In 1949 Donald Hebb, a Canadian neuropsychologist, proved that everything you think, feel, and do triggers thousands of neurons. Not only that, but Hebb went on to explain that when you think, say, or do something repeatedly, your brain triggers the same neurons each time, and these neurons form what is called a “neural network.” He summed up this important finding with an easily remembered statement: “neurons that fire together wire together.” Remembering this can help you become a better reading teacher. Here’s how:
If you use a typical phonics worksheet to teach beginning reading skills, your students will be asked to draw lines between letters and pictures (the letter b goes to the ball, etc.), but this does little or nothing to trigger the neurons that will enable the brain to form a connection between the symbol (grapheme) and the speech sound (phoneme). No neural network will be formed. Your students will not have formed a connection between the action of writing the letter b and the sound /b/ (not “buh,” just “b”).
However, if you toss the worksheets in the trash and set up your phonics practice activities so that your students see the letter (you can hold up a card and say /b/), say the sound /b/, and then write the letter, the corresponding neurons will all be activated. If you have your students practice in this multi-sensory way, repeatedly, until they have mastered the sound-symbol relationship, the neurons related to those actions will have formed a neural network and will always be fired together. If you help your students create neural networks for all of the basic spelling patterns of English, their brains will have changed, and your students will be able to decode easily and accurately.
Multi-sensory learning engages the whole brain as students see, hear, speak and write the phonemes and graphemes to form connections.
In my experience, this is the easiest and best way to help students become better decoders. Since this is so, I always have my students see, hear, say, and write during phonics practice. (There are no phonics worksheets in my classroom.) In fact, I have them practice in this way until they can instantly say the sound(s) of any grapheme when they see it, and I keep them practicing in this way until they can instantly write the corresponding grapheme when they hear or say the phoneme(s) that it most commonly represents. Teaching children grapho-phonemic awareness, rather than phonemic awareness can make a huge difference.
According to many reading experts, this is the most efficient way to teach phonics facts (though it doesn’t make textbook publishers much money, because no worksheets are necessary). And since it seems to me that it is inappropriate to ask a student to read a whole word until he knows how to read the graphemes in that word, I always start by teaching grapho-phonemic relationships. The Riggs Institute, a nonprofit literacy agency, agrees that this is the most efficient way to teach beginning reading skills. (Actually, it is I who agree with them—they said it first.)
The first nineteen lessons in the Riggs Institute’s Writing and Spelling Road to Reading and Thinking reflect that belief. These lessons show teachers exactly how to teach sound-symbol relationships (Riggs calls them phonograms) up front, explicitly, and in isolation (without key words or pictures). Using only paper, pencil, and their students’ minds (as always with this program), Riggs teachers help their students program their own brains for decoding success. And they do it before they ask their students to decode whole words, which is only fair. (Don’t basketball coaches teach players how to dribble and pass before asking them to play in a game?)
Can you see why this might make a significant positive difference in the lives of beginning or struggling readers?
Does it even make sense to ask students to read whole words or sentences before we have given them the tools to decode them?
Could you do it? I mean, think about it. If you could speak a foreign language fluently but you did not know how to decode the words in that language, how would you want to learn that skill?
If I put even the simplest of books in front of you and asked you to read it, what would you think of this? If I insisted that you keep trying to read in spite of the fact that you did not know the code, how would you feel? What would you do?
Unless you were visually gifted and could easily memorize every word upon being told what that word was, wouldn’t you become frustrated or upset? Wouldn’t you ask me to teach you the code so that you could translate the symbols into speech sounds? And wouldn’t you want to learn that code in a way that was efficient, effective, and quick--in a way that wired your brain for optimal success?
Did you know that neuroscientists have shown that when children diagnosed with dyslexia are given effective instruction, they not only learn to read but their brains change? It’s true.
Using sophisticated brain imaging techniques, scientists have now proven that “behavioral gains from comprehensive reading instruction are associated with changes in brain function during performance of language tasks. Furthermore, these brain changes are specific to different language processes and closely resemble patterns of neural processing characteristic of normal readers.”
Here are some more important research studies on this topic:
Dyslexia-specific brain activation profile becomes normal following successful remedial trainingInterventions for children's language and literacy difficultiesTeaching Word Identification to Students with Reading Difficulties and Disabilities https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4299759/Neuroimaging of Reading Intervention: A Systematic Review and Activation Likelihood Estimate Meta-Analysis https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3888398/Developing Early Literacy Skills: A Meta-Analysis of Alphabet Learning and Instruction https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2910925/
Isn’t this exciting news?
Are all of those phonics workbooks doing our students more harm than good? Since teachers (and parents) can use a language arts program like the Writing and Spelling Road to Reading and Thinking to help students wire their own brains to prevent or correct reading disorders, and since all students can learn to read using only paper, pencil, and their minds, shouldn’t teachers be learning how to help them do that in their colleges of education?
Since it is true that “neurons that fire together wire together,” shouldn’t teachers be learning how to help their students wire their own brains for reading success?
When colleges of education don't provide teachers with the specialist knowledge they need to prevent and correct reading disabilities, who benefits? Workbook publishers, for starters.