A new way to learn to read can help children struggling with the basics
Martha - One reason why children struggle to learn to read is that they become so distracted with trying to get the sounds of the words right that they lose track of how the actual word relates to the story they're trying to read. This also makes it hard to remember that word in the future because its context has been lost. To combat this, Art Glenberg from the Arizona State University has developed a teaching system whereby the child interacts with the story by moving objects and people referred to in the story around on a computer. They find that the developing brain ties the word and the action or meaning together, and makes them more memorable. The result is up to 50% better performance in comprehension and word recall tasks.
Art - What I'm about to say doesn't apply to all children, but to many children. And that is that they haven't learned how to make the link between the written word and their experiences. So, when they come to a word like 'beach', some children may not hook that up with their own experiences at the beach and when they don't do that, all is lost. They don't get any meaning from the text that they're reading.
Chris - So they're sounding it out and saying 'beach' but that doesn't to them, in their mind, mean waves, sand, sand castles, running around in the sunshine.
Art - Exactly and you might ask further, why is that? They've said the word. And I think the reason is that when the word is said in the context of reading, it's often pronounced disfluently and it doesn't have the context around that it would in a normal conversation with one's parents or with one's friends about running around on the beach and playing ball on the beach. When the children are reading and having difficulty reading, each word that's pronounced individually and disfluently. And so, those words just don't make the contact that's with the experiences that's necessary.
Chris - Such as because the child is concentrating so intently on getting the word out, that actually the meaning is being lost.
Art - I think that's part of it. It does require a lot of concentration to get the word out, but another reason why the meaning is lost is because it's taking so long for the child to get the word out when saying, "Beach" that the word just before has been forgotten, and certainly, the word, 3 words ago, has been forgotten. So, it's very difficult for the child to integrate the meanings.
Chris - So, what do you think we can do about it?
Art - There are a number of attempts to help children read better. One is to have them practice so they develop fluency and I think that's certainly a good idea. But what I've done pushing is this program called Moved by Reading where we help children develop the links between reading and their experiences. We do it in a very simple, child-friendly manner, by having the child read simple text with images of the characters in the text up on the computer screen. And then as the child reads a sentence, for example, a sentence about activities on a farm, the child might read, 'Ben drives the tractor to the barn." What the child will do is to move the image of Ben the farmer into the image of the tractor and then move the two of them toward the image of the barn. And what we find is that this sort of physical manipulation has a number of benefits. First, it helps the children remember the story much better than they would otherwise, often twice as much. It lets them answer inference questions from the story much more accurately. The major benefit though is that after children have been engaged in physical manipulation, we can then tell them to do it in their imagination. When they're reading, they should imagine the characters are moving, and it seems like after children get the idea from physical manipulation, they're able to do it on their own.
Chris - And this is something that we do as adults intuitively. We've kind of learned just naturally to do that. So, when we read something, we're seeing pictures in our own mind to decode what's going on, and we don't even notice we're doing it. You're actually here training that development in a child, but getting it at an earlier age.
Art - I think that we, as adults, don't so much do it intuitively, but we have learned how to do it by virtue of our educations and those of us who have been lucky enough to have had a good education or good parents who will read to us and point to pictures in a picture book, that sort of activity has encouraged our ability to do the sort of imagination that then allows us to get the meaning from the text that we're reading. Many adults will claim that they don't have any images while they're reading and that claim may be perfectly true in the sense of not having images that are consciously available. But when you put those same people into an MRI machine or into an MEG machine, what you can show is that those areas of the brain that are used in generating those sorts of visual experiences are active when they're reading. But the activation for skilled readers is so fleeting that there isn't much conscious experience.
Chris - What's the difference though, between what you're doing and the general picture book because the pictures draw the child in? Is it just the physical engagement of having to interact with the picture and remember the story that means the child is more engaged than they would be with just a sterile picture?
Art - I think that's part of it certainly, the engagement. Another part is that when a child is reading in a picture book, the relation between the words and the pictures isn't systematic. So, sometimes the child will look at the picture, sometimes the child won't. They may be looking at the wrong picture. Another part of it that I think is very important though is that by manipulating the pictures, it forces the child to take into account the syntax of the sentence - how the words go together, the 'who does what to whom,' because the child must generate those appropriate actions on the pictures to go on to the next sentence. When it's just a static picture book, there is nothing enforcing the need to consider the syntax. The child could see word dog and look at the dog. They can see the word cat, then look at the cat and never appreciate the relation between the dog and the cat, like the dog is chasing the cat or whatever.
Martha - Art Glennberg from the Arizona State University.