Are Your Students Practicing Without Understanding?

Many beginning and remedial readers are being asked to complete “learning activities” without being told how they will be helped by them. This is a problem.

In order to read efficiently, explains Dr. Hilde Mosse in her Complete Handbook of Children’s Reading Disorders, students must understand what they are supposed to be learning. Do yours? 

Students of reading, says Mosse, co-founder of the LaFargue Clinic and former head Psychiatrist for New York City’s public school system, “must form conditioned reflexes between letters and sounds.” That's step one.

All beginning reading activities should be aimed toward that end, and all of our students must understand why this is so.

Do yours?

Dr. Mosse shows us that like Pavlov’s dogs who were trained to expect food when they heard a bell, our students must be trained to create stimulus-response patterns to written letters. Differently than dogs though, our students must train themselves.

And they need to know why they are doing that.

And they need to know that it will require a lot of focused and deliberate practice, which may not be fun.

I always make sure that my students understand all of these things before we begin--especially when I am working with struggling readers who have been mislead into believing that "learning to read is fun" (it isn't) and written words are visual symbols which represent meanings (they aren't). 

“The visual stimuli are letters which are two-dimensional abstract forms that bear no immediate relationship to objects or feelings and whose only meaning is the sound.“

This is important, says Mosse:

To show a child a group of letters and to tell him that this means 'house'--as is done in those kindergartens and first grades where children are introduced to reading with so-called “sight words”--confuses them, interferes with the formation of conditioned reflexes, and teaches them a lie. The letter sequence h o u s e stands for the word 'house' and not for the house they see; pictures do that, but not letters. It must be explained to children from the very beginning that letters represent speech sounds that are a part of every word. This explanation is quite indispensable because not all children can deduce this on their own.

Have all of your students deduced it? Mosse reminds us that it is important to find out:

I have examined too many children of all ages up to high school who had reading disorders because they did not fully understand this basic fact. It either had not been explained to them properly or not stressed consistently enough. Learning, even the acquisition of automatic functions such as conditioned reflexes, always requires understanding; the highest and most advanced parts of the cerebral cortex must always be activated, otherwise learning cannot take place.

Do your students understand what they are supposed to be learning?

Are you teaching directly and deliberately?

Are your classroom activities geared toward helping your students master the written symbols of English speech sounds as quickly as possible so they can use them to spell (encode) and read (decode) every whole word that they might encounter in their daily work? (This can't be done with worksheets.)

Do your students realize that they must work hard to deliberately create conditioned reflexes (automatic connections between symbols and sounds) so that they will be able to decode whole words automatically?

If not, now is the time to start teaching and telling.

To achieve conditioning with the greatest possible speed and accuracy the child must know exactly, step by step, what he has to learn. He must be told, for instance, that the “S” stands for the sound “S” and for nothing else, and that he must learn to say “S” when he sees “S.” Whether single letters or a fixed combination of letters forming one single sound are taught, the conditioning process is the same. The child must be helped to form an automatic association between the seen letters and the spoken letters. The formation of such an association is the key to reading.

Students need to begin each learning activity by understanding what they are supposed to be learning.

That makes sense, doesn't it?

Are your students practicing without understanding?

If so, now is the time to change that.

Teach them how to begin with the end in mind.

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