short stories:stories that teach: focus, practice, reward, and read
focus, practice, reward, and read!
By Kelsey Gallant (2011)
“Okay, Kyla. Read the paragraph.” Rick pointed at the paragraph in the book.
His seven-year-old daughter, Kyla, put down the dolls she had been playing with and stared at the book. Tentatively, she read: “The boy p…picked up the… b-br-branch and b-br-oh-uh-ug… What’s this word?”
“Brought it to the c-ca—this word is too long! I can’t read it!”
It was a typical afternoon of helping Kyla with her reading homework. Kyla wanted to be able to read, but it was difficult for her, and she became easily frustrated. Whenever she did manage to read an entire paragraph without getting too frustrated, she had no idea what she had read and could not answer questions on it or give any kind of summary. Rick was at a loss to know how to help her. Labels swirled in his head: dyslexia…learning disability... language disorder. What was preventing Kyla from being able to read, and how could he, as the father, fix it?
“I don’t want to do this anymore,” said Kyla. “I’m going to go play outside until we have to go to Auntie Rachel’s house.”
Fine, Rick thought. She can go out and play, and burn off some energy. Then when we get to Rachel’s house, I’ll ask Rachel what she thinks I should do. Rachel was Rick’s older sister, who had a PhD in psychology. Rick was sure that she would have some idea of what was going on, and how to solve it.
Twenty minutes later, they were at Rachel’s house. Kyla ran off to play with her cousins, and Rick and Rachel sat at the kitchen table drinking coffee. Rick explained to Rachel what was going on. “I’m worried about her,” he said. “I’m wondering if she has dyslexia.”
Rachel shook her head. “I don’t think she has dyslexia,” she said. “Kyla would have to be reading at least two grades below grade level to be identified as having dyslexia, and it doesn’t sound to me like she is reading on a kindergarten level. Her struggles sound pretty typical for a second-grader.”
Relief washed through Rick, but he still wasn’t satisfied. “I want to help her, though. She gets so frustrated with reading, and I don’t want reading to be something that she always associates with frustration. What cognitive concepts do you think I should know about to try to make it easier for her?”
Rachel thought for a moment, and then answered. “First of all, you have to make sure her attention is completely focused on the task. If she is at all distracted, it will be much harder both for her and for you. Humans’ brains are not good at switching between two or more tasks. There is actually a set number of tasks that require mental effort that we can do at once. Do you know what that number is?”
Rick thought. “Four?”
“No, it’s actually only two, and we really aren’t even doing the two tasks at the same time. We’re switching rapidly between them. I’m assuming you’ve heard the term ‘multitasking’?”
“Of course I have.”
“Well, ‘multitasking’ is a myth. It’s like when you’re at home and you’re washing dishes, cooking something in the oven and boiling noodles on the stove. You don’t stir the noodles while reaching into the oven while scrubbing a dish—you stir the noodles, then reach into the oven, then wash a dish. Your brain can only process one thing at a time.”
“Well, that’s one thing I’ve been doing wrong,” admitted Rick. “I’ve always let Kyla play with things and listen to her favorite CDs while reading. I thought it would make her feel more at ease with the situation. I guess I was wrong, huh?”
“Yes, you were completely wrong. If she’s listening to music while trying to read a book, she can’t pay attention to both at once. She might start reading a sentence and then get distracted by a line of the song, pay attention to that for a while, and then go back to the book but forget where she was. ‘Multitasking’ is seen as a great talent, but it can actually hurt us, because the information we are receiving from both sources is imperfect. Turn off the music and get all the toys out of her sight before you try to get her to read.”
Rick nodded. Everything that Rachel had said made sense. Then he remembered something else. “Kyla can read words like ‘the’ and ‘boy’ with no problem, but she gets stuck on words like ‘brought’ and ‘campfire’. Do you know why that might be?”
Rachel smiled. “That sounds like it has to do with the word frequency effect. The more common a word is, the easier it is to recognize, and the faster the brain can process it. Also, the more phonetic the spelling is, the faster it can be processed. ‘The’ is not phonetic, but it is the most common word in the English language, and it was probably one of the first words Kyla learned to sight-read. ‘Boy’ is also pretty common, and fairly phonetic. Although ‘brought’ is a common word, it is not spelled the way it sounds, and ‘campfire’, although it is not extremely uncommon, is probably not the first word that pops into someone’s mind when asked to name a word. In people who already know how to read well, the difference is in milliseconds, so it doesn’t matter very much. In children who are just learning to read, on the other hand, it might take longer, because word recognition is not yet an automatic process for them.”
“What do you think I should do about that?” asked Rick.
“I’d suggest that you just keep exposing her to words. Expand her lexicon—that’s the mental ‘dictionary’ we all carry with us, the mental representations of all the words we know. Also, it might be helpful to teach her about morphemes and graphemes.”
“Uh, Rachel, I’m not a psychologist. I don’t know what those terms mean. What are morphemes and graphemes?”
“Morphemes are the smallest meaningful units of the English language. Some individual words are morphemes, such as ‘I’ or ‘cat’ or ‘go’. They all have meaning, and they can’t be broken down any further and still retain their meaning. Other morphemes are just parts of words. Prefixes and suffixes are morphemes, such as ‘s’ at the end of a word indicate that it is plural, or ‘ed’ to signify past tense. Graphemes are the smallest meaningful unit in written language. In English, graphemes are technically letters, because letters are symbols which stand for specific sounds. It sounds as if Kyla already understands graphemes, because she is able to sound words out. However, combining the ideas of graphemes and morphemes would help her understand what she is reading, because she would sound out a word, and then be able to break it down into specific parts that have meaning. That way, she could figure out what a word means even if she has never seen it before.”
“Those all sound like good ideas,” Rick began carefully, not wanting Rachel to think he didn’t appreciate her input, because he did. He just had one more question. “The problem with Kyla is that she’s stubborn. Sometimes she gets so frustrated with reading that she doesn’t want to do it anymore. How can I get her to want to read?”
“Well, you could always try instrumental conditioning. Instrumental conditioning relies on a system of rewards and/or punishments. Rewards are outcomes which reinforce the behavior, and make the person want to repeat that behavior. Punishments are outcomes which make the person not want to repeat the behavior. I don’t suggest that you punish Kyla for not reading or for not reading correctly, but I do suggest that you reward her when she does read, and especially when she does a good job.”
Rick didn’t think much of this idea. “You mean I should bribe her?”
“No, I don’t mean you should bribe her. You don’t even have to give her a material reward if you don’t want. In fact, I would advise against material rewards. What you should give her is verbal praise. If you tell her what a good job she’s doing or how proud you are of her, she will feel better about herself and about reading, and will want to read more often.”
“Oh, all right. I get it.” Rick understood now, and he thought it sounded like a good idea.
“Daddy, Daddy, Daddy! Auntie Rachel!” Kyla ran into the kitchen, followed by her cousins. “Can you play basketball with us out front?”
Rick and Rachel both smiled as they got up from the table and went to join the children in a game of basketball. As Rick played, excited ideas were chasing each other around in his mind. As soon as we get home, I will clear out a room in our house to be Kyla’s study room, he thought. It will be completely devoid of distractions, so her attention can be undivided. We will start off tomorrow by going over morphemes, such as –ing and –ed and –s, and also some common prefixes. I will show her what they all look like written down on paper, so that she’ll recognize them quickly and be able to figure out what words mean. I will read books to her and have her follow along, so that she can become familiar with more words and therefore be able to recognize them more quickly. Then she will start her reading homework, and I will praise her when she does well. Kyla will be a champion reader in no time!
The Story Behind The Story:
Cognitive Psychology class. I think the assignment was to write an essay that dealt with three cognitive concepts we'd learned about in class. I chose attention, the word frequency effect, and instrumental conditioning. Morphemes and graphemes may have been part of what we'd learned in class as well, or maybe those were from a different class... I don't really remember!
"Students don't care how much you know until they know how much you care."
- Robert Heinlein