The information in this article, Brain & Literacy Part 4, is largely based on material found in:
Why Our Children Can’t Read, and what We Can Do About It
by Diane McGuinness. Ph.D.
[For more about this book, go to the Reading materials section of the Articles page.]
Full phonics courses help brains wire properly because they explicitly teach the sound/letter combinations. Over time, each combination becomes firmly wired into the brain, and the separate parts of the brain involved in literacy learn how to work together at high speed. The more this wiring is used, the less the brain is tempted to use the rather unclear wiring that was built to use the Whole Word method of learning to read.
Some dyslexics who try to learn to read as adults, fail again – usually because they’re being taught using the same methods that failed them as children – Whole Word does not work well at any age because it builds scrambled wiring.
WHOLE WORD DOESN’T LINK A SOUND TO ITS LETTER
Whole Word methods teach students in a way that builds scrambled brain wiring, because Whole Word methods teach students’ brains to process written words as pictures (instead of a series of symbols, each one representing a sound).
But pictures and abstract signs are different. An abstract sign (or code) is something that represents something else – a letter is a sign that represents a sound. Choosing each particular letter sign was an arbitrary (or random) decision made by someone – it doesn’t make sense to us these days – I’m not sure that it did even back when it was invented.
Because the sound/letter link doesn’t make sense, the analytical part of the brain has to do the work of linking them together. In my courses, I help students make these links by using memory pictures, memory words, and hand signs – so the sound/letter links make sense.
But when we teach words as pictures, rather than as separate letters (or letter teams) that have to be sounded out (so we can recognise the sound/letter link), the brain treats the words as pictures – and flips them over, reads them backwards, concentrates on a part of it (such as its length or shape) and does anything else it can think of that it would normally do with a picture.
Pictures are processed in the part of the part of the brain – the right side, that deals with the “big picture”.
Signs are processed by the left side of the brain. The left brain notices the tiny differences between letters, sounds and words.
IT’S USUALLY OK TO REVERSE PICTURES
Students who use the picture part of their brain for literacy often reverse b and d and flip p and q – because in a
picture, such little details don’t matter to the right brain as it deals with the ‘big picture’.
But the way letters face, and the details of how words are written do matter in literacy. Letters need to be organised logically, analytically and sequentially. These skills are left brain skills.
Full phonics courses teach the sounds and letters as pieces that have to be linked together in a particular order. So when a Phonics-trained brain sees a written word, it shunts the word to the left brain (because that’s what it’s been trained to do) – and the left brain deals with finding the right sound to go with each letter.
When a Whole Word-trained brain sees a written word, it shunts the word to the right brain – and the right brain works out the word from its length or shape. But many words have identical, or almost identical lengths and shapes. And shapes are designed to be flipped, reversed and tipped upside down, etc. And the more creative your students, they more they’ll do this – and then they’ll be labelled as dyslexic!.
Written English needs to be taught using full phonics because learning the sound/letter combinations is essential for reading – because that’s the way English was designed to be read and written.
And written English needs to be processed by the left brain, because words need to be analysed into their separate sounds, the sounds need to be blended together into the word, and then the word needs to be recognised, and its meaning must be understood and applied in that context.
I hope you’ve found this series helpful. This article, Brain & Literacy Part 4, is the last in this series.