winter duskAt this time of year it is hard to believe that the days are actually lengthening. Those extra minutes of daylight each afternoon often slip by unnoticed (by me, anyway), and for those of us stuck in the frozen north until spring, wouldn’t it be nice if we could just accelerate the arrival of longer days? Instead, we shiver through January reminding ourselves that after a few more weeks, we’ll start to notice the increased daylight even though the calendar says mid-winter.

A similar scenario plays out in many of our elementary classrooms, where teachers in the earliest grades do the critical work of teaching our children how to read. The process of learning to read, unlike the slowly lengthening days of January, is not a natural process. In fact, our human brains have only needed to know how to read for a few thousand years, which, when you consider that our species has been around for about 200,000 years, is relatively recent in terms of evolutionary history, especially when you consider that spoken language has been with us for 50,000-100,000 years, depending on which linguist you ask.

Brain scientists have discovered a remarkable fact about the positive impact that a skilled, well-trained teacher can have on the development of the reading brain: we can accelerate the process of learning how to read by delivering systematic instruction that makes the link between sounds and letters explicit for children. Simply put, while some children will eventually learn how to read almost in spite of the programs that our teachers and school administrators pick, we can speed up the learning process for all children when we use programs that explicitly connect the sounds in our language to the letters we use to represent them. Sometimes referred to as synthetic phonics or structured literacy, this kind of evidence-based instruction amplifies the neural pathways in the developing readers’ brains and accelerates the learning process, producing proficient readers more quickly than any other approach. Research consistently shows that children who can read proficiently without relying on guessing or other ineffective strategies spend more time engaged in reading activities, which accelerates their progress even more, boosts vocabulary and facilitates comprehension.

So, in these days when the thermometer barely registers positive numbers as we stumble outside in the dark early hours to walk the dog, grab the newspaper or shuffle off for a morning run, take comfort in the fact that while we can do absolutely nothing to hasten the arrival of longer, warmer days, we can equip our teachers with the knowledge they require to help our youngest learners how to read effectively.

Want to learn more about effective teaching strategies that are based on the latest brain science and research? Check out the Stern Center’s upcoming Professional Learning opportunities at www.sterncenter.org.


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