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Learning to Write

There are neural connections between the brain areas that process the visual shapes of objects (this includes letter shapes) and speech sounds. These ‘fuzzy’ connections extend into two nearby motor areas of the brain- those that control the sequence of muscle movements required for hand gestures and those for the muscles of the mouth, lips and tongue. *Synkinesia (to move together) is the term used for the effects caused by this neural cross-activation. Professor Ramachandran talked about these connections in the Reith lecture he gave in 2003: 

*Synkinesia helps to explain why babies who are born deaf, ‘babble’ using gestures and hand movements (D. McGuinness. 2004 p41). Charles Darwin himself pointed out that when we cut paper with scissors, our jaws may clench and unclench unconsciously as if to echo our hand movements (Scientific American). Synesthesia is where two or more bodily senses are neurally coupled, for example, in grapheme-colour synesthesia, letters or numbers are perceived as inherently coloured (Wiki).

Now we know that our vision, hearing, mouth and hand muscles are all linked and cross-activated in the brain, it becomes obvious why it is so important that early decoding and spelling lessons should provide multi-modal tasks that reinforce all possible sensory and motor systems in tandem: listening (phoneme analysis), looking (discriminate letter shapes/learn spelling patterns, visual tracking), writing (kinesthetic movement), and speaking (speech-motor system, auditory feedback) to anchor the spelling code in memory as quickly as possible.

Forming invisible letter shapes in the air, on a textured board or on a person’s back/forearm, is not a useful activity. Memory for letter shapes can be greatly improved by creating cross modal connections, but two or more sensory modes must be connected at the same time; real writing is movement made visible. (D. McGuinness. WCCR p217)

”(C)hildren find it easier to remember spellings if they can remember the movement of the hand in forming the word; hence the reason most people, when asked to spell a difficult word, prefer to write it down. Janet Townend, past head of training at Dyslexia Action, says this kind of multi-sensory approach is particularly helpful for dyslexic children. “Fluency of writing helps with fluency of spelling,” she says. “If children can see words on the page, feel them in their mouth and experience the movement of writing as well, that helps enormously with spelling” (TES. 12/11/04 p12)


Doing dictation doesn’t make you a dictator.

The building blocks of writing:
”Over the following two weeks, having been introduced to < n >, < o > and < p >, they will be reading and writing more than thirty words. And, it is at this point that dictation becomes a powerful tool for establishing what a sentence looks like: it begins with a capital letter; it ends in a full stop. Much more importantly, dictation gives the kind of retrieval practice so vaunted by cognitive psychologists in getting information into long-term memory.”

”Though speaking is biologically natural, neither writing per se (representation of spoken language) nor writing in text is biologically natural. We use dictation after only the first seven weeks of teaching phonics” (John Walker. Sounds-Write )