Archive for June 2013

Learning to Read is a Mind / Body Experience

June 13, 2013

This will be my last blog post. I have greatly enjoyed serving the Tewksbury Township learning community as Interim Superintendent. As you know, our school district contains wonderful children, supportive parents, great teachers, excellent support staff, and talented Board of Education members. I hope that you have learned a few things from me during my tenure at Tewksbury. I know that I have learned a great deal from the experience.

I will certainly miss everyone, but change is a good thing and we all must move on. This final post may be a bit lenghty since I am trying to get as much in as possible. Possibly you will pick up a couple of additional tips that may help you work with your child and your child’s teachers.

First Steps

I want to help my child to increase his reading skills. So, what do I do first? I usually jokingly respond to this question by saying that you start at the beginning. However, this piece of advice may not be the best when we are determining how to address specific reading difficulties.

Based on what I know about how the human brain learns best, the very first things that need to be considered are the physical and emotional well being of your child. This is what is meant when the research points to the fact that learning engages the entire physiology. In other words, it is not just about mental ability; it is also about rest, nutrition, emotions and physical activity. Sometimes we think of reading as only an intellectual process. It is more accurate to think of reading as a total mind body experience.

Sleep to Learn

Let’s start with one of my favorite topics. I have been accused of doing this while sitting on the couch watching television. You guessed it. The topic is sleep.

Appropriate amounts of sleep are something that most of us do not get enough of. Especially, adolescents. Individuals between the ages of 11 and 19 need almost as much, if not more, sleep as younger children ranging in age from 5 to 10. The problem here is that because of social pressures, early start times at school, the need to work after school hours and various after school activities the likelihood of students getting enough sleep is not very good. It has been noted from a variety of sources that about 10 hours of sleep is what is needed by most children. Adequate sleep is very important to the efficient functioning of the human brain and especially the unnatural tasks of learning how to read. Sleep deprivation can have a major affect on the child’s ability to concentrate, recall information and respond with appropriate expressive language. Simply put, your child has a much better shot at reading success when he is well rested. You have probably heard before that establishing routines for younger children at bedtime can help a great deal and provide the best chance for a good night’s sleep. Your routines can include quiet games, reading favorite stories and listening to soothing music. All of which are activities that are brain compatible. My three adult children, (Peter, Jason, and Megan) still talk about how I read certain books to them at bed time. They each had their favorites. This practice not only helps children relax and gain exposure to literature. It also creates meaningful memories that can last a life time.

Think about it for a moment. Don’t you feel more relaxed and are able to fall asleep faster after you have settled down with a good book, listened to some good music and simply relaxed a bit? Guess what? It works for your children, too! Let me move on now since my purpose here is not to put you to sleep!

Eat Well To Learn Well

Some say that you are what you eat. I may not go that far, however, I do believe that nutrition does affect learning and especially learning to read. Again, it is all about the fact that we need to take into account the entire physiology of the individual. The brain is connected to the body and is nourished by the food and water that we consume. In fact it has been estimated that the brain uses up about 20-25% of the glucose that is produced from our bodies. I guess you can say that the organ of learning likes to take more than its share since it is less than 5% of out total body weight. With this fact in mind (no pun intended), it is important that we nourish our bodies well. I have heard the tale that you feed a cold and starve a fever. I am not sure about that fact, but I do know, however, that you feed your brain well and you get better cognitive results! In the case of learning to read, it means good nutrition equates to better chances of success at a very difficult and complex process that we call reading.

So then what is meant by good nutrition? As far as the brain is concerned, good nutrition includes appropriate amounts of protein in the diet along with plenty of water. Here are a few rules and tips that will help to boost your child’s alertness and memory. Both of which are important to focusing on learning to read.

Boost Alertness: Increase Mental Performance

Rule 1: Proteins early, carbohydrates later.
Rule 2: Avoid high sugar and high carbohydrate combinations.
Rule 3: Eat carbohydrates with protein.
Rule 4: Take multivitamin supplements, especially B vitamins.

Boost Memory: Six Types of Nutrients that Boost Memory

1. Lecithin: (egg yolks, wheat germ)
2. Folic Acid: (leafy green vegetables, liver, beans)
3. Selenium: (seafood, whole grain bread, Brazil nuts)
4. Boron Rich Foods: (broccoli, apples, pears, grapes, peaches, nuts)
5. Zinc Rich Foods: (fish, beans, whole grain, dark meat, turkey)
6. Iron Rich Foods: (dark green vegetables, meat, beans, fish)

Three Brain Based Eating Tips:

1. Drink a great deal of pure fresh water (8-12 glasses a day)
2. Eat unsaturated fats (fish oil, cottonseed oil, unsaturated butter)
3. Eat often (nibbling diet : 5-9 small snacks or meals per day)


Emotions can Spark or Sabotage Learning

A good night’s sleep along with a brain compatible diet will go along way to help facilitate the learning process. However, one of the most influential factors relating to learning to read involves the emotional state of the individual. It is a fact that the emotions in a person develop well in advance of the ability to plan and rationalize. Children are not equipped with the ability to make accurate sense of everything that they experience. I have always told my teachers that because of this fact we need to serve as the emotional coaches of our children. In other words, we need to take the time to explain things to them over and over again in order to help them cope with many things that they can not seem to explain.

For example, you tell your child to study and he disobeys by putting down the textbook and playing a video game. You can either reprimand your child for doing this or you can sit down with him and explain why it is important that he reads the textbooks and completes his assignments. And again, you may have to repeat these explanations over and over again!

You might say that he is taking advantage of you and simply just trying to get his own way. Well, okay then; go ahead and say that. However, there is a very strong possibility that if you do not give up easily with your explanations and demonstrate a good deal of patience and trust in your child’s ability to learn from you, you will be pleasantly surprised by the results down the road.

Educational consultant and author, Alphie Kuhn, would explain that you should not simply try to achieve temporary compliance in your interactions with your child but strive for more long term and intrinsic results. (Kuhn, 1995) Simply put, do not require that your child display appropriate behaviors out of fear of punishment or because they will receive a nice reward. That is the easy way out. Rather, strive to have your child display behaviors because they know why it is important to do so. Not an easy task for the parent and /or teacher, but a very worth wild one in deed.

With all of this said, please be very much aware of how negative emotions can be destructive to learning how to read, whereas, positive attitudes go a long way to facilitate the learning process. Think about these points before you react to the way your child handles her homework assignments and responsibilities. Since emotions are so critical, please allow me to make one last point on the topic. Hopefully, you will be glad that you did.

It is a fact that the human brain is unable to distinguish between verbal and physical threats. That is right, if a person attempted to do physical harm to you, or put you down verbally; the same types of chemicals will be secreted such as cortisol and adrenalin. The secretion of these chemicals can produce adverse effects to the human body and if it occurs on a regular basis it will affect the body’s immune system. (Sylwester, 1995)

This is why both physical and verbal attacks can not be ignored. This also states a powerful case for the need to be positive as much as possible. A positive approach to learning to read will help a great deal.

Let’s Get Physical

I can still see images of my daughter, Megan, at four years old belting out the tune, “Let’s Get Physical.” The song that was made famous by Olivia Newton John caused me to be a bit concerned when my little girl was singing it! However, what I was unaware of at the time is that learning engages the entire physiology. We need to put some motion and movement into the learning process in order to better anchor memories and learned concepts.

Geoffrey Caine, an educational consultant, writes about a time he observed a fourth grade classroom. As he entered the room and sat down, he noticed a group of students reading books as they walked around. At times the students would stop and then jump and begin walking until they stopped again. Curious, Mr. Caine asked the teacher to explain what the children were doing. The teacher said they were practicing their punctuation. As they read they would walk, and when they came to the end of the sentence they would stop. Sentences begin with capital letters so the children would jump up once when they began reading the new sentence silently. (Caine & Caine, 1991). Teachers sometimes jokingly say that getting some fourth grade students to start a new sentence with a capital letter is a foreign concept. Well, let’s not exaggerate too much; however, activities that involve movement do help to facilitate the learning process.

You can get creative at home. By reading while you walk about the house or outside. Doing some exercises at various breaks in the written material. Speaking of exercises, here is something to consider….

As far back as the 1960’s, Roger Sperry initiated research studies relating to the functioning of the left and right brain. As you may know, the brain is divided into a left and right hemisphere. According to Sperry, the left side is mainly more rational, sequential and concerned with the parts of things while the right brain is intuitive, open ended and concerned with the patterns of things. The trick, I believe, is to get the left and right brains to work together. This produces the most powerful learning opportunities. I like to use cross lateral exercises in order to accomplish this.

Having a child do some exercises, like running in place, jumping jacks, etc .is a good thing to do. It increases oxygen and blood flow to the brain and allows the child to better focus on the written materials. However, add some cross lateral moves (right arm to left side and left to right, etc.) and you have an even better response. For example, I will have the children make circles in the air with their right arms, left arms and then both arms. Then I ask them to have one arm go in one direction while the other one simultaneously goes in the opposite direction. Making figure eights in the air with the thumbs and going in opposite directions is fun and stimulating. My favorite is having a child grab her nose with her right hand and at the same time grab the lobe of her right ear with her left hand. Then you have the child switch. Grab the nose with the left hand and the left ear lobe with the right hand. These activities help to get the nerve impulses flowing across the brain structure called the corpus callosum (by the way it is larger in the female brains). The corpus callosum is actually a bunch of nerve fibers and theses cross lateral exercises can stimulate the flow of information between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. The result is better clearer thinking and often better comprehension and expressive (written and verbal) responses. Teachers in the primary grades have told me that they do cross lateral activities daily with their students. These exercises can be as simple as touching your left shoulder with your right hand and then switch and standing on one leg, and grabbing your right heel with your left hand. A great balancing act, also!

Positive Learning Situations

It is important to note at this point that learning is influenced by both focused and peripheral attention. Essentially, this means that the child not only learns by focusing on the material, but also from the surroundings. With this fact in mind, we need to think a great deal about the learning environment.

It is well documented that chemicals produced in your brain (neurotransmitters) can affect your feelings. (Sylwester, 1995) These neurotransmitters can also affect memories, learning and relationships. In order to get the best results, we need to make sure that when we work with our children, we do so in a brain compatible manner. You can help a child’s body chemistry by reducing stress as much as possible by creating a learning situation or environment that will produce the best results:

1) Use music to create a calming atmosphere. (Classical music from the Baroqu era)

2) Make sure that your child knows that it is okay to make mistakes.

3) Allow your child to make some choices.

4) Model a positive attitude.

5) Provide as much feedback as possible.

Let me elaborate a bit on number 5. By feedback, I mean the information that you give to your child. It does not mean that you say simply that this is right or this is wrong. Feedback should be specific and timely. In other words make sure that you give information back to your child as soon as possible and make it clear what you mean. For example to say that is a good job, is not quite enough. Try to be more explicit and say “That is good the way that you used more than one descriptive word to describe the character.” Or, “You did a good job at answering questions that were about the details of the story but you did not say why that you thought the story was good or bad.” The ongoing specific and timely feedback that you give to your child is what they say in the Visa commercials “priceless.”

Structure, Structure, Structure

As noted, reading well is a total mind body experience. An important part pf this mind body process deals with the way we set up the learning environment. In real estate it is all about location, location, location. In boosting reading skills it is centered on structure, structure, structure.

Since reading is an unnatural thing for the human brain to do, direct instruction is needed by most children. When you set out to help your child with her reading skills you need to consider how you will organize the tutoring sessions. Where will you and your child work, how often and for how long? Consistency is so very important. Try not to leave anything to chance. Think through what you want to do and what you want to achieve.

Make sure that the tutoring area is comfortable and equipped with the necessary materials. For young children 6 years of age and under, it is good to have picture books, flash cards, pencils, crayons, paper, scissors, magnetic letters, clay, colored squares to name a few. We will discuss how to use these materials at different points in the book. For older children it is a good idea to have a computer in addition to paper, pencils and books.

The human brain likes structure. Planning ahead to create a functional area and establishing appropriate routines will help to provide the brain boost that will help a great deal in your efforts to improve your child’s reading skills.

Memories of the Dining Room Table

When I was growing up the space that was designated for homework and help was the dining room table. It may not have been the best place to work, but it was all that we had at the time and at least it provided some structure.

When I think about this, I recall something my mother said more than 40 years ago. “I always complained about the mess my children made on the dining room table. They always did their homework and special projects there, and it was cluttered with books and materials. Now that you’ve left the house; I wish the dining room table was as cluttered today as it was yesterday.”

As a parent, I tried my best to setup good study spaces for my three children. The efforts that we put forth in establishing the needed structure will not only serve to meet the needs of our children in terms of their studies but also in terms of lasting memories. This is truly brain compatible and very meaningful.

Rocket Science

At this point, do you think that it will be easy to help your child improve his reading skills? I am sure that you look upon it as a challenge. In fact I usually tell teachers that they need to be rocket scientists in order to teach reading effectively. However, if you become aware of how the human brain learns best and take the time to learn how to utilize the most appropriate strategies and activities, you are well on your way to providing the type of support that will help your child become more successful at learning how to read.


Parent Trap:

The following provides some insights into situations that potentially could cause some problems for you as you set out to help your child boost reading skills.

Parent Trap: “The Right Stuff”

Sometimes parents will shy away from trying to help their children with improving their reading skills or only do a superficial job. The reason for this is sometimes do the notion that they believe that they are not able to do so or that they simply do not have “the right stuff.” Let me state that you certainly have the right stuff as a parent. You are very important to your children and can influence them a great deal. Do not fall into the trap of thinking that you are not qualified to help. You can gain greater confidence, however, by learning as much as you can about the recent research on the human brain and how this information can be applied to learning how to read.

Now that you are aware of the fact that it is unnatural for the human brain to read and that gaining knowledge about the functions of the human brain can serve to help address this issue, you are ready to move forward and make a difference with your children. You are in a great position to do a great deal of good in this area due your unique role as a parent. I have stated that, “The best learners make the best teachers.” This especially applies to parents!

All My Best!

I wish you the best of everything as you and your children continue on with the journey of learning. My advice is to not only do your best to enjoy the learning expereinces; but also never stop learing. I certainly do not plan to stop learning anytime soon!

Jim Gamble