How do we know if a child would benefit from early intervention? I’ve already described my concerns about this kindergartner’s possible delays in reading, language, and social development (see parts one and two). Not only does she have a strong family history of those issues, but has also experienced significant emotional trauma, which can lead to delays and regressions, as well. I have not yet completed a systematic informal evaluation, but I keep gathering clues. I was thrilled when Stacey grabbed a marker and wanted to write.
We were doing some roleplaying, with Stacey creating signs that identified her as a doctor and dentist. The paper above, if rotated, says, “I am a dentist.” She wrote “I am a” without any assistance and left decent spacing, too. Without lines. Stacey got bored with that activity and turned most of the letters into happy faces. While she was in a writing mode, I decided to check out rhyming again. Without any graphemes, Stacy had typically become anxious about rhyming, even in a game format. But when I asked her to use letters for rhyming, she was intrigued. We started with cat and bat, both of which I modeled for her. Stacey smiled and wrote my prompt, then created her own rhyme! She was able to segment phonemes and identified three out of five short vowel sounds. I did tell her to add a k after the c in ‘back’ and ‘black.’ Eventually, Stacey ran out of interest and said, “Period!” as she added punctuation after the word ‘hit.’ I asked, “What does that mean?” and she answered, “You are done… the….” I suggested, “Sentence?” and she nodded.
Other observations: Stacey recognized individual one-syllable words in a sentence, blended phonemes without distortions (“k-æ-t” instead of “cuh-ah-tuh”), and demonstrated confidence and pleasure at her ability to write! Woohoo!
Does this mean I can pack up my reading concerns? Not until I’ve done more systematic work with her. However, I am very encouraged with these skills!
A recent article published in Brain in the News describes research suggesting that babies’ attention to relevant sounds predicted “both how well they would speak at at age 2 1/2 as well as their phonological awareness at age 5” (written by John Higgins, The Seattle Times, September 21, 2104). How do babies learn these crucial differences between relevant and irrelevant sounds? What might parents and teachers of young kids do to encourage this development? The researchers suggest directing a baby’s attention to “what’s important with lots of warm, loving, face-to-face talk using that kind of singsong voice that dips and rises and stretches out vowel sounds.” Reading aloud to kids, conducting meaningful conversations, and engaging in dialog that helps develop vocabulary are all important interactions which make it more likely that a child will be a successful reader. The researchers indicated that just one adult engaging in quality connections can make a huge difference, regardless of family income or education.
Another feature of their research was the use of online instruction to provide specialized instruction for kids who had already shown evidence of dyslexia. Using magnetic resonance imaging, researchers can see how the brains of learning disabled kids activate differently from typical learners during reading tasks. After specialized instruction, those brain difference often disappeared and the kids’ reading and writing skills improved. Again, the researchers emphasized that intervention before five years of age was especially important. As Higgins wrote, “brain chemistry becomes harder to change as children get older. So it’s better to get it right the first time, when efforts to strengthen weak connections stand their best chance for success.” However, the window of opportunity persists, as many of us who teach special needs kids can attest. One parent, also a professor at the University of Washington, enrolled her daughter in the study because dyslexia ran in her family and her ten-year old was struggling to read. Systematic instruction opened the door to effective reading skills; her daughter happily reports that she is now reading Harry Potter books.
Interested in learning more? Check out the Dana Foundation for the latest in brain research.