Learning How to Read Needs to Be More Hands-On. No, Really.

The best path to literacy might be very simple: Use your hands and the words will follow. #ProjectLiteracy

Science says that to learn new words (“explode,” for example), it helps to involve the hands in the process. Image via MakerEd

Two years ago, the Albermarle County school system in Charlottesville, Virginia, moved forward with a rather bold experiment: They abandoned traditional explicit instruction in all summer school classrooms, replacing classic lesson plans with student-directed summer making programs, run as part of Maker Ed's Maker Corps program—an educational subset of the “maker movement” (a widespread cultural push to teach both kids and adults more hands-on and do-it-yourself skills).

“I have never believed that literacy is a matter of decoding alphabetic text,” says Ira Socol, Assistant Director for Educational Technology and Innovation for Albermale. And so far, he says, the summer making programs seem to be proving him right. “I was having this conversation with a child from rural poverty who was at summer school because he’d failed (badly) the state’s third-grade reading assessment,” Socol says. “He was building a suspension bridge from newspaper, and he said to me, ‘You have to understand, when you’re making a suspension bridge, the cables always have to be taut.’”

“Taut,” of course, was a word the student had struggled with on an assessment just a few months earlier. “Once language has purpose,” says Socol, “we can make literacy work.”

Increasing research suggests that to connect words with purpose, it helps to directly work with the hands; the connection between our hands and our words is a very old one. In his book The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture, neurologist Frank Wilson argues that the evolution of our hands shaped the evolution of our brains, not the other way around. And this perspective is particularly critical for language development.

In The Hand, Wilson highlights findings that point to how “the verbal behavior of a child undergoes a long metamorphosis during which words that [signify objects] come increasingly to be manipulated and combined, just as real objects are manipulated and combined by the child.”

Image via Flickr user Philippa Willitts

So block play may be more serious than we ever imagined. What Wilson’s research makes clear is how little attention mainstream education pays to the role that our hands have in learning how to communicate. Experiential learning, especially when it comes to our hands, is a deep but fairly new area of research, and its implications for childhood literacy are enormous. Wilson points out that:

“Every new human body, equipped with H. sapiens sapiens genes, is ‘adapted’ for this mode of learning. Touching, handling, taking apart, assembling, dropping, throwing, tasting, dropping into water, talking to, signaling and pretending with, carrying, cooking, etc. This is what children do with and through their hands, beginning in the first year of life and continuing to the end. The hand has become the central player in the human sensorimotor system—the closest thing we have to a ‘center of personal agency.’”

This approach to language development runs counter to how we’re used to thinking of literacy. But some curriculum developers have been paying attention. Developmental Studies Center (now called Center for the Collaborative Classroom), a small education publisher based out of Oakland, developed a vocabulary program for early learners called Making Meaning that incorporates constant use of physical action and description (a teacher might act out the word “ecstatic,” for example), and repeatedly calls on students to relate vocabulary words to their own lives.

The philosophy behind their program, says Dennis Binkley, an Associate Director of Program Development, comes straight from the work of education researchers like Dr. Isabel Beck, whose focus is on robust vocabulary instruction driven by experiential learning. “What it means to know a word is clearly a complicated, multifaceted matter, and one that has serious implications for how words are taught,” Beck says in her book Bringing Words to Life. Getting it right is crucial. She mentions studies that reveal how “vocabulary is tightly related to reading comprehension across the age span.”

In piloting Making Meaning, Binkley worked to incorporate teacher feedback that related how eager children typically were to use words that enabled them talk about their experiences. “So it was an effective way to both engage the students and help them learn and remember the words.” The approach is especially effective for English Language Learners, who, he points out, might struggle with verbal learning and discussion and “benefit from a kinesthetic approach to learning and instruction.”

Dr. Susan Goldin-Meadow also focuses on this area, especially when it comes to gestures. In her 2011 TEDx talk, she showed not just how we use gestures to communicate, but how gestures themselves can change the way we think. Goldin-Meadow’s research touches on the importance of gestures in, for example, corrupting eyewitness testimony. The way we use our hands changes the way we perceive reality—as well as how we create understanding in our own brains. Goldin-Meadow’s work shows that “gestures not only reveal what is on a child’s mind, but can also help change a child’s mind in order to support instruction and learning” [Ed. note: Emphasis in original.]

Making the link between this view of language—that it is a tool to be manipulated rather than an abstract concept—to how our hands can strengthen literacy is a powerful but not necessarily a new idea. The Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky’s work has long been instrumental in shaping child-centric or child-led programs. Vygotsky maintained that language was simply one of the tools we use to organize and mediate our experiences of the world, and that learning, to be effective, must be based on a child’s practical activities in the real world.

Tools of the Mind, which uses a Vygotskian approach to develop curricula involving make-believe play and “scaffolded writing” activities for kindergarteners and preschoolers, also uses symbols to promote self-regulation and executive function in young children. Tools of the Mind is often praised for teaching children to manage emotions and expectations, but it doesn’t just have an impact on classroom behavior. One low-income school that shared data with Tools of the Mind revealed that the percentage of students reading on or above grade level rose from 60 to 90 percent after the program had been in place for just one year.

Seeing words as manipulatable objects and our hands as the driver of our learning, is a way of thinking that can be slippery to get a handle on. Hands-on learning often needs more attention from educators than rote memorization and decoding, for example, and requires more thoughtful, non-standardized assessments, but looking at the examples like those from Binkley and Socol it’s clear that this approach to literacy comes from a deeper and more effective understanding of how humans use language and what for.

The best path to literacy might be very simple: use your hands and know that the words will follow.


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