Whole Language v.s. phonics
Over the decades there has been a pendulum that has swung from teaching reading through either a whole language approach or phonics. At times, and in some places, the pendulum has slowed in the middle to try to provide a more balanced approach to literacy. Phonics, attention to the details and sounds, is great for a person with a left hemisphere lead, such as myself, but does not work at all if the child has a strong right hemispheric lead, which tend to characterize those with dyslexia or other learning disorders. These children learn from whole to part, rather than part to whole, and benefit from a more whole language approach. The best approach would be the balanced approach which would better address the diverse needs of the classroom.
As a parent, you should know what approach your child's teacher and/or school is using so you know how to support your child at home. If you suspect that your child leads with the right hemisphere and he is receiving phonics instruction at school, support his learning by providing more whole language opportunities at home, and vice versa. There are many books and programs out there that specialize to teaching right brain learners. Here is a video that describes what is happening and an example of how phonics, or sounds, are introduced to right-brained learners.
I also have noticed that many children are unable to visualize, or create stories in their head when reading, a sign of a weak right hemisphere. There is a curriculum that is geared specifically to teaching children how to visualize by Lindamood Bell called Visualizing and Verbalizing. It is very good, and as a parent, I would recommend it if you notice your child can decode but does not comprehend what he is reading.
Scotoptic Sensitivity Syndrome /
Irlen Syndrome (also referred to at times as Meares-Irlen Syndrome, Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome, and Visual Stress) is a perceptual processing disorder. It is not an optical problem. It is a problem with the brain’s ability to process visual information. Children with this problem are either sensitive to light or when they look at the words on the page (especially a white page) they may move or change size. Providing them with color overlays can be very helpful. Any child who complains of light sensitivity or is having a hard time reading when it seems like they shouldn't, should be tested for SSS. Also, SSS has been linked to the unintegration of the moro reflex as well as being sympathetic dominant, and these children should be doing exercises and activities to help integrate this reflex and to help stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system.
The Irlen website has a great video which describes what this syndrome and how children and adults perceive words when they have it, as well as some great books. I, however, prefer to buy my overlays, and testing kits from the NRSI website.
Struggling students, especially those that are left hemisphere weak, especially struggle with their homework. It is not uncommon for a 20 minute assignment to take 3 hours. These parents know that there are a lot of tears over the simplest homework assignments. Part of it is that for these students school is so cognitively demanding that their brain is fatigued by the time the school bell rings at the end of the day. I think that careful consideration should be given as to what is the appropriate amount of homework for these children.
What can you do? First of all, if you have a close communication with your child's teacher, there is a high probability that you can negotiate what are the have to's and the assignments that can be shortened. Also, if you consistently write the total time on the homework assignment so the teacher can see that there is a pattern of homework that takes longer than average. You can also draw a line at the point of the assignment that took, let's say 30 minutes, so that your child's teacher can see how much he is able to do in a reasonable amount of time.
Make sure that your child has had time to unwind after school and has had a protein snack. Find a quiet, organized area of the house where he is able to do his homework. Help by revising his daily planner and help prioritize and organize what he will do that evening. Think ahead about projects and help by breaking it up into doable chunks. Start each homework session with PACE (see next column) or other brain gym exercises. Just because your child is in middle school, does not mean he does not still need your support.
Finding the right tutor
If your child is struggling and you need to find outside help, make sure that the person that you hire has deep subject knowledge so that they may be able to approach the subject in a different way than that of the teacher. It is important that you are upfront with the tutor about what kind of approach you want, or don't want. You may need to purchase your own curriculum to provide to the tutor.
There are commercial academic learning centers out there that may or may not be suitable for your child. Academic learning centers tend to work best for children that have gaps in their knowledge and minor struggles in school. Perhaps they were just not ready to learn a specific skill when it was taught in school, or perhaps through a move or illness, the skill was missed. Homework on your part is needed to decide whether this is what will help your child.
Mathematics: Making Connections
The delivery of most school subjects has traditionally been geared toward the left brain, even though not all students learn in this way. When in charge of a classroom of 30 individuals it is difficult to target all the individual needs that exist. For children to really understand a concept, it is important that they make as many connections as possible to that concept, and to allow enough practice for those connections to be strengthened.
When teachers present mathematical problems in a variety of ways, we are not only increasing our chances that we are reaching each student with at least one way, but we are providing opportunities for multiple connections to be made. Symbols and spoken language, for example, target the left hemisphere whereas pictures and manipulatives target the right hemisphere. When we allow children to make connections between the left and right hemisphere, we are strengthening the connections in the corpus callosum, which in turn improves the communication between the two sides. Allowing children to discuss their strategies with each other help them to make these connections. Children who need to first make sense of the mathematics in a visual way (right brain processing) before attaching that meaning to a standard algorithm, struggle when it is only presented in a symbolic way (left brain processing). Allowing children to discuss their strategies with each other help them to make these connections. Click on image to download article which describes each of the five representations shown in the diagram.
As a parent, you should be aware of the curriculum used in your child's classroom. Programs, such as Saxon™ math focuses on the symbols and learning steps and procedures, a left-brained skill. Other reform-based programs are designed to provide the more right-brained experiences, such as using manipulatives and pictures to make connections to the symbolic notation. The common complaint is that these programs tend not to allow enough time for practice to get the procedures into the long-term memory. The Common Core Math Standards have been designed to allow for these multiple representations, but the success of implementation is determined by the amount and quality of professional development provided by the district and/or state.
The way to start every learning session, even homework
PACE, from Brain Gym™, is series of 4 exercises that help prepare the brain for learning: sipping water, massaging the Kidney 27 points under the clavicle while the other hand is over the navel, cross crawls, and hook-ups (a relaxation exercise where the arms and legs are crossed, tongue resting on the roof of the mouth for one minute, then legs and arms uncrossed with finger tips touching those of the opposite hand for about another minute). One of many videos of PACE that I found on YouTube is seen below:
The Brain Dance by Anne Green Gilbert is a 6 minute series of 8 movement patterns that address a variety of sensori-motor needs as well as reflexes. It is in DVD format and I play it on my home computer for my children. Note: The video has routines for infants, school-age children and seniors. The section for school age children is approximately 6 minutes.
Me Moves™ by Thinking Moves is another excellent tool to use during transitions or before homework. The program immediately calms and organizes children. Users have noted that within minutes it "calms even non-verbal autistic children in distress! Increased eye contact, decreased self-stim, increased vocalizations, increased arm awareness, strength, and alert state are common and consistently seen." I personally use their older version called "SMART moves," similar to Me Moves, and my students absolutely love doing it. It takes just a couple of minutes and immediately helps focus students and gets their brain ready for learning. Me Moves also has a mobile version for ipod and ipad devices.
This online program is great for mathematical and reading practice (after understanding and connections have been made). Anyone can play for free without a record of their work, but there is a daily limit to the number of problems one can solve. This is a great way to see if this program is for you. The beauty is that children have full access to the pre-k through high school and can adjust if needed.
XtraMath.org is a wonderful program that will assess your child's fact skills and will follow his progress as he practices. You can change the settings to different operations, but the default setting is to start with addition.
Moby Max is another adaptive program which works with all subjects, not just mathematics. Again, the child is assessed and given a grade level and from there is assigned lessons. Teacher/parent can control lessons that are provided. As a parent, you may need to sign up under homeschool if having difficulty registering.