Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks- My Take on What Brain Research Says About Reading as a Meaning Making Process
Dr. Sam Bommarito
I started teaching in 1970. Even though I’m “retired” I often joke that I am flunking retirement because I still do a such a wide variety of literacy activities. For instance, I write this weekly blog. I work in an after-school program. I speak at various conferences. For the past several years I have taken part in BTAP, a program carried out by Harris Stowe University which is designed to train beginning teachers in the St. Louis public schools. I’ve written in this blog about my participation in various book give away programs. In addition, for the past three years I have been Co-Editor of the state’s professional reading journal. Throughout all this I try to keep current on what’s going on the world of literacy and education. Toward that end I am taking a three-part seminar that explores the implications of brain research for informing us about how children learn. The course is called Teaching That Sticks: How to Teach so Students Actually Learn. It is being conducted by Willy Wood.
Willy Wood has long been an important fixture on our state’s literacy scene. He is the President of Open Mind Technologies and Educational Solutions International (https://www.willywoodteaching.com; https://www.linkedin.com/in/willy-wood-81523620/). For a long time, his organization has implemented two annual conferences. One is the Missouri Early Learning Conference. That is the very same conference where Bill and I finally met Mary Howard face to face just last week. Mary did an extraordinary job of talking about RTI and guided reading. The other is the annual Write to Learn conference. This is the very same conference where I first met Eric Litwin as he conducted a full day preconference session on using music in teaching literacy. In the way of full disclosure, the Missouri Literacy Association (an ILA affiliate) is one of the sponsors of each of these events. I am the president elect of that organization. In addition to organizing these conferences Willy also does presentations/keynotes all around the country on the topic of brain research. From time to time he also does seminars like the one I am attending. Participants in my session include a University Professor who teaches reading to pre-service teachers, classroom teachers, reading specialists, reading coaches and even a couple of math teachers. The seminar is proving to be a worthwhile experience.
I’m learning a lot during his sessions. Willy is going over the basic nuts and bolts of what brain research can teach us about how students learn and how we can use that knowledge to improve our own instruction. I’m learning about how short-term and long-term memory works. This is crucial, since the brain seems to be designed to forget much of what we take in, often within 24 hours of our first encountering it. The trick for long-term learning is to get things we want students to retain to move from their short-term memory into their long-term memory. Willy was quite adept at doing this. For instance, he showed us a method for remembering a random list of 20 facts. He used a technique called pegboard. It really worked. By the end of the second class I was able to easily remember 10 facts. Please keep in mind I have long had the reputation of being the quintessential absent-minded professor, so for that method to work that quickly on me was truly amazing. Some of my classmates were able to consistently remember all 20 facts. This was at the end of a single session. Impressive. However, there is much more to this seminar than simple memory tricks. I relay this example to you simply to show the power of applying the principles of what he is teaching.
The aha moment for me as a reading teacher came when he started talking about what brain research shows about how we learn. We learn by tying the new to the old. This was the very same conclusion reached by advocates of the meta-cognitive theory. What is different about this iteration is that brain researchers have actually started learning about where things are stored in the brain by directly observing brain activity. This was the stuff of science fiction when I was growing up. Now it is a routine part of scientific research. I believe that brain research clearly demonstrates that those of us who have been saying that building background knowledge and experience (please think- the Concepts About Print), were very much on the right track. My conclusion is that the sound symbol knowledge that some of my colleagues are so concerned about lately can’t happen until and unless the early learner first has a solid background in hearing the sounds, print experience and how print work. Marie Clay was right about what she did in Reading Recovery. Perhaps that is why Reading Recovery remains the most effective early reading intervention currently available. I think of it as the bumble bee of the literary world. According to some theories the bumble bee shouldn’t be able to fly. But they do. As a matter of fact, this bumble bee of the literary world flies better than any of the programs its critics recommend. See my blog post https://doctorsam7.blog/2018/08/10/why-i-like-reading-recovery-and-what-we-can-learn-from-it-by-dr-sam-bommarito/ for the data that demonstrates that this is a research-based statement.
Another thing Willy demonstrated that has important implications for reading and reading instruction is the fact that we remember things best when they are learned in a meaning-based context. He divided our class into two groups. Both were given a memory task. One was structured so the group was given the information in a meaningful context. The other was structured so that the very same information was given but given as isolated fact. The meaning-based group outperformed the isolated fact group by a factor of more than two to one. Willy then explained that there is a large body of research indicating that things learned in a meaningful context are much more likely to be remembered (Teaching That Sticks). That research-based fact makes me think that those of us that maintain that reading first and foremost is a meaning making process are on the right track. It helps to explain why in my own experience, children who learn sight words via wide reading, or using things like Rasinski’s Fry Phrases (high frequency word presented in a phrase rather than a single word) learn their sight words much better/faster than students using the flash card method.
By now the reader is aware of where I am going with this. Over-emphasizing breaking the code may produce good word callers. Check the “tests” advocates of such approaches use and you’ll find they are primarily tests of decoding, not of meaning making or reading achievement. Add the element of meaning making, as Reading Recovery does, and suddenly you have an approach that measures well on both decoding and meaning making. It raises reading achievement. For my money raising reading achievement (INCLUDING COMPREHENSION!!!!) is the gold standard for judging the effectiveness of reading programs. What I’m learning from the brain research folks seems to support what the advocates of the position that reading is fundamentally about meaning making have been saying for several decades now. In my opinion, there really is a very strong research base for the notion that reading is fundamentally a meaning making process, In short, that position is very much a research-based position.
So, those are some of the aha moments I had during this seminar on brain research. Until next week, this is Dr. B. signing off
Dr. Sam Bommarito (aka firm believer in the position that reading is fundamentally a meaning making process)
Copyright 2018 by Dr. Sam Bommarito. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely the view of this author and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other person or organization.