There is a widely-held belief that if we just start teaching children to write, read, and spell in preschool, they will become better writers, readers, and spellers by the time they reach the first and second grades. This is, however, not true. The truth is that children only should be taught to write, read, and spell when their neurological pathways for writing, reading, and spelling have fully formed. There are many neuropsychologists, developmental specialists, occupational therapists and teachers who are concerned that our current trend in this country of pushing “academics” in preschool and kindergarten may increase attentional problems and visual processing types of learning disabilities.
The Proprioceptive System
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.
The proprioceptive system is strengthened by physical movements, like sweeping with a broom, pushing a wheelbarrow, carrying groceries, emptying the trash, pulling weeds, or hanging from monkey bars. When children do these types of activities they stimulate pressure receptors within their muscles, tendons, and joints, thereby allowing their minds to make a map of the location of these various pressure receptors within the body. A connection is made between the mind of children and the various parts of their physical body. In this way children develop a sense of where their body is in space (proprioception), and even if their eyes are closed, the children will be able to feel or sense the location of muscles, joints and tendons within their trunk, arms, legs, fingers, and toes. In addition, as the children move their arms, legs, hands, and feet forwards, backwards, up, down, left and right, they will start to gain a sense of the spaces around them. Now, when these children look at the shapes of letters and numbers, their eyes will follow and track the lines and curves. The memory of these movements will then imprint upon their mind. They will have the capacity to make mental pictures or images of these numbers and letters. They will easily remember the correct orientation of numbers like 2 and 3 when they are writing.
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 brain that is developed and available for reading words is the right hemisphere.
The right hemisphere first develops for reading, usually around four to seven years of age. This right part of the brain allows children to recognize words by sight. It enables children to focus on the first and last letters in a word and the overall length and shape of the word. It allows children to 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 connecting bridge-like pathway between the left and the right brain don’t start developing until seven to nine years of age. It is this reading center in the left brain that allows children to match sounds to letters and enables them to sound out words phonetically. Now they can remember more accurately how words are spelled.
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” as in the word FOX, “B” as in the word BOY, or “C” as in the word 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, the letter “B” doesn’t look like a BOY, and the letter “C” does not look like a CROCODILE.
When we push young children to read when they only have access to their right hemisphere for reading, we create learning problems for them in the future. Since children using the reading center of the right hemisphere look at the first and last letters of a word, the length of that word, and then make a guess, they will look at a word like “STAMP” and may guess that the word is “STOP” or “STUMP.” If you show them the word, “TGOEHTER” they may read the word as “TOGETHER,” but will not realize that the word is misspelled. Words like “FRIEND,” “FIND,” and “FOUND,” as well as “FILLED,” “FILED,” and “FLOOD,” will all seem the same.
It takes a lot of mental effort to read words using only sight memory. Sight memory was meant to be used for only small words. Children who are reading 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, their minds are busy deciphering each word and therefore are not free to create the pictures and actual scenes associated with the words they are reading. This limits their overall comprehension. This may lead to difficulty being able to summarize, condense, or comprehend ideas very easily.
For all of these reasons, many experts are recommending that reading should be taught in school only after children have developed both their right and left reading centers. This will enable children to use sight memory for small words and the more efficient method of phonics for larger words. In addition, children need to have developed the “bridge” pathway that connects the two reading centers together. When children have developed this connection between the right and left cerebral hemispheres (bilateral integration), they can access both the right and left reading centers of their brain at the same time, and therefore can decide at any given moment whether to read a word by sight, if the word is short (a right hemisphere activity), or sound out the word phonetically if the word is long (a left hemisphere activity).
A physical sign that children have developed bilateral integration and can now read both by sight memory and phonics is shown by their ability to do cross-lateral exercises such as crossing the midline in form drawings, knitting or cross-lateral skipping which require both brain hemispheres to communicate. Children who can simultaneously access their reading centers in the right and left hemispheres of their brain will read easily and will create visual images and pictures in their mind related to the content of what they are reading and will have an easier time understanding the meaning behind the stories and books they are reading.
First grade is the time to introduce form drawing, learn the capital letters (as pictures that children can draw), and practice cursive writing. As the majority of children in the classroom strengthen their proprioceptive skills and integrate their right and left hemispheres (as evidenced by their ability to stand on one foot with their eyes closed, remember the shapes that are drawn on their backs, jump rope forward and backwards by themselves, and easily perform the cross lateral skip), then children are ready to read and write.
It is time to remove the desks from kindergartens and preschools. Our preschools and kindergartens need to fill their curriculums with play consisting of lots of sensory integration activities that will strengthen fine motor movements, visual motor abilities, balance, muscle tone, proprioception, as well as strengthen children’s 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 noncompetitive movements to develop their brains. For it is the movements of their body that create the pathways in their mind for reading, writing, spelling, mathematics, and creative thinking.
Adapted from an article by Susan Johnson, M.D., a Behavioral and Developmental Pediatrician in Colfax, California.