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Teaching Our Children to Write, Read, & Spell

Written by Susan R. Johnson, MD, FAAP   
Monday, 01 March 2010 00:00
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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.

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.