In last week’s post, I was talking about the way the human brain processes language (you can see that post here). Those processes include the phonological processing system, the meaning processing system, and the context processing system. These systems help the human brain listen to what others say, respond with words and sounds, and understand what those words mean within the context of what’s being said. As homo sapiens, this brain has adapted over the past 200,000 years to process language that is spoken and heard.
As I shared last week, for most of human history, words only existed in verbal form, so the brain was ready to process that information. With the development of a written language, a new process had to be developed within the brain.
Now, I’ve got to pause here for just a moment to share just how fascinating the human brain is! It constantly is redeveloping itself, adapting one portion of the brain for new uses, and learning from past experiences. From some past learning, I know that a portion of what now makes up the orthographic processing system in our brain used to be used by the same part of the brain that helps us to recognize faces. When someone looks familiar to you, your brain is using similar areas of the brain as when you look at the letters on the device you are reading from right now. Think about how the human brain has had to adapt in the last 20ish years of the digital age. But the difference is that skills like reading must be learned by the brain. On the other hand, the language processing system is online for each human even before birth.
So here is how the brain had to change. With the development of written language, a new processing system had to be developed in the brain. We call this the orthographic processing system. This system is able to learn to recognize letters, and then eventually letter strings. In time, those recognitions come to feel almost immediate. To a proficient reader, most words seem to become sight words.
So what does this mean for us instructionally? It means that once our students have a strong foundation of language comprehension, the next step is to support them in phonemic awareness. This means that students need support in first noticing, articulating, and manipulating the smallest sounds in words. Eventually, after they have strong phonemic awareness, then we move into phonics where we begin connecting the sounds we hear in spoken language to the letters that make up those sounds.
In Shifting the Balance, there are a few shifts in instructional practices that Burkins and Yates suggest. Here are just a few things you might consider:
- High-leverage instructional routines – We might start with skills like noticing how sounds are made, then progress into putting sounds together to make words, then take words apart, then listen for similar sounds, then taking sounds off a word, and finally changing one sound to make a new word. These phonological awareness skills help build the sound knowledge that students need prior to bringing the orthographic processing system online.
- Word lists – There are several different resources that I have seen that could be used at various grade levels to assess students understanding of the various skills. In the district where I work, we could utilize the differentiated spelling lists that go with HMH/Into Reading, or we have access to the digital teacher’s version of Words Their Way. If you’re looking for another source, there are some excellent decodable word lists sorted by skill that were put together by Burkins and Yates as part of their work on Shifting the Balance. You can find those lists on their website here.
- Multisensory scaffolds – Utilizing tools such as Elkonin boxes with chips or counters, then progressing into letter tiles or magnets. Burkins and Yate point out that these multisensory tools might be especially important when a task is new or students are struggling.
- Assessment plan – As with any other skill that we want our students to know, formative assessment should serve as our guide along the way. Are there phonemic awareness skills that some or most students still need to develop? Do we need to create or utilize a more formal assessment to check your student’s phonemic awareness? This information will help us to know when it’s time to make the jump from focusing on the sounds in phonemic awareness to the point where we add in the work of connecting letters to sounds in phonics.
Just as with most other forms of learning, there is a progression that most students follow, first learning the skills of recognizing words in a sentence, then breaking words into syllables, then noticing beginning or ending sounds, and eventually identifying all the sounds of the word. When students miss steps along this progression, they might struggle further down the line. What I’m recognizing now is that many of the students who came to my classroom as a 5th or 6th grader who struggled with reading skills were probably missing some of those early phonemic awareness or phonics skills. Backing up and supporting some of the early language fluency skills might have helped them develop the skills they needed to be more successful readers. Hopefully for those of you who are teaching students who have reached the stage that we expect them to be “reading to learn,” there are some steps here that you might be able to integrate into instruction for your students.
What are your takeaways from this? What will you commit to trying based on this new learning? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!