When I was a kid I used to enjoy Mad Magazine, which I loved for many reasons, the irreverence, the hilarity, the satire, and more. One feature that I remember in particular involved cartoons that spelled out nonsense words as sound effects. For example: ”Glomp!” “Flaaack!” ”Pffft!” ”Sproing!” (above – a page from Mad with Don Martin’s visuals and words). I guess what drew me to these cartoons had to do with the fact that I am a word man who enjoys novelty, and here were these crazy-sounding words filled with vitality and intensity. Now, thinking back forty-five years over my career as an educator, it seems to me that these words should be part of any reading program, especially when students are blending phonemes and mastering word families such as ”ack” ”ick” and ”awk.”
The simple reason for this is that these ”words” are saturated with action and emotion, and both of these attributes are essential in activating the brain to perceive, remember, and reproduce written language. I argued in my last post that there really is no actual ”reading area” of the brain since natural selection hasn’t had time to evolve new regions of the brain for a function that is only 5000 years old. Consequently, anyone who wants to teach reading effectively has to effectively exploit existing areas of the brain that were selected for other reasons than reading. In Part 1 of this series, I noted that the ability to discriminate nature sounds might be one of those primitive areas that could effectively be recruited for this purpose. In this post, I want to focus on the role of emotion and how it needs to be a key element in any reading teachers tool kit.
Emotion is so important to the survival of species that it has an entire system of the brain dedicated to it: the limbic system (sometimes also called the emotional brain). This includes the hypothalamus, the hippocampus, the amygdala, and several other nearby areas. While these structures are responsible for a number of functions, the processing of emotions is a primary one. If a person perceives danger signals from the outer environment (e.g. a predator in the form of a human or an animal, a dangerous terrain, treacherous weather etc.), this information goes to the amygdala, which signals the hypothalamus to initiate either a short term or a long term stress response that mobilizes the organism to take swift action to fly from the danger, fight it, or freeze and hope that things blow over. You can see the evolutionary advantages of having such a system. Without it, a hunter might see a thundering herd of mastodons coming toward him, and, not sensing it as danger, decide to sit down and enjoy a quiet meal. This hunter, I think we can safely agree, did not live to pass his genes on to future generations, consequently his blasé attitude was selected out of the Human Genome.
It’s the worriers with the hair trigger action responses who are the survivors and we carry these genes with us into the present day. We’ve focused here on the emotion of fear, but evolution has generated a wide spectrum of feelings to help us deal with broad range of human situations including courting and mating, communicating, collaborating, problem-solving, and remembering, each of which serves as a means to improve our chances of survival and the replication of our genes.
One important consequence of the above, is that if a phoneme, word, or other unit of reading is presented to a student with vitality, action, and emotion, it is more likely to be perceived, processed, and remembered. Let me rail for a moment about the lack of affect that seems to pervade most reading programs and remedial reading programs (such as those designed for people diagnosed with dyslexia). Somehow, reading has come to be regarded as a science, and the idea of injecting feeling into instruction is at best seen as a bonus, rather than a sine qua non of effective teaching.
One teacher who recognized the importance of emotions in reading was the New Zealand educator Sylvia Ashton-Warner. Students in her classrooms kept notebooks filled with words that had personal affective meaning for them; words like ”ghost” ”grandmother” ”kill” ”divorce” ”scared” and ”birthday.” While defenders of the phonics method (as opposed to whole word or whole language approaches to reading) will criticize this approach, it nevertheless helped these kids develop an organic and feeling-based relationship to words, something that almost never occurs to students who learn solely through the ”science” of the phonetic method. (In a future post I will discuss the ridiculous and pointless so-called ”war” between phonics and whole language – the reality is that both are important).
Good reading teachers should almost function as therapists or even artists (performers) in helping kids diagnosed with dyslexia. When reading together, the teacher should be free to make associations that are kinesthetic (action-based) and emotionally-based. For example: Mrs. Gregory and eleven-year-old Samantha are going over a text that reads; ”We finally reached the top of the hill and imagine what we saw on the other side: a whole nation of gophers!”). Samantha gets to ”saw” and stops, managing to say ”ssss….” but not able to go any further. So the teacher says to her, ”you’re right about the ssss… and here’s something to help you with the rest: Aw! [she says this with much feeling and even some gestures] Aw, darn it! I hope those gophers don’t get into my garden! Aw!” She asks Samantha if she’s ever had any time in her life when she had to say ”Aw!” about something, like something didn’t go right. She says, ”yes, when my brother broke my candy necklace and the pieces went all over the ground!” ”And what did you say, Samantha?” ”I said Aw!” “Let’s say it together, with feeling, okay? Ready? [Together] ”Awwwwww!!! And the next time they happen along a word that includes ”aw” in it (”saw” ‘raw” ”law” ”paw” ”raw” etc.), she will carry the affective memory of this experience (imprinted on the hippocampus) along with her to the new linguistic situation
One activity a teacher could do would be to give kids styrofoam bats, and pieces of paper cut into cumulus cloud-like patterns. The instructions would be to make up silly words that might express sound effects from hitting the bat against something. Kids would write their words on the paper (e.g. ”Flomp!”) and then either hit something neutral (like a desk) or a fellow classmate (if your school rules permit it), while holding up the word and saying it as loud as they can. Then they can trade papers, and practice the sounds others’ have created. The important thing is to say the word with feeling and physical intensity.
Another approach that has been used by other educationists including Montessori, is to give students sentences to read that involve action and intensity, which they act out as they are reading it. This can later evolve into entire scripts and plays. If the student has trouble with a word, then that becomes the drama for the moment (as above). This idea of students sitting and reading quietly has got to go. Instead, students should read while rocking, standing, walking, jumping, acting, singing, orating, and more.
Not all teachers have it in them to call up the amount of feeling, vitality, and unconventionality necessary to support such an approach to reading. Those with a more scientific bent, along with the meticulous record-keeping that accompanies it, could perhaps retrain to become accountants and chemists. Administrators should look to hire teachers who have lots of bounce, pep, and excitement in their demeanor. Because from now on, reading class should look a lot more like Barnum and Bailey’s Circus College or Pablo Picasso’s atelier than Ebenezer Scrooge’s accounting office.
For more information about nontraditional ways to learn reading (and writing) see my book: The Multiple Intelligences of Reading and Writing: Making the Words Come Alive
This page was brought to you by Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. and www.institute4learning.com.
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