directors of what their children said, these parents were mutual constructors of meaning. As great listeners, they made genuine attempts to use verbal and nonverbal clues to understand what their child was saying. Through this listening and active involvement in the conversation, parents were able to help their children expand their responses so that both knowledge of the world and linguistic abilities were fostered.