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Mar
01

Teaching Our Children to Write, Read, & Spell

Author // Susan R. Johnson, MD, FAAP

There is a widely held belief that if we just start teaching children to read, write and spell in preschool, they will become better at these skills by the time they reach the first and second grades. This, however, is false. The truth is that children should be taught to read, write and spell only when their neurological pathways for doing so have fully formed. Many neuropsychologists, developmental specialists, occupational therapists and teachers are concerned that the current trend of pushing academics in preschool and kindergarten will result in an even greater increase in the number of children diagnosed with attentional problems and visual-processing types of learning disabilities.

In order for children to be able to sit still, pay attention and remember abstract shapes like letters and numbers, they first need to have developed their proprioceptive system, which enables them to sense their own body’s position. Some children who are asked to sit still at a desk can’t yet “feel” where they are in space. They have to keep their muscles and body moving all the time, or sit with their feet anchored underneath them or around the legs of the chair, in order for their minds to sense their position. They might also have difficulty balancing on one foot while their eyes are closed. These children are often suspected of having attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder because they appear fidgety in their movements, have difficulty paying attention and have poorly developed fine motor skills. They are often labeled as having learning disabilities in visual processing (for example, dyslexia) because they have difficulty recalling letters, numbers and shapes that are shown to them, or have difficulty remembering the orientation and direction of letters and numbers—such as confusing b with d, or writing 2’s or 3’s backward without noticing.


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The proprioceptive system is strengthened by physical movements, such as sweeping with a broom, pushing a wheelbarrow, carrying groceries, emptying the trash, pulling weeds or hanging from monkey bars. These activities stimulate pressure receptors within the muscles, tendons and joints, allowing the mind to map the location of these various pressure receptors. In this way, a child develops a sense of where her body is in space, and even if her eyes are closed, she will be able to sense the location of muscles, joints and tendons within her trunk, arms, legs, fingers and toes. When she looks at the shapes of letters and numbers, her eyes will be able to follow and track the lines and curves. The memory of these movements will then imprint upon her mind, providing them with the capacity to make mental pictures or images of those numbers and letters. She will see the correct orientation of the letter or number within her mind before she writes it.

This proprioceptive system affects other areas in a child’s life beyond being able to sit still and having a visual memory for abstract forms. It can also affect his ability to fall asleep by himself at night, and to stay asleep throughout the night. A young child might wake up during the night and need physical contact with a parent in order to fall back to sleep. Since his own proprioceptive system is not yet developed, lying next to his parent will activate his pressure receptors, allowing him to feel his body, relax and fall back to sleep.


Reading, Spelling and Writing

Our current educational system is teaching children to read in a way that doesn’t make sense developmentally. Children in preschool and kindergarten are expected to memorize letters and words before their minds have developed the necessary pathways to identify letters, easily read words, and comprehend what they are reading. We are asking these young children to read when the only part of their brains that is developed and available for reading is the right hemisphere, which is not enough.

Around four to seven years of age, the right hemisphere usually first develops enough for reading. This right part of the brain allows children to recognize words by sight. It enables children to focus on the first and last letters of a word, and the overall length and shape of the word. It lets children guess at words without paying much attention to spelling or matching sounds to letters (phonics). In contrast, the reading center in the left brain and the bridgelike pathway connecting the left and right brains (called the corpus callosum), don’t start developing until seven to nine years of age—even later for some children, particularly boys. It is this left-brain reading center that lets children match sounds to letters and sound out words phonetically. It also enables them to spell.

Because the reading center in the right brain sees abstract forms like letters and numbers as pictures, it makes sense to first teach children to read by relating the shapes of letters to actual pictures that children can relate to and draw. For example, the letter M can be represented by two mountain peaks with a valley in between. As teachers we can tell children that the sound “M” is the first sound one hears when saying the word “mountains.” Other examples might include drawing a king out of the letter K, a bunny out of the letter B or waves out of a W. What doesn’t make developmental sense is expecting children to just memorize the abstract shape of the letter F or memorize phrases like “F is for fox,” “B is for boy,” or “C is for crocodile.” These words do not make any visual sense to the reading center in the right brain. The letter F doesn’t look like a fox, a B doesn’t look like a boy, and a C does not look like a crocodile.

When we push young children to read and they only have access to their right hemisphere for reading, we can create learning problems for them in the future. When children use only the right hemisphere to read, they look at the first and last letters of a word, and the length of that word, and then make a guess. For example, STAMP may look like STOP or STUMP. If you show them the word TGOEHTER, they might read the word correctly without recognizing it is misspelled.

Sight memory is meant to be used only for small words that do not have any associated pictures or images—words like is, are, but, and and the. Children who read small and large words using only their right hemisphere often are exhausted after reading just a few paragraphs, and can only parrot back words or sentences by memory. In addition, the right brain is busy deciphering each word, and therefore not free to create the pictures and actual scenes associated with the words the child is reading. This inhibits reading comprehension.

For these reasons, reading should be taught in school only after children have developed both their right and left reading centers and the corpus callosum. Only when children have developed this “bridge” (bilateral integration) are they capable of simultaneously creating pictures and images using the right brain while the left brain phonetically figures out each word.

There are physical signs that children have developed bilateral integration, and are ready to read both by sight memory and phonics. One is the ability to do the cross-lateral skip (swinging a leg with the opposite arm forward at the same time) without thinking or concentrating. This is because movements on the right side of the body are connected to the left hemisphere of the brain, while movements on the left side of the body are connected to the right hemisphere. If a child can move her opposite arm and leg at the same time, then the right and left hemispheres of her brain are communicating with each other. If not, she is not yet ready to read.

Writing is another skill often introduced before most children are ready. Often children’s hands do not functionally separate from each other until after ages 6 or 7. Prior to this age, the movements made by fingers in one hand are mirrored by the same finger movements on the opposite hand, making writing very difficult for young children. In addition, printing involves the left brain while cursive, flowing writing requires the bilateral integration of both hemispheres.

Birth trauma is a frequent cause of neurological distress. Many traumatized children need cranial therapy because of a history of a C-section birth, prolonged labor, induced labor or use of suction forceps at delivery. These children also need a lot of cross-lateral types of movement exercises (where the opposite arm moves at the same time as the opposite leg) to strengthen bilateral integration. Movements like cross-crawling or -walking, hiking with arms swinging, swimming various strokes, rock climbing and tennis will all strengthen bilateral integration. In addition, when children feel loved unconditionally (loved for who they are and not what they do), they will work hard to overcome challenges. As parents, teachers and therapists for our children, we need to be present when working with children and experience the joy in each moment. This will create the most profound healing environment for their minds and their entire beings. They will flourish.


Prevention of Learning Disabilities

Overall, schools and parents can support a child’s learning by serving healthy foods rich in protein, good quality fats (especially omega-3 fatty acids), and fresh fruits and vegetables, while eliminating partially-hydrogenated oils and trans fats, which occur when cooking or frying foods in corn oil. Adequate sleep will increase the percentage of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. A lack of sleep leads to less REM sleep, and therefore less consolidation of the previous day’s learning. Limiting screen time on school nights (television, videos, and computer games), if not eliminating it completely, will keep the mind free to do its own imagining and not stress it with violent images and rapid sequences of pictures that the brain can not fully process. Regular rhythms and routines in eating and sleeping will promote a more relaxed nervous system for learning.

In addition, neurological pathways can’t form as easily, and therefore children can’t learn, when their nervous systems are experiencing stress. Giving children standardized tests and forcing them to read, write and spell before they are developmentally ready will cause such stress. Furthermore, children will dislike reading and will not want to go to school. If we insist on pushing reading, writing and spelling before children’s minds are ready, we will continue to create an epidemic of behavior and learning difficulties, especially in our boys.

It is time to remove the desks from kindergartens and preschools. Our preschools and kindergartens need to fill their curricula with play, consisting of a lot of sensory integration activities that will strengthen fine motor movements, visual motor abilities, balance, muscle tone, proprioception and social and emotional development. Activities like imaginary play, climbing, running, jumping, hopping, skipping, walking the balance beam, playing circle games, singing, playing catch, doing meaningful chores, painting, coloring, playing hand-clapping games, doing string games and finger-knitting will strengthen their minds for learning. Children need these healthy, harmonious, rhythmic and non-competitive movements to develop their brains. The movements of their bodies and their love for learning will create the pathways in their minds for reading, writing, spelling, mathematics and creative thinking.


About the Author:

Susan JohnsonSusan Johnson, MD, FAAP is behavioral and developmental pediatrician in private practice in Colfax, California. She is a certified Waldorf teacher with additional training in sensorymotor integration and is also trained in anthroposophical medicine. She is the mother of one son. Dr. Johnson can be reached at youandyourchildshealth.org.





Pathways Issue 25 CoverThis article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #25.

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