Saturday, 29 November 2008

We can help children READ better....

The first step to good reading ability is really the acquisition of good oral skills.

This means that a child who has good language will read more easily... but it does not end there. A child who is more exposed to books and reading will pick up reading faster than one who is not exposed to the printed words.

Certain natural milestones indicate that the child is ready for formal reading instruction. The child starts experimenting with words, starts to pretend to read and begins to attempt make believe spellings. (S)he will hold a pencil and scribble and even pretend to be grown up and handle grocery lists.

While these automatically indicate the reading ( and writing ) readiness in most children, there will be those who will lack these milestones and will raise alarm bells to some learning problems.

Dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia- have all been hyped by media and a lot is to be said about the often irresponsible and insensitive labeling of children ( and even adults) into categories that get stereotyped and treated as if they are abnormal.

ALL CHILDREN CAN BE HELPED TO READ AT GRADE LEVEL. This is a simple statement . It is a true statement. It only requires effort and dedication and plenty of patience but it can be done.
Once a care-giver is sure there is no organic reason fort the child being unable to read at grade level ( may be he has a visual or auditory handicap?), it is time to tighten your seat-belts and get ready for launch!

English is a difficult language as it morpho-phonemic. The letters often do represent sounds... but there are good many words that do not satisfy any phonemic rules and must be studied and remembered as sight words.

Consider simple counting words! One ( won?!)... two ( too?! or to?!)... three ( is fine) and four ( why not fore?) five is good so is six and seven. But eight!? ( Remember ate?) ... It is certainly not easy to keep a track of the context AND the word for many children.

One has to start with the basic sounding out of words and build GROUPS of words. This is classically done in most curricula today in the form of the initial exposure to short vowel sounds ( bat, bet, bit, bot, but) This makes it easy for young children to develop awareness of the sound associated with a written/ printed word. VArious consonants can then be introduced making it mat, met, mit, mot and mut) or even dab, ten, rob, dot, rub... The consonant sounds can be reinforced in groups. Rhyming is interesting and attention grabbing for the young children and immediately captures their minds and attention.

From here the child can naturally and easily be led into building up words as in making mate from mat or mat becoming material. The transition is easy for the phonically written words. The whole concept breaks down, however, when we encounter what have come to be known as sight words. The simple sight words must be introduced to the children early on and be made fun to play with... to- do- but go? no? so?

The sight word vocabulary will expand exponentially once the child gets comfortable with the idea of holding a book correctly and attempting to read. The whole language method focuses on reading TO the child once, may be twice; reading WITH the child another time and finally being around and letting the child read on his own. The detractors of this method of teaching argue that the child is reading by rote where as he has not really learnt to read the word. One only has to ask- What EXACTLY IS reading? It is reading from memory. With each sweep of the eyes, the brain picks up a group of letters, performs an extensive search in the memory banks for what that group could mean, gives a sound to the written word, converts it into decipherable language and executes the task of reading- all in milliseconds! Reading IS very much a memory task. If we can make the memory stick by repetition, wel... why not! It is easy. It is doable. It only requires time.. and patience.

These early reading strategies are valuable-
Hold the book correctly
Read from left to right
Repeat the phonic content of simple words
Introduce sight words
Read. repeat, read again
Encourage writing effort
Encourage the understanding of alphabetic principle

From here we will truly move on to our journey of the roller coaster of reading fun!
Whooopppie!! Here goes...

Friday, 28 November 2008

Reading decoded!

Reading as a skill at the very basic level requires the reader to 'sound' out the written word into teh sound that it makes.

Each word may be composed of a combination of any of the forty four recognised phonemes of English language. These are independently vowel and consonant phonemes and are quite independent of each other. A detailed account of the sounds routinely used in English language can be found easily on the web

In Hindi ( Devnagiri script) this is even worse- each set of grouped phonemes has 5 or 4 for the final two rows, sounds and each of these sounds can be combined with any of the twelve vowel sounds ( maatras) resulting in 68x12 sounds. These combinations are palced spatially all around the consonant sounds- uh sound is denoted by a complete consonant, aah sound by a straight line following it, the short i sound is denoted by a maatra that is placed in front of the consonant it modifies while the long ee sound is denoted by one that follows the consonant it modifies. These are both looped above the zone of active reading. Consider the short u as in butcher that is like a comma under the consonant, and the loong oo sound that is placed in the opposite direction also under the consonant. This spatial jig zaw can be quite confusing for a new reader or for a reader who has reading difficulties.

Each written symbol, then denotes a sound for the reader. These are eventually sounded out in the head as a part of the decoding process, and assigned a combination sound or word. Thus, seeing a written word kicks into motiona complex set of neural activities starting woth actually perceiving the written word, following it with a decoding process and mental sounding out, thereafter comes synthesis of these phonemes into a word.

Once the mind has arrived at a word, it searches its data base, so to speak for all meanings ut has denoted to this decoded combination of phonemes in the past learning experience, and picks teh meaning that is closest in the context. Infact, a child with good phonemic concepts can read fluently and correctly without even knowing the meaning of the words.

One look at shows just how complicated rreading really can be! Imagine that ear has several sounds it can denote- ear itself, hear, heart. And if heart is read HAArt, why must cart not be ceart? And so on!

This mess and confusion prompted George Bernard Shaw to propose an all together new and presumably more appropriate system of language! He proposed that sounds and letters should correspond without overlap. Thus, in his alphabet k could not be represented by c, or by ch. He joked that ghoti is the way English spells what we read as fish!( gh from laugh, o from women, ti from nation. ) In fact several'i' words could as easily be written as 'ai'! TAIM ( Ta- im) Time!

The Devnagiri script for Hindi is much more scientific in this regard. Each sound is represented by a single alphabet. However, the complexities of the added vowel signs all around the consonants complicates the written word.

Study of the brain in the reading task has shown that only the visual cortex is stimulated if the printed symbol is a simple circle/ line etc. This changes dramatically when the printed symbol has a meaning- the alphabet or the pictographs. This task stimulates the visual association areas along with several areas in the language and the analysis related parts of the brain. This is further expanded to include association areas in the latter fields when the symbols are strewn together to form words and words are strung together to form sentences.

The children who are unable to form these associations find the initial decoding difficult. They may be seeing a symbol and thinking another one. It is instructive to try this little test from a wonderful website devoted to understanding these children.

Try this link.... for a reading experiment

Reading comes easy to some. Many others struggle with this task well into adulthood. These are not people with subnormal intelligence. They are people who are wired differently. We, as parents and teachers have the responsibility to connect with them, and see that the decoding can happen easily... without emotional trauma and burden that often accompanies the classroom experiences of these specially enabled children. they will often be highly talented and versatile. they are not lazy and they are not stupid. they are different. Respect that difference!

Friday, 21 November 2008

Reading first? Or writing?

Now it is the right time to re-examine that first question which launched this blog.

What comes first reading or writing?

It is the classical hen or egg situation.

Neurophysiologically speaking, the verbal behavioral responses precede motor skills in all major ares of childhood development. The child smiles BEFORE he begins to speak. He begins to identify BEFORE he begins to call for it. It stands to logic, then, that the child should read BEFORE he begins to write.

Reading itself is an extremely complicated physiological process. Writing is infinitely more difficult, however, as it requires the child to HOLD a stylus such that it does not slip, exert just the correct amount of pressure on the paper, keep it steady in the process and hold this motor position for long enough durations.

Reading may be better understood as being composed of three main components- decoding, comprehension and retention. Decoding itself is a highly complex neural activity. This involves perception of the written signal ( letter) , identifying it, putting the several letters together, 'speaking' the same group together in the mind and then constructing a word out of all these activities. Then comes the difficult task of remembering each preceding word with the next, retaining it in the short term, making sense of each word combination- making meaningful sentences out of the written material.

That does not look too simple, does it?

Consider the writing task. First, the child must form a pincer grip... between the thumb and the forefinger. Thereafter, the remaining three fingers have to curl up to support both the stylus and the writing hand on the paper. Then, a specifically directed activity of moving the stylus in a remembered pattern results in a written word. It is essentially a motor action which is a culmination of neural training that MUST precede it.

Most schools try to teach writing before they start teaching reading in earnest... or at best simultaneously. The debate of phonics versus lack of it is still alive and unresolved. I would probably favour the mixed view. There are distinct and frequently used words which do not follow Phonics. The counting numbers are an easy to fathom example. One? Read the way it is? And two? Four? Not FORE?! Eight?

We need dedicated teachers who choose and DECIDE they are going to connect with the students. No matter what. It is not going to be easy for a child who has specific problems focus or respond to the class room stimulus as the other 'normal' students would. This does not make them any less normal- only different. Once they crack their individual code- decode process, they behave, read and write fairly normally.

These children have to be helped to do so. The responsibility that these children learn and follow the class room teaching is the sole responsibility of the teachers.

Parents need to help the process. The parents need to be able to help the child realise his or her own potential. Failure to be able to fit the square pegs in round holes is not the children's fault. If they are the square pegs, we have to create square holes for them.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Attention CAN be improved

Attention and the ability to keep it are of paramount importance not only in school but also later in life.

Though paying attention seems to be a sigle activity of a mind, it is infact a complex neuro-cognitive process. Paying attention to a task might involve the perception of that job, then its recognition in the conscious realm and finally an action based on the two preceding neural activities. If one considers also the fact that there are several neurologic inputs entering our brains all the time- the process of attention also involves filtering out those stimuli which need not be attended to... the potential distractions.

Consider a routine drive from home to work in the morning. Driving is almost an instinctual activity for most people... they do, however, keep a track of speed and change gears, keep a track of the traffic signals and stop when needed, keep a track of the movement on the road and brake when required to do so... only to name a few. A complex neuro-physiology is at work allowing us to ATTEND to driving while filtering out extra stimuli.

Now imagine a classroom. A routine class room in India has about 40-45 students. Each child has his or her own requirements and contributes to the collective cacophony a class room can become. A child must learn to filter out all the noises, interpersonal interactions and finally bring their attention onto the teacher to be able to do anything meaningful in a class. Imagine how difficult it can be... For children who DO have a problem bringing their minds to a task at hand, all the things are equally distracting, whether it is a child wanting to be excused to go to teh loo or a the sound of the dropped pencil. Even the occassional cough and the chair dragging on the floor can be distracting for such children.

So how can we help such children?

For these children, multi sensory teaching seems to work very well because this kind of teaching constantly changes the stimulus, creating a focus area which is constantly changing- an impact that demands attention.

The mind, in order to process any information must expend some energy. The children who find it difficult to attend may find themselves tiring out too soon when the task at hand demands more energy than they can effectively control.

The Attention control systems, then, may be classified as follows:

  1. Energy

  2. Processing

  3. Output

Energy required to attend and process a task may get deranged at various levels. The first level of disturbance may be at the level of alertness. These children, then appear to be day-dreaming and may fail to be or even appear attentive.

Next control is the sleep arousal control. The child ( or the adult) in this case will have problem going off to sleep, will not have a very relaxing or good quality of sleep and will not wake up refreshed and feel tired during the class or the office meeting.

Then comes the ability to control mental effort. This is especially troublesome if the child does not find the material stimulating enough. Such children find the task assigned to them both boring and daunting. As they are unable to complete the task, it also sets up an excruciatingly painful cycle of poor self esteem. These children do better if the task is broken down into smaller segments and each serves to remind them that they have completed a (mini)- task.

And then, the performance consistency. This is the control that allows the child to direct attention and energy on a day-to-day or even a moment to moment basis. These children may not have trouble all the time. There may be times they are able to hold up. Then they do well. This might just kick in systems whereby the positive re-enforcement cycle may take over and their self esteem starts to build up.

The processing controls may then come into play. These are saliency control whereby a child can decide which task out of the myriad distracting ones needs to be attended to; depth and detail determination which allows the children to focus on specific details and allows them to recognise and remember details; cognitive activation allows the child to connect newly learned data to pre-existing knowledge base; focal maintenance determines whether a child is able to maintain APPROPRIATE focus on a task. In some subjects the child may appear highly distracted while in other areas he may attend to unnecessary detail. And finally, the satiety control. This allows the child to focus on relatively low interest level materials with ease. The children who lack this control may find it difficult to be satisfied with low interest activities.

The final rung in the ladder is is the Production or the output control. The first among this category is the preview control, lacking which a child may be unable to evaluate an action, and either plunge too soon into it or react too quickly. If the child lacks facillitation and inhibition, he may not be able to consider multiple options to choose the best one. These children, then act too hastily. Pacing is another control that may be lacking so that the child may do a task too fast without any real comprehension of it or may be inordinately slow at it. Children lacking self monitoring may not be able to take remedial measures if they cannot decide if they are straying from the job at hand. And those who lack reenforceability can not use previous experience to direct current actions.

Thus a lack of attention amy be a break down at one or more of several closely related processes and controls. In order to be able to help a child we need to first identify the break down point(S) and then go about correcting our own course so that we may be able to connect with these children.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Can attention be improved?

When we understand what attention is and how it is brought about, we can address its absence or suboptimal presence with a more positive mindset.

An object that is paid attention to if it is found interesting. In other words, attention is automatic if the object is of interest. It is logical, therefore, that the foremost requirement of attention being invoked AND kept on an object or a task is to arouse enough sense of adventure in it... and sustain that sense.

Attention is passive and reflexive when the object is intrinsically interesting. This involves bright colours, movement, sudden impact etc. for human beings. This kind of attention is elicited irrespective of the individual.

Bright blocks that can be arranged in various ways, brightly coloured play dough that can be moulded according to the child's little hands and big minds, glossy picture books, cartoons- these are all examples of what the children find intrinsically interesting.

Sensitivity to the immediately exciting is a major characteristic of childhood attention. This is obviously correlated to the fleeting nature of this attention because teh immediacy is lost as soon as it is presented. This poses one of teh major problems in early childhood education.

The children have tremendous energy and few, if any, organised interests to hold their attention. Thus, the children are easily attracted by a colourful and bright object and equally easily attracted to another one presented to them, distracting from the previous one. This makes early classes extremely difficult.

The first thing that early childhood educators need to do is excite the children.

The next is ... to keep them excited!!!

This is possible only by connecting to each individual child.

My daughter was very musical to start with and whatever was presented to her as a song/ poem was easily memorised and required almost no active attention. It was the very basic, the very instinctual and primal drive in her. She was lucky to go to a preschool where lessons were indeed sung. It was effortless. In my son's case... he is very fond of cars. We taught him the alphabet by telling him AND showing him A for Audi, B for Bentley rather than A for apple, B for Bat. The easy words were not so easy for him to attend to and the cars had a basic instinctual appeal to him.

Parents can and often do travel that extra mile so their progeny can take the first step toward fitting into the world of formal schooling without upsetting the apple cart too much. They take the pain to make instruction fun because they know their child. For a teacher this is infinitely more difficult. Parents and teachers need to work together and develop a method/ protocol they can follow with the children which is individualised and that addresses the child as if his/ her interests are important and can drive the learning process.

Having CAUGHT the attention how can a teacher or a parent KEEP it?

Constant movement, change, motivation, pleasure are a few things children instinctively understand. The teachers, then, need to include multisensory methods in their teaching and inculcate a sense of wonder with each of their study/ teaching aids. My daughter's preschool teacher actually brought a salad bowl and lots of fruit to teach the students the nursery rhyme... Salad... A fruity fruity salad... She tossed a fabulous salad right there in the class and passed the paper plates around. She gave each child a helping of the salad and made them feel teh texture of the fruits BEFORE they actually ate it.

She SANG the poem ( auditory input), she tossed the salad like a professional ( visual stimulus), she passed the salad around and took a deep breath ( olfactory stimulus), she made the children appreciate that the apple was hard and crunchy while the banana was soft and gooye! ( tactile inputs) and finally she encouraged the children to eat it ( gustatory stimulus).

How many teachers would do that?

The basic brain physiology requires that the care givers recognise that children are attracted to things that EXCITE, their attention CAN be captured by varying the stimulus and including multisensory inputs and the children may ALL have their individual interests which need to be known to the teachers in order to keep the attention of these tiny minds.

It would seem, then, that Attention deficit is rather a failure on the part of a teacher rather than the child! It is the responsibility of the trained educator to be able to reach, connect with and stay connected with each child they take on.

Attention CAN be improved. It requires very simple but dedicated effort.

Attention deficit is a lable that needs to be invoked only after VERY careful consideration...

Saturday, 15 November 2008


The Webster's dictionary defines Attention as the act of directing the mind to a single object or thought.

Mindfulness has often been used to describe attentiveness in a meditative state of mind. It can, however, be loosely used to refer to a state of directed attentiveness in any activity. This could be a game of basketball as much as a virtual game on the Wii console.

Many of us these days realise just how fleeting our attention really is and how fickle our mindfulness when we begin to consciously focus on a single object.

Anyone who has tried to meditate can understand how fast the mind flits from thought to thought. Current emphasis on technology, speed and instant gratification only makes us worse. Human minds are running - fast in the New Age. This is not how the brain was designed by nature. In the Old Age ( for the want of a better term to describe our origins), Homo sapiens were relaxed, still and vigilant simultaneously. It appears to be an oxymoron today to most people who live and swear by the buzz word of our times- Multi-tasking.

It would be instructive to contemplate two scenarios. The first on the list is the act of running a 100 m dash. This is to be compared ( if such a comparision can indeed be made!) with a routine morning drive to the office.

First the dash. Imagine running at your top speed. Reaching the finish line, you were informed this was not it! You had to run another 100 m and then another 100 several times. Your face is now flush with the flow of all that blood. Your pulse is throbbing in your temples. Your ears are ringing with the effort and your breath is coming in short ineffective bursts. Your legs are aching and it is taking superhuman effort to keep standing. Your body is sending all the signals that it has reached its limit. You stop. Then you slow down. Intentionally, you take a deep breath, rub your temples and your calves, sit down and ... Suddenly you are jerked to your feet. You must run again!

Now imagine the morning drive. It is the physical 100 m dash over and over again in your mind.

Driving at a steady pace, the cell phone starts to ring. The music is playing in the foreground, filling up the interior of the car. The eyes are taking in everything on the road- that occassional jaywalker ( that idiot! you swear!) who is trying to dodge the cars, that car which was trying to overtake you from the wrong side ( another idiot!), and the auto rick moving at the speed of twenty in the fast lane! (Get the hell out of my way, you are screaming in your head.) And your mind is planning for the meeting scheduled in the office at 9. Your eyes, half on the road, fleetingly catch the clock on the dashboard. ( Shit! Another mental scream! Just five minutes to go) And the traffic signal changes from amber to red just as you manage to screech to a halt. If you are lucky the driver behind you will not be in a hurry and your bumper is safe. Else...

Now transpose this onto a standard children's channel. A routine programme is about half an hour long. It has approximately 3-4 minute programme interrupted by atleast as long advert breaks. The adverts are usually recorded at a sound level a notch or two higher ( THEY ARE). this goes on for half an hour in fits and spurts. Then it starts all over again for the next programme. And then for the next.

And we cry attention deficit!

Paediatric psychologists and neurologists routinely quote the attention span to be 3-5 minute per age years, till it reaches a maximum of twenty to thirty minutes in adulthood. However, a standard University exam lasts for three hours. A standard movie can last from one and a half hours to 3 and a half hours ( Hollywood or Bollywood respectively). and most adults AND children are able to follow a plot they are enjoying. Attention, thus, may also be dependent upon the interest generated in a given activity.

We make children's programmes very bright and colourful, interesting and fun... and then break them into 4 minute segments interrupted by 3 minute capsules of adverts which are different in each break. We do not allow the attention span of our children to move beyond that of a one year old.

Is attention dfeficit hyperactivity disorder really a disorder?

Are we not contributing heavily to way our children are turning out?

It would do the parents well and the children a whole lot better to limit their screen time. Reduce background noise in your households and allow the attention to slowly grow... blossom... flourish.

Walter Benjamin described this New Age phenomenon as " reception in a state of distraction" Now it is time to move away from distraction and towards reception... unhindered.

Early learning

I have often wondered which comes first? Reading or writing? To my mind, reading is the obvious answer. I find, however, that the schools focus so much more or writing tasks that the small, tiny hands tire before the mind can begin to grasp the words.

It is a magical world out there... the words... the sentences... the pictures...

I still remember my childhood days when I could lose myself for hours in my own make- believe world. It could be the magic of Tenali raman or the forest animals who could speak in human language in Champak Van!

Times have changed. Children are more involved with games and activities. They are also to be seen in front of their computer screens or in the midst of their academic deluge. Mostly they are to be found staring at a screen that continues to play something or the other 24x7! How the TV channels find so much to air is a mystery only till you realise that the programmes are often repeated. Children watch the same programme again... and again... and yet again.

If they were too find reading and writing as enjoyable, and were to read and write "again... and again... and yet again", would they not... ehhhh... learn as easily as they remember the signature tunes of their fav shows?