Monday, July 21, 2008

IRD Term II Week II: The Engineering Geek Has an Epiphany!

Yesterday, I arrived home at 8 PM after completing the second week of the second term.
Things are going well and I am into a teaching routine now, though I was quite tired from the long week just past, in which I had taught an extra day as a substitute. I also think I need new shoes--the really comfortable sandals I bought in May are now worn out; I am on my feet most of the hours that I teach. I may get five minutes to inhale half-a sandwich and sit down between classes. I think this is the one aspect of IRD that I would change: A dedicated lunch period of 1/2 hour would make the days less physically and mentally stressful. Anyway, this afternoon I will hie myself off the Shoes On a Shoestring to see what they've got!

Last term I had no adult classes assigned to me, but this term I have two.
I am really enjoying helping adults improve their reading and comprehension. In the adult classes, we focus mainly on non-fiction and only do some fiction in the last week of the course. These past two weeks we have been reading Dibs: In Search of Self by Dr. Virginia Axeline. This is an excellent book in it's own right. Virginia Axeline is credited with inventing Play Therapy for the purpose of helping psychologically troubled kids. In this book she tells the story of her interactions with a highly gifted young boy who does not interact with the world. In our discussions of the book in both classes, we have touched on the ideas of respect for children as people, how a child's therapy can heal the family, and also the need not to make snap judgements about a person's abilities and development.
This has been very interesting to me, and the insights from our discussions have given me new insights into my third career--that of a neurospychologist.

Within the IRD curriculum, however, we are using Dibs not only to discuss but to develop improved reading skills and comprehension strategies for adults so that they may take active control of their reading. Active control here means that adults consider their purpose for the reading that they are doing and adjust their strategies accordingly in order to achieve the greatest reading efficiency and also take pleasure from all their reading. What is interesting about teaching adults is that, although they generally do not resist the strategies we teach to the point of refusal, they do complain--vociferously--about them because the strategies feel awkward after a lifetime of poor reading strategies and habits. This is particularly true of the older students. And the engineers.

The Engineering Geek is taking my Wednesday evening class in Santa Fe. He has been complaining off and on over the six years of our marriage about how difficult reading is for him and how unpleasurable it is as a consequence. A few years ago, when I first matriculated for my Special Education MA, I received a flyer from UNM Continuing Ed for a speed reading class. (It was the IRD program, though I did not know anything about it at the time). Being a very fast reader with many academic successes under my belt, I felt no need to take such a class, so I put the flyer in the recycle. The Engineering Geek rescued it (he throws nothing away) and carried it around for the entire summer, but did nothing about it. (This is, I have learned, typical for him. Every project not involved with his work starts out this way. Eventually, I make things happen and he grumbles and then is grateful. Sigh. A woman's work...). So this summer when he learned about my schedule and was fretting about my driving home from Santa Fe on the back roads late at night, I suggested that he take the adult class there and make the drive with me. He grumbled about the cost a little bit, but when I got him a discount, he agreed.

At the first class I discovered one reason that reading was so difficult for him. He reads very slowly. Reading a book slowly is like watching Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings movies in slow motion: it allows the mind to wander. A slow reader ends up losing the thread of the story or explanation, and must re-read and re-read in order to remember what was read. But the adult class is a Speed Reading class. So the Engineering Geek was taught the techniques to improve reading speed. I noticed that he was having trouble with them; his technique was jerky, and it appeared that he was still re-reading. I was not sure if he was not comprehending or if he did comprehend but didn't realize it. (This can happen as one learns speed reading). So I listened to him and his partner as they retold what they had just read. The Engineering Geek was having great difficulty finding the words he wanted, which slowed him down and interfered with memory. I was planning of having a conversation with him about it after we did a group discussion

Here is what I thought was going on. Engineers are visual thinkers, and many of them have what Cheri Florance calls Maverick Minds. That is, the visual organization of their thinking is strong that they do not learn to switch to verbal strategies when they are needed. Mavericks rely so heavily on visual memory and cognition that they do not develop the verbal memory needed for certain tasks very effectively. But reading is a primarily verbal skill, even though the visual system is used for information intake. So, I was planning to discuss this with the Engineering Geek in order to determine if this interference was a problem. (This can be a big problem for males, because their verbal centers tend to be far more lateralized in the brain than those of females. Also, the male corpus collosum--the fibers that carry information across hemispheres--is smaller than that of females. It appear that females are far better "wired" for verbal thinking than males).

So, as I said, I was going to bring this up with the Geek. But when I approached him during the next independent reading session, I noticed that his speed reading technique was much smoother, and at the next timing I noticed that his time had doubled. So I recorded the time, expressed my satisfaction to him, and moved on. Why mess with success?

Later, as we were driving south on NM 14, the Engineering Geek said: "Tonight, I've had an epiphany!" He went on to explain that he had spent years trying not to sub-vocalize while he was reading. Apparently, a teacher had told him that this was the wrong way to read! (I am endlessly amazed at the strange ideas that teachers cotton onto and refuse to let go).
Evidently, he took this to heart and began to try to read without engaging the verbal centers of his brain. From that time forward, he became a slow reader, endlessly re-reading to try to comprehend.

I explained to the Geek that readers generally either hear the words in their heads or sub-vocalize as they read. There are a few people, dyslexics among them, that do not, but that this is somewhat rare. I also explained that when people who hear the words in their heads only are practicing speed reading, often they begin to sub-vocalize again for a while, until their faster speeds become comfortable and normal. Then they go back to hearing the words in their heads. What I suspect happened to create the Engineering Geek's epiphany was that when I was explaining why we did structured discussions (adults complain about this quite a bit) I said that we want to verbalize what was just read in order to organize it in memory, and that the structure provides a framework of synaptic associations so that the information read was more easily recalled. The Engineering Geek heard that and associated it with what he'd been told about not sub-vocalizing while reading. He stopped trying to interfere with this, and he found he was comprehending what he read better.

This sparked a lively discussion where the Geek spent the better part of the drive home "data mining" my brain for what I knew about the neuroscience behind reading. I know a little from my MA in Special Ed, and I can infer more from my current studies in Neurobiology. But I began to realize that there are big gaps in my knowledge since I have not studied the topic directly.

So naturally, I began asking around. My sister Madge's son D. has dyslexia, though the schools refused to acknowledge it as such. She listened to my ideas and said, "You'd love this book I just finished..."

I can see that I am embarking on a new reading and research blitz. Thank goodness for Amazon! The UPS Orange Route driver (who knows me by name) should be winding his way up our mountain to deliver Maryanne Wolf's Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain sometime today. In anticipation I read the Epilogue of Radicals for Capitalism this morning!

Stay tuned! There is definitely more to come...


Steph said...

How cool that the EG is taking your class! :-) I am so glad your teaching is going well.

Ritsumei said...

Fascinating! I have my own engineering geek that reads slowly. I think I'll ask him about mental voices & sub-vocalization & see what he says. He's said things about my own reading speed more than once that make me think that he'd be interested in reading a bit faster. Espcially since he's taking a bunch of continuing ed classes right now and the reading is killing him! What an interesting post!

christinemm said...

What an interesting post.

I am almost finsihed reading "Right Brained Children in a Left Brained World" by Jeffrey Freed. Have you read it? This is written primarily for parents of right-brained learners and also parents of ADD kids. If you have not read it I think you should and you'd probably go through it quickly. I say you should read it if not for any reason other than many teachers are reading that book and getting their ideas from it. Whether the ideas or good or bad I don't know but maybe you'd have opinions on that.

Freed feels that most if not all ADD labeled kids are right-brained learners and that some are misdiagnosed with ADD when they are just exhibiting right-brained learning strength.

On the topic of reading Freed discussed speed reading and that all right brained learners should be taught to speed read. He does not use the term sub-vocalization or discuss that.

I had never heard of sub-vocalization, the term you mentioned, and poked on the web to find out what it was. I cannot imagine doing that since I 'hear the words in my head'. Freed discusses that right brained learners see pictures in their head, if they read a word they see the image of the thing, whereas if I were doing a spelling test, I'd "see" the word spelled out, floating in my mind.

Freed also says to make a person read orally is terrible for right brained learners especially, have a hard time with it and it slows them way down and makes them read jerky and not with inflection, monotone etc. He argues that bad sounding oral reading is not a true indicator of the person's abiltity to read silently. He stresses right brained learners should read silently (even young kids).

I think it gets touchy when any educator says "you must learn this way" or "you must do or not do that thing". Who gets to say what is right or wrong? People and brains are different and if something is working then why not let them do whatever they want?

Now regarding the jerky eye movements have you considered an eye tracking problem? The issue would be a narrowed, abnormal smaller field of vision that allows a reader, in some cases, to see clearly (not double vision, not blurred) one or two or three words at a time. The eyes go to two words, read them, move over, refocus, read those, move over, refocus, read those, etc. That makes smooth reading impossible and in all the refocusing and pausing the movements are 'jerky' and the reading comprehension can be lost.

Normal fields of vision allow us to see more words in focus at one time and the more we can see the smoother and faster our eyes can sweep across the page. This reading ahead is what helps us be able to read orally

I also learned through Dianne Craft that the mixed eye dominance can be an issue. If a person is left eye dominant they have trouble reading English since we read left to right. She said when beginning to read a line of text the head is turned to the left and the brain must force the right eye to be dominant and to lead across the page. This person might also then have "eye tracking problems". It takes extra effort for the brain to let the right eye take over, then when they get to the middle of the page, where the left eye is physically more lined up to the page, the brain can kick in and let the left eye take over. In doing so sometimes the place on the line is lost and the have to find where they left off. Also when that left eye is reading across the rest of the line, when they get to the end of the page, they turn and have to go back to using the right eye as the dominant eye. This sometimes causes the person to lose their line and they begin to read the wrong line, skipping lines or starting back to something they already read. Then stopping to find their place, they again lose their train of thought and the reading comprehension can suffer.

A theory is that many right brained learners are mixed eye dominant.

Craft mentioned in a lecture that many people on the Autism spectrum and also ADD, ADHD happen to be right brained learners.

Dianne Craft was a special ed teacher who took a break from it to HS her only child, now is working with special ed again. She is linked with HSLDA. She gives talks at HS conferences to parents. She also has an OT manual for parents to do OT at home with their kids to address various LDs. She has a website with handouts from her talks and she sells some stuff for parents to use.

It seems to me you are working on researching things on a higher level of academic writings and so on. I wanted to share more of the resources for the layman (parents) and teachers to use, where these ideas are broken down into more simple language and focus on practical applications for parents, teachers (and homeschooling parents).

I am interested also in possibly what the academia may know about this stuff and then how the people who water it down for the layman apply it. Are the writers such as Freed doing the topic justice? Are they leaving things out?

Freed also discusses our changing culture and technology and in the beginning of the book he shares how the use of screens may over-stimulate the right brain in young children to then pave a pathway for them to be right-brained learners. Then when most of those kids are thrown into a public school setting based on left-brained learning techniques their brains are not wired properly to take in and do well with that type of learning. If that is true we are in deep trouble as the public schools don't seem to be open to changing their teaching methods any time soon yet the kids are nearly all on a very different pathway, with being introduced to TV in infancy, video games, hand held game devices, PCs and even music that stimulates the brain in the same way.

I was imagining in a better world we'd have magnet schools for right-brained learners to go to. Let the old fashioned public schools keep doing their left brain teaching, but let the right brained learners go to special schools where everything is taught differently for right brained learners. I don't see right brained learners as abnormal so I don't see those as being 'special ed'. Imagine the possibilities if right brained learners had different methods to teach much of the same information as typical public schools. THen add in classes on topics for the strengths of the right brained learners and we could end up with some very capable people with abilities that the left-brained learners may never be able to do with themselves!

By the way people (parents, teachers, homeschooling parents) are grasping for info on teaching right-brained learners. There are not enough books on the market for this topic and it is a niche that needs filling. People need to start writing more books on this topic!

The idea of wrongly medicating children (labeling them with a disorder if their only issue is they are more visual learners), when the medication may have negative side effects on their health and mind, just becuase a school system is outdated and refuses to change when change is needed makes me feel like I'm living in the Twilight Zone. SCARY.

I can console myself only because my own kids are homeschooled so they will not be at risk of being misdiagnosed or mislabeled or forced to take medication just for the way their brain works (right brained learners).

While at an amusement park a couple of weeks ago I found out that my ten year old, after one ride, had memorized the entire roller coaster ride. He can tell you exactly what turns and twists it takes, in what order and so on. I was on the rides with him and I could never do that, I barely can tell you which ride had a barrel roll, how many loops it had and so forth. He memorized all eleven roller coaster rides he went on. He said he was putting himself to sleep by re-riding the rides over and over in his head. That any brain can do that was beyond my imagination. I could never do that and the idea that he can 'replay' the entire thing is a bit hard for me to believe.

However I do believe it because he has been re-telling me stories and things we've seen and done, the earliest being him telling me over and over about the time he watched our bathroom get wallpapered, we'd hired a wallpaper hanger, and I let him sit and watch it being done. I can't recall his exact age, it was somewhere between 12 and 15 months old. I have a photo of him sitting there I should find it and blog that story.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Wow, Chrtistine, you really took the time to consider a lot of questions in your comment.

I think I read the Freed book a number of years ago. The problem I have with the whole concept of "right brained" and "left brain" is that it is so innacurate. Although males have more lateralized language (almost totally in the left hemisphere), most functions are not right or left. I think the concept of the Maverick mind is better, although Florance does not get into the actual brain areas at all, because much of the research is so recent.

I disagree with you about something you said.
You wrote:
I think it gets touchy when any educator says "you must learn this way" or "you must do or not do that thing". Who gets to say what is right or wrong? People and brains are different and if something is working then why not let them do whatever they want?

For Mavericks, auditory working memory and verbal sequencing tends to be underdeveloped. But it can be developed through training. In order for Mavericks to function in the world and communicate, and read well, they need to train themselves to use these pathways for certain tasks. This simply gives them the ability to switch when needed--it does nothing to hurt their amazing visual gifts.

I do agree that such people are often misdiagnosed--frequently with specific LD, ASD and/or ADD. The Auditory Processing Dysfunction however, is real, and can be ameliorated by the training mentioned above.

As for the jerkiness--I was talking about the hand movements used with speed reading. Speed reading techniques, regardless of who teaches them, involves eye-hand techniques that need to be smooth. That's because the brain of a proficient reader takes in maybe 1 in 5 words directly; the rest is brought in periferally via a smooth sweep of the eye across the line.

Proust and the Squid has much that is technical in it, but it is written for the interested party, so you don't have to be a neuropsychologist to read it. Wolf does reference the actual research papers in her notes for those of us who can and wish to read them.
I am not even through Chapter 2 yet, but I highly recommend the book!

I'll be headed over to your blog to see how you review Freed.

Anonymous said...

Hey, Ellie!
I knew you would love Wolfe's book "Proust and the Squid"! I hope all of your readers take the time to read that book if they read nothing else this year. It answered so many questions and explained so much that I- and surely many other parents of dyslexic children have struggled to understand. Helping D. learn to read fluently was the most difficult and time-consumning task I've ever undertaken. I am grateful and honestly astonished that D. now reads above his grade level. That's great, and of course I am proud of his success at school. More importantly, though, he also reads for pleasure- for the sheer joy of reading. His is the best of outcomes, but it was a long, hard road and I wish with all my heart that every parent of a dyslexic child, and every elementary school teacher bar none, would read "Proust and the Squid." Far too many teachers give up on kids who can learn to read, and far too many parents willingly cling to various self-flattering theories of their struggling child's "exceptional qualities" rather than doing the hard work needed to open the world of literature that is available to every child.
Anyway, I'm really glad you recommended Wolfe's book here.