Architecture of Letters, Architecture of Reading


I asked Adam to write the word, see,’ as in, “I see what’s going on here.”
Okay, the last half of his sentence is mine, but
I watched him make his ‘s’ as a long, unswirled string, dangling more vertical than round.
“Like this.” I model for him with a marker.

He makes his long, unswirled string again.
After we repeat this several times, I turn his paper over and draw a large infinity, a lazy eight, on its side.
“Can you do this?” I model making a infinity sign.
He starts his line going left from the middle, his tongue out in concentration.
His pencil makes a 90-degree downward line instead of a curve.
He pauses, smiles, and sheepishly he looks up at me and shakes his head.
“I can’t do that.”
“Try again?”
He puts his marker point down on the place where his line ended, but he can’t continue it from there, so he starts from another direction to try to make it meet.
…But he really can’t get it to go that way.
And I see, then, that a part of his challenge in reading is that his brain doesn’t seem to “cross the midline.”
I’m not a neurologist but I know the large band of nerve fibers that connect the two hemispheres of his brain (the midline) is called the corpus callosum. I have been an reading intervention teacher who watched kids closely to see how they try to make sense out of print …and I try to see how to help them when they’re struggling.
I see that the two halves of his brain aren’t talking to each other.

Letters on a page-the image of them anyway–
when seen through the eye,
travel the retina and nerves to the back of the brain,
and along the way they have to jump
…to the left side of the brain.
There, the angular gyrus is going to change the image of the letters into language.
Reading teachers call it the brain’s letterbox.”

It is where the miracle
…of turning
black squiggles on a page…
into an experience in your mind

takes place.

And it’s magic.

“Did you try using the letter formation page?” Another reading coach suggested.
“Has he learned how to make them correctly?”
She continues to describe how she wants kids to get more consistent with the verbal directions of letter paths:
Pull around, go up, then down (d); Come straight down, bounce around (b).
Then a lightbulb pops on in my head.
(We teachers celebrate the “lightbulb moment” in kids, but truly we are the lucky ones-—we get to learn more than anything we can ever teach our kids.)

I see the connection.
I know that teachers like to teach penmanship.
I sympathize when parents bemoan the fact that penmanship isn’t taught in schools.
Beautiful penmanship as an art form.
Unfortunately, schools couldn’t keep penmanship and simultaneously teach all of the other things
that our Information Age demands.
I would not be the first point out how much easier
and how much more fun it is to teach penmanship
…than how to teach a nine-year-old to infer the author’s purpose of a text
(yes, it is a third-grade standard in Colorado, though developmentally inappropriate in my opinion).

Someone has decided what should be taught…and penmanship took the cut.

To be sure, technology has reduced the need for some things
(an ability to add a long string of numbers when you can use a spreadsheet for example),
and increased the need for other things
(the ability to estimate an outcome so that you know whether all the data was entered correctly).
It seemed to have eliminated the need for penmanship and many students over the years have become quicker at typing and texting than writing things out long-hand.
…But wait a minute.
Parents remember from their own pre-kindergarten years, and up until second grade,
they spent generous amount of time coloring inside curved lines.
In kindergarten students gradually moved to learning to write their letters, and up until second grade they spent generous amounts of time practicing penmanship.
Teachers made them angle the paper left, hold it down with their left hand, and copy dotted-letter after dotted-letters until pencils traveled the correct formation. And with repetition, “around, up, down….around, up, down,” became automatic and unspoken. Pencils habitually rounded the circuits correctly. Ten of the 26 letters have round parts to them (a, b, c, d, e, g, o, p, q, s).
In my lightbulb-popping moment, I realized that every time we went “up-down-around,” practiced the penmanship of writing letters, our brains practiced crossing the midline.
We spent developmentally appropriate amounts of time strengthening the nerve fibers that increased our brains’ neural communications. We strengthened our neural fibers repetitiously which made them quicker, more automatic and more reliable.
I do not decry that kids spend much of their play-time with computer or video games.
Children practice, in game-fashion, what they are going to need when they are grown up,
and there are so many good things to learn from technology.

I am going to suggest that the generous amounts of time spent playing video games is not going to have the same result in the architecture of our brain.
It’s not surprising that adults like coloring as a way to relax (the sales of adult coloring books has skyrocketed in the last several years).

I am going to suggest that we buy young children lots of colored pencils and more coloring books.

We owe at least this much to our kids–
…because this kind of play
will improve the architecture of their brains.


* Miss Work’s Truest Heart Companion: An Anti-Bullying Guide provides coloring opportunities that  build self esteem and resiliency in children.