Learning to Read with Less Stress and More Brain Function

learn to read Apr 08, 2022
6 year old thinking with his left and right brain

True responses on Family Feud episodes:

Steve: “Name something that’s hard to do with your eyes open.”

Contestant: “Read, Steve!”


Steve: “Give me a boy’s name that starts with the letter h.”

Contestant: “Hose.”


You can find dozens of hilarious responses on this television show! Why does this happen to perfectly competent adults on national television? It’s all in the brain. The left and right hemispheres of the brain have different efficiencies, and the job of the corpus callosum is to allow the two sides to communicate with each other. When we face a stressful or exciting situation, that communication can take a hiatus.

Most of us have a more dominant side of the brain, and there are all sorts of quizzes online where you can find which is yours. Typically, analytical thinkers are left-brained, and artistic types are right-brained. I like to say that our right brain holds all of our “big fat files”—memories, experiences, descriptions. Our left brain is kind of like the detective on the old TV show Dragnet—“Just the facts, ma’am.” Our left brain sees a photo of a person and labels it a face. Our right brain sees that same photo and responds with, “That’s my grandma! She used to take me for ice cream and gave me a really cool blanket that she made.” 

Obviously when both sides of our brains work together, we get an optimal processing experience. However, when we fall into situations that cause us a bit of anxiety,  excitement, or stress, it’s possible to have the communication between the two sides seize temporarily. I liken this to having a 2-drawer file cabinet. Think about one drawer being locked and you can’t access what is in it. That’s sort of what our brains do under excited circumstances, just like these poor souls on the game show! The poor guy knows “Hose” isn’t a name of a boy! But his “name” files were locked up in that side of his brain, and he could only find something on the other side that started with an “h.” I think we have all had a situation similar to this at one point or another, just hopefully not recorded for all eternity! 

In teaching first grade for one year shy of three decades, I got fairly skilled at knowing which children came into my class with left-brained dominance and which were operating at this age with right-brain dominance. (This dominance is subject to change as we grow.) 

Reading is a left-brained skill. Therefore, if you have a right-brain dominant child at home or in your classroom, you’ll need to accommodate for that in growing those reading skills. When you expose children to print and literature early in their lives, those “reading files” will start being built in that left-brained “filing cabinet.” Most children can sing songs before they are writing letters. In fact, many of us have used the “abc” song to teach our children the alphabet initially, using those right-brain skills to remember the letter names. The Alpha Friends program helped my right-brained son learn sounds of letters using animals and hand motions to connect those right-brain experience/motion files to the needed left-brained learning. 

I have always taught at a Title I school, so I will encounter many print-deprived children and children who come to school from stressful home lives. That means I need to work harder at building some “reading files” for them as well as helping them begin their school day on a positive note and get them engaged in the process of learning. Getting children to find their “I can!” is my first priority. It goes a long way to help success in other areas along their learning journey.

When I have a child who struggles with reading, I need to find a way to unlock that “reading file” in his/her brain and lower the anxiety level (affective filter) so both sides of the brain will work together.  I do a few things to make this happen, and I’ve had great success over the years moving children to proficient, confident readers and writers using my strategies. 

Start the day with music and movement 

For my entire teaching career, I have been blessed to have a piano in my classroom. I play the same songs to start the day: “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” and a “Good Morning” song. It creates predictability and routine and is the starting signal of our day. Then we sing a few more songs (often seasonal) on the piano. After, I use my song collection (on an old iPod!) and we sing what I called two “sitters” and then do two “standers.” “Sitters” are songs where we can use sign language or hand movements, or are in another language, or just are fun! “Standers” are songs we stand up and do organized cross-brain dance movements to. One will be a traditional kids’ song, and the second will be a more contemporary song that I’ve put dance moves to. (Car Wash, Rockin’ Robin are two examples.) If you’d like my most recent playlist, contact me and I’ll send it to you.

This stage of the day takes about 15-20 minutes, and it actually wakes ME up as well, and counts for some of our required PE minutes as well. 

Sight words instruction

Right after we sing, we sit down and look at our sight word story of the day. (I, of course use my own program, So Simple Sight Words for this.) We read the story together, I ask questions about the story, including skills questions. By asking many of the same skills questions routinely, the students who need many reps to solidify the skill habit are served. It’s so great to see a child who has been in the silent stage raise their hand one day with an “aha!” in their eyes knowing how to answer the question! 

We “cheer” the sight words in the story, and then I take requests for 3-5 more words they want to cheer. 

By doing this daily in a larger group, less confident students feel more comfortable not only reading out loud with the group, but also cheering the words. The subtle daily repetition creates muscle memory with the accompanying hand motions, and the musical/rhythmic hooks of each cheer are processed in a number of brain areas beyond the right brain alone. Music is an incredibly efficient tool for learning and remembering! 

Hunting our cheer words

When we go to a party alone, there’s a stress level for us normally. When we walk in alone, there’s a hesitancy to look around and check out surroundings in order to start feeling a bit more comfortable. Once we see someone we know and like, there’s that inner sigh of relief. We go say hello, grab a drink, and then we’re able to more confidently meet some new people and begin to enjoy the time. 

Reading can be like that for a newer/struggling reader. Looking at a page of print is like going to that party alone to them.  Using a passage/workbook page that can be written on, the students will first be told to go through the page and circle all the cheer words they see. (By the end of the year, my class has 90, and watching the speed in which they can find them on a page is amazing!) 

For my students who tend to say “I can’t read,” this helps tremendously. One, it’s a quick assessment of how they’re filing away the cheers we have learned just by a glance at what they’re circling. Two, once I see they have words on the page circled, I point out how many friends they have at this party! The anxiety level the children may have experienced decreases once they do this. Additionally, the sight words we have cheers for are normally not the words that contain the meaning of passages; they’re the words that give us fluency in the conveyance of meaning. Knowing the sight words gives them access to both file drawers of their brain to work on decoding the words on the page with the meaning. If I then ask a question about what we’re reading, the odds of them responding like a Family Feud contestant under stress are reduced astronomically! 


My favorite classroom “Family Feud” story is here:

Me: (holding a hidden picture of a hanger) “I’m holding something that starts with the letter h.”

Student 1: (shouts quickly) HAT!

Me: Good guess, but nope! This is something that there are a lot of in your closet.

Student 2: (over-excited to respond “first”) ROACHES! 

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