How can reading in colour make it both easier and harder to focus?
In the last post, I looked at reading in terms of human evolution and the brain. The question that has to be asked is ‘so what?’
– So what if reading is a subset of speaking?
– So what if you can’t read without hearing the words spoken in your head?
– So what if you activate the ‘sound production’ brain area when you read silently?
I asked myself these questions in the context of young learners. What does all this mean for ‘reading’ for them? I tend to wait until my young learners are literate in their L1 before I start on readers. Usually after their first year of primary education. So upwards of the age of 7.
Why? Well, so as not to interfere with the tricky process of learning to read. In neurological terms ‘learning to read’ is such a key process: once taught it cannot be untaught or forgotten (except for those unlucky enough to suffer a brain trauma). After learning to read, reading becomes automatic. Something which cannot be switched off.
Proof of this lies in the Stroop test. The test shows the interference of ‘reading’ in a colour identification activity. All you need to do is look at the words below and identify the ‘ink’ colour of each of the words.
I’ve tried this on my nieces and nephews and it does show that the older children who are literate find the task harder then the pre-literate children. They can’t just focus on the colour of the ‘ink’ because they are automatically reading the words. For the 3 year olds the task is easy: there is nothing interfering with their ability to identify the colours.
You can try it with adults using an alphabet and language they know and one they don’t. You’ll notice the same interference.
Again so what? Well, when I think about my younger learners, I realise that when they see words in English, they are also trying to read them automatically. But they are using their L1 decoding system, with its associated sounds. Without the knowledge of what they words sound like, they quickly become discouraged.
The answer? Books with audio. Easy. My seven and eight year olds are happy to ‘read and listen’ to the stories. I am happy that they are getting extensive comprehensible input and that they are hearing the words they see. (I use the OUP Classic Tales an let YL’s choose their own story).
But is that enough? I don’t think so. From what I read about the brain, reading also activates the sound formation area: it’s as though as we read we’re preparing to say the words. So is the answer reading aloud?
For me no, (and for some reasons why not and some great insights take a look at this post Is reading allowed, aloud?). I’m a firm believer in the benefits of extensive reading, as described by Krashen in his recent talk at Wired In Wired out (see my ELTChat ‘Homework’ post for links). So I’m interested in helping my young learners become confident and enthusiastic readers and my focus here is on the brain processes they need to read for themselves, not yet in the skills associated with reading aloud.
So if you don’t want to read aloud, but you do want to help with the necessary activation of the ‘sound formation area’ what’s the alternative?
Well, I’ve been trying ‘colour vowels’ and the YLs have really taken to it as a pre-reading activity. We focus on the key story words: nouns, verbs, adjectives and prepositions and we group them into the the ‘colour’ of the vowel sound.
Let me explain. One of the first things that children learn and retain are colours. They tend to be able to remember them and pronounce them correctly. This means that they have the ability to produce the sounds that make up those words. The chart below shows 11 colours and their vowel sounds:
It’s not all the vowel sounds, but I’ve found its sufficient to start off with. If you map the ‘colour’ vowels onto the Phonemic Chart (this is an adaptation of Adrian Underhill’s British English chart) , you can see that you have enough range to make nearly all the vowel sounds including dipthongs if you combine sounds and legnthen or shorten them. To see this being done in practice watch Adrian Underhill teaching.
I came across this colour vowel idea through a British Council presentation by Simon Shepherd (skip forward to 21 minutes for the start) He gives a really good overview and suggestions for other pronunciation work. The YLs I teach are able to group the words and from there we can play with them in terms of pronuciation and things like rhyming. We play pelamnism both for pairs and sound pairs.
All very nice, but does this help them read? Well it certainly seems to have made them more enthusiastic about it. I sought feedback from the parents to see if doing ‘sound formation’ work had helped with their reading. The parents confirmed that the YL’s seemed more motivated to ‘read and listen’ to their stories, asking for them regumarmy, with an average of around 5 listens per week. I’ve noticed a big improvement in their recall of the language too.
It’s hard to know if it is just the fact that they are able to say the words that is helping them with reading, or making them keener to read, but anything which encourages extensive reading outside of the classroom gets a big multicoloured star in my book.
I will be giving a demonstration of ‘Colour Vowels’ at the TESOL France Workshop on January 19 2013