Why It Pays to Break from Tradition When Teaching Struggling Kids

I just heard from a mother who'd previously emailed about her son, and this time the news was great! She tried the strategy in How to Beat Those Tricky Vowels and said that within five minutes her son could not only do the vowels but was able to read the C-V-C words he’d struggled with for so long. She also commented that she’d been teaching as she was taught in school assuming this was the way you were supposed to teach. There is so much about this interchange I want to comment on.

How a Visual Learner Learns

How awesome that a child who’d struggled for two years was able to overcome his problem in a five-minute session! The descriptions of the child sound very much like how a visual learner could be described. There are so many children like him populating our classrooms and homes! If they don’t get it even with repeated teaching, it is because that is not how the information goes into their brains. We assume they are slow or unable. However, when we DO find the way that is consistent with how they learn, the learning is instant! We could get whiplash because of the incredibly fast change from “can’t” to “got it!” I’ve seen this happen many times and it is difficult to convey the amazing change that can occur. It is literally like flipping on a switch or opening a door.

We ALL Tend to Teach Like We Were Taught

I did the same exact thing! The whole saga of how I got into doing what I am doing started with me sitting on the floor doing circle time with a group of preschoolers. The content of that daily ritual is exactly what is done in classrooms across the nation. We counted (rote), we recited the ABC's complete with sound and a sample word (“A says a, a, a for apple”). We did various other repetitious things that I would NEVER consider boring kids with today. What got my attention then is that there were some kids in the group who had no trouble learning the material the way we were doing it. But there were other kids who just were not able to remember. (Mercy me, the wonder is that any of them did! Mea culpa!) I spent enough time with these children to instinctively understand that they were not lacking in any way, so my quest began to find out why some kids apparently learn and others don’t.

Fast forward: I’ve learned that there is a better way to teach! The kids were not broken; I was, in my way of transmitting information to them.

It Is Not Easy to Venture Away from What Is Considered “Normal” and Accepted

In the U.S. big huge committees have met and established the RIGHT way to teach reading and have stated categorically that an early precursor of success in reading is a child’s ability to manipulate phonemes or sounds. In their estimation, if a child cannot sound out words using individual sounds, he or she will not learn to read. I’m waving my hand wildly at this point; I want to add a p.s. to their edict that says “If a child cannot successfully learn to read by learning little sounds and then putting them together, she WON'T learn to read unless we choose to teach her from whole to part…which is how she learns!” However, the idea has been so ingrained that the ONLY way to teach is the approved way that it is nearly impossible, feels dangerous and risky, and is scary to venture out and teach using pictures, etc. The reason it is so scary is because we don’t want to jeopardize our children’s education on some new notion that may or may not work.

Trust the Amazing Design of the Brain

The only way we will get past this issue is to try it once. I’d love to see parents and teachers try a new way: use stylized high-frequency words first…before phonics, before sounding out. Once the child has mastered those words via pictures, then break the words into their patterns. Visual learners are so adept at finding patterns and applying concepts to new learning. But they have to see the final product first: whole words. Visual learners learn in the amount of time it takes their brains to snap a picture. This is exactly why the little boy mentioned at the beginning of this post could master a concept in five minutes that he’d not been able to learn in months!

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