Sunday, January 27, 2008

Back to Writing

In today’s post I’d like to try to answer a couple of questions from James who asked some questions.

“I'm really intrigued to learn more about how "writing strengthens the neurological links to the brain."

The idea that writing strengthens neurological links between

• the visual processing areas in the back of the head and
• the auditory processing areas at the sides and
• the language processing regions at the front of the brain

has been confirmed by research done at UCSF by Jeannine Herron with whom I became acquainted last summer.

Herrron’s interest in this was sparked when she and her husband, Matt, took a sailing trip from New Orleans to Africa with their two school aged kids. She observed that both of her son’s and her daughter’s reading skills improved dramatically when they began write regularly as they kept a logbook of the voyage.

(For the non-educators in the audience, reading and writing have traditionally been taught separately as if they were as different as, say, music and painting. For the record, when I first began training to be a teacher, it took me a while to understand this distinction between reading and writing; at first I saw them as the same skill.)

Herron suspected that the act of writing helped kids get better at reading. A lifetime of research later, she has convincing MRI evidence that it does.

The theory that would explain this is that when we teach reading we are running a circuit of neurological impulses as listed above:

visual >> auditory >> language.

Writing reverses the flow:

language >> auditory >> visual.

Standard practice for remedial reading is to teach more reading. Herron would suggest that we teach remedial reading by spending more time on writing.

Is that more true for writing with a pencil than typing on a keyboard?

Herron would probably say no. She began a business called “Talking Fingers” that is based upon keyboarding to elicit writing. One clear advantage of typing is that it is much easier than writing with a pencil. Another is that when typing on a computer, you can have the computer make the sounds you're typing. This is how her program works. I think Herron would argue that controlling a pencil requires a lot of cognitive effort which could distract from the essential work here: linking visual symbols “seen” in the rear of the brain with bits of auditory information "heard" at the sides for assembly and processing in the language centers up front. She could be right. I'm not so certain. It could be nothing more than the Luddite in me who prefers pencils to 'puters. A Ticonderoga No. 2 pencil is simpler, sustainable.

I read somewhere that the ancient Romans learned to write with a stylus in beeswax. How does that tactile sense affect your deep knowledge of the letter forms?

That’s a question I cannot answer. But something I suggest to all parents is to write messages on their child’s backs in big uppercase letters. Feels good, and can’t hurt.


James Gurney said...

Thanks for answering these questions to thoughtfully, Dan.

Herron's analysis is intriguing. That circuit of reinforcement may be even richer than she suggests, because it must include not only language, auditory, and visual--but also motor activity, both of the writing hand and the speaking mouth while pronouncing the letters out loud.

I believe I recall reading that brain scans of adults engaged in silent reading of a sentence like "I climbed the ladder" show that the brain is still firing as if they were saying the words and even activating the muscles based on their memories of the experience--despite the fact that no movements are actually observable.

Dan Gurney, Mr. Kindergarten said...

Yes, I believe that's right: your speech motor neurons fire during silent reading. How much more they must fire while writing!

I wonder what goes on during "speed reading" or scanning texts. Probably the same thing.