Reading for Right-Brained Learners
by Sarah Major, M.Ed

It is human nature to doubt what we do not personally experience. It is also human nature to accept as correct what we are most familiar with. When confronted with someone who is wired differently from ourselves, it is human nature to urge them to just try harder to think and process the way we do so naturally – like we tend to do with children who struggle with reading. The thing is, if a child is struggling with reading, it is crucial to NOT continue to teach them using the same approach they were unsuccessful with before.

Many children who struggle with learning to read would learn more readily through an approach that dovetails more beautifully with how they take in and process information. Many of these children would benefit from a right-brained approach to organizing material they need to learn (whether it be reading or another subject).

We traditionally teach reading in a linear, analytical way. Those children who are linear and analytical by nature, of course do well with that approach. There are so many children, however, who struggle to varying degrees. Those children experience failure not because they are not capable, but rather because the material is presented in a way that they just don’t know what to do with. Organizing material in a way that right brain processors can absorb will take the focus off the child’s struggles and will put the focus on the material to be learned.

So how can we make material “friendly” for the right-brained learner?

Key points to remember when teaching to the right-brained processor

1-    They are naturally pattern-seeking brains
2-    so they need to see all the body of learning at one time
3-    and won’t do well if they are fed one detail at a time in a prescribed order
4-    by an adult who thinks they need to be taught every detail, one at a time.

Rushing toward the right with reading
Here are some suggestions for making reading more right-brain friendly. 

1-    Display all sounds from day 1. Introduce them casually in whatever order you want (most effectively by using stories and visuals), and then practice a sound at a time (Kindergarten and 1st grade). Be sure to use stories, body motions, and images as vehicles for teaching the sounds…not chants or memorization.
2-    Fill your walls with words from day 1. One wall can be a traditional word wall with columns of alphabetized sight words, another can be a wall of really big, colorful words that you know are way above their grade level, organized into three groups: NOUNS, VERBS, and ADJECTIVES. If you are teaching children older than first grade, you can also add categories for ADVERBS and PREPOSITIONS and CONJUNCTIONS. Fill that wall with words you introduce one a day, modeling the use of the word orally as you write short sentences on the whiteboard or chart paper. I prefer chart paper because you can leave one sheet posted for a whole week as you add to it, a word a day. Once you have introduced the word, modeled its use, used it in sentences, and the children have done so as well (preferably in a little notebook with a date by each entry), move the word to the Big Words Wall. Do this all year and watch what happens to your children’s vocabulary.
3-    Don’t limit content. I know firsthand that it is traditional to introduce words, one at a time, in a prescribed order. Don’t listen to that! There is no such thing as a first grade word! Words are for any age child, and the more words you display and use and play games with, the more incredibly your students will advance.
4-    Teach every spelling for each sound at one time. I know it is accepted practice to teach first graders vowel/consonant/silent e as a spelling pattern that is ok for their level of understanding. If you teach that spelling for long A in isolation, you will confuse your right-brain processors the minute they encounter another word with long A that is spelled another way. As early as kindergarten, you can display a chart with all the sound spellings for Long A with lists of words that follow each spelling pattern, and they will not only easily grasp it but will also be able to use that information. Specifically, you can teach in kindergarten that Long A is spelled:
a.    A-E as in cake
b.    AY as in pay
c.    AI as in paid
d.    EIGH as in eight
e.    AIGH as in straight
f.    A as in paper
g.    EA as in steak
h.    EI as in vein
i.    EY as in they
5-    Avoid memorization. Ok, so I just put up a totally left brained chart that is trying to look a bit right-brained. The reason the chart in point 4 is left-brained is because while it does list the spellings for Long A in a global way, it just imparts the information and waits for the child to memorize it. There is no possibility for pattern-seeking, and remember, right brain processors must be able to seek patterns in order to make meaning. So, what is more right brain friendly is to display each sound spelling at the top of a long strip of paper hanging vertically on the wall, then let the children help you find words that follow that pattern and write them on the paper as you encounter them. They will learn to group words according to similar spelling pattern. Color the target spelling pattern with a yellow crayon or highlighter so that sound pattern pops visually.
6-    Learn by doing. Children can see and hear a factoid, such as that AI says long A, but they have to be able to DO something with that knowledge in order to learn, remember, and be able to truly use it in real life. One way to let children use and thus remember learning about Long A spelled AI: Generate other AI words with the students, letting them write the words on little cards. Then challenge the children to use the words they just wrote on cards in a little story, also allowing them to illustrate their story. If they are truly beginners and need to tell part of the story with pictures, great. Just encourage them to use their AI words as labels on their pictures. You might follow this lesson with one that focuses also on AY as a spelling pattern for Long A. This pattern most of the time appears at the end of words, while AI appears inside a word. The students will have fun sorting words into two groups if you supply them with words on cards, half of them with AI and the other half with AY words.
7-    Involve the body in movement. Instead of just asking the children to remember that the A comes before the I in that sound spelling, body spell the sound so that their movements will help them remember the sequence of the letters. What children do with their bodies, they will remember in their brains.
8-    As often as possible, share new material within charts or graphic organizers. Remember, right brain processors learn best by snapping mental pictures of the material to be learned. So if you have all the information in a format that they can look at and remember, their rate of learning will astound you. If a right-brained learner doesn’t “learn” the concept the first go-around, please don’t show them the same lesson again. Think about how to organize the information in a way that's compatible with their brains.
9-    Go from whole to part. All of these points, 1-8, are inter-related to a degree. Starting with the whole and then teaching the part is similar to what I said about showing students the global whole before teaching little points. But really, there are several different applications for this same principle. Right brain processors need to see the goal before they can learn the pieces we often believe we need to teach them before they learn the concept. It goes terribly against our grain to start by showing a child a stylized word such as “TOGETHER” or “THROUGH” before we’ve taught them to chant the ABC’s, taught sounds, short vowel sounds, and how to sound out words with various phonics rules.

The honest truth is that while we are attempting to lead a flaming right brain processor through all those tedious little learning steps, what their brain is doing is getting hijacked by the burning questions, “What is this for?” “What am I going to make out of all these little pieces?” And they might stare at you blankly at times. Most frequently those blank stares are interpreted by adults as the child’s inability to learn. But really, the blank stares should be our signal that they are unable to learn the way we are teaching them.
Sarah Major, CEO of Child1st Publications, grew up on the mission field with her four siblings, all of whom her mother homeschooled. As an adult, Sarah homeschooled a small group of children in collaboration with their parents, and has taught from preschool age to adult. Sarah has been the Title 1 director and program developer for grades K-7, an ESOL teacher, and a classroom teacher. As an undergraduate student, Sarah attended Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill. and then received her M.Ed. from Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, MI. In 2006 Sarah resigned from fulltime teaching in order to devote more time to Child1st, publisher of the best-selling SnapWords™ stylized sight word cards. In her spare time Sarah enjoys gardening, cooking, pottery, quilting, and spending time with her family.

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