Research

Instructional Leader article - Nov 2010
(click to read PDF) SECRET STORIES®
overview

THE SECRET STORIES®

Research Base

A Brain Based Approach to Critical Phonics Skill Instruction Neuroscience and its implications on teaching and learning are an invaluable asset in today’s classroom.  Teachers who are prepared with knowledge about how our brains receive, store, and process information are better equipped to provide students with optimal learning opportunities through which critical literacy skills are more easily acquired, regardless of past experience or performance. The research on neuroplasticity shows that as educators, we have the ability to not only build learners’ brain potential, but to help them literally change their brains – and intelligence, so as to bridge the achievement gap and support their highest potential as 21st Century Learners  (Dr. Kurt Fischer, Harvard Graduate School of Education)

The SECRET STORIES® exploit a backdoor for learning by taking advantage of the brain’s plasticity and targeting the affective (“feeling”) domain for critical phonemic skill mastery.

Unlike phonics programs that make use of arbitrary letter characters and random sound behaviors to teach the phonics patterns, the SECRET STORIES® strategies target learners’ already existing, social-emotive awareness and understanding and it is within this readily accessible “thinking framework” that early learner-momentum in both reading and writing is increased far beyond just simple decoding. Additionally, learners’ decision making when working with unfamiliar text is easily guided, with learners as young as kindergarten easily able to identify the “most likely” and “next most likely” sounds for letters in text.

The human brain can and does grow new neurons. Many survive and become functional. We now know that new neurons are highly correlated with memory, mood, and learning, and that this process occurs within specified instructional frameworks. (Gerd Kempermann, Laurenz Wiskott, and Fred Gage, “Functional Significance of Neurogenesis,” Current Opinion in Neurobiology, April 2004, pp. 186- 91.)

The ability of the brain to rewire and remap itself by means of neuroplasticity is profound. When the correct skill-building protocol is used, educators can make positive and significant changes in our brains in a short time. (Henry W. Mahncke et al., “Memory Enhancement Using a Brain Plasticity-Based Training Program: A Randomized, Controlled Study,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 15 August 2006, pp. 12523-28; and Elise Temple et al., “Neural Deficits in Children with Dyslexia Ameliorated by Behavioral Remediation: Evidence from Functional MRI,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 4 March 2003, pp. 2860-65.) Without understanding the “rules for how our brain changes,” educators can waste time and money, and students will fall through the cracks.

Our brain is malleable and is shaped by experience. An overwhelming body of evidence shows our brain is altered by everyday experiences, such as learning to read, learning vocabulary, studying for tests, or learning to play a musical instrument. (Temple et al. (learning to read); HweeLing Lee et al., “Anatomical Traces of Vocabulary Acquisition in the Adolescent Brain,” Journal of Neuroscience, 31 January 2007, pp. 1184-89 (learning vocabulary); Bogdon Draganski et al., “Temporal and Spatial Dynamics of Brain Structure Changes During Extensive Learning,” Journal of Neuroscience, vol. 26, 2006, pp. 6314-17 (studying for tests); and Christien Gaser and Gottfried Schlaug, “Brain Structures Differ Between Musicians and Non-Musicians,” Journal of Neuroscience, vol. 23, 2003, pp. 9240-45 (learning to play a musical instrument)

Studies confirm the success of software programs that use the rules of brain plasticity to retrain the visual and auditory systems to improve attention, hearing, and reading. (Panaqiotis G. Simos et al., “Dyslexia-Specific Brain Activation Profile Becomes Normal Following Successful Remedial Training,” Neurology, April 2002, pp. 1203-13.) Therefore, it stands to reason that altering our experiences will alter our brain. This is a simple but profound syllogism: our brain is involved in all we do, our brain changes from experience, therefore our experiences in learning at school will also change our brains.

Education research and cognitive science have given us deeper insights into the process of learning…. we are beginning to understand more of the fundamental neurological processes that happen in the brain when we learn and remember. This new knowledge fascinates and tantalizes teachers… We talk about the brain being “plastic,” meaning that the brain changes its own wiring, perhaps almost continuously. Like a piece of silly putty, the brain is molded and reshaped by the forces of life acting on it.   Zull, James E. (2011). From Brain to Mind: Using Neuroscience to Guide Change in Education; (2002). The Art of the Changing Brain

We now understand that the brain has the quality of plasticity.  It responds to experiences that stimulate activity in particular areas of the brain, thereby facilitating the growth of neural connections in and between those active regions… If the sequential developmental process- from sounding out to whole word recognition- does not occur, then children will be forced to employ less rapid and accurate systems such as prediction from context, guessing from pictures, and guessing from the first letter.  Hempenstall, K. (2006). What Brain Research Can Tell Us About Reading Instruction & Learning Difficulties

On Teaching Patterns In-Context, Prompting a “Need-to-Know” for Learner-Driven Instruction

Teaching patterns in context is a basic tenant of the Balanced Literacy Approach. Unlike phonics “programs” that follow a pre-determined order for sound-skill introduction over a period of years (much like a waitress serving ready-made dishes at designated intervals), the SECRET STORIES® provides access to the whole code (like foods on a buffet). It’s difficult to do much with only bits and pieces of a code.

The SECRET STORIES™ are reading and writing tools, to be shared in context of existing curriculum and instruction, as they are encountered throughout the day. Presentation of the SECRET™ patterns in-context allows prompts instruction to be learner-driven (a basic tenant of brain based instruction) and underscores that which is already going on instructionally within the classroom.   

Quite apart from anything the teacher does… the student, being human, is a pattern finder, and a pattern maker… Bronson, David (2009)

It is wise for a teacher to take advantage of the natural inclination to seek patterns when teaching reading.  May, Frank, B. (1990).  Reading as Communication

The SECRET STORIES® emphasizes spotlighting EVERY letter, EVERY sound, EVERYDAY, while simultaneously introducing phonemic patterns (in-context) by telling their “secrets.” This process is the same, regardless of grade level.

The brain is fully ready for thinking through tactile learning as early as nine months. …And some researchers suggest that it is very sophisticated in its learning capacity.  Greenfield (1995) Teaching with the Brain in Mind 

Children need a flood of information, a banquet, a feast.  Pierson, Martha (1996) Baylor College of Medicine 

On Accessing Alternative Neural Pathways for “Whole Brain” Engagement and Deeper Learning

The SECRET STORIES® attaches meaning to skills that inherently have none- providing logical, concrete, and right hemispheric connections for reading, writing, and spelling, so as to allow for easy and accelerated critical literacy skill acquisition.  Additionally, the SECRET STORIES® provides learners with social emotive connections to abstract skills, facilitating deeper learning by fostering opportunities for critical analysis and diagnostic thinking when working with these skills in text.

Learning is the Brain’s Business.  Students will not practice in a meaningful way unless they care.  As teachers, we can arrange conditions and challenges that engage the learner…. When our students find the right connections, they will learn. They won’t be able to help themselves… Concentrating heavily on storage and recall of unconnected facts is a very inefficient use of the brain. Studies show that with whole brain teaching (also known as Total Physical Response, children learn faster, retain more, drop out rates decrease by 90%, and the health of the brain is improved (use it or lose it)…. Emotions simply exist; we don’t have to learn them… ’Brainswitching’ is all about how to use both sides of the brain for learning, problem solving, counseling, motivation and so on. I can offer you three ideas for persuading the ever-vigilant and blatantly suspicious gatekeeper which is the left brain to swing open a huge cathedral door on the right brain to let information gallop in unimpeded. The first strategy is body movement. The student’s body is our best ally for transmitting and receiving messages on the first exposure.  Asher, James, Brainswitching- A Skill for the 21st Century; Total Physical Response (TPR)

Sensory lobes in the back store sensory memories (the past).  Frontal lobes focus on critical thinking and problem-solving strategies. (the present), with the front part of the lobes in charge of planning and rehearsal activities (the future).??The frontal lobes play a very important role in regulating our emotional sates and judgments. It is the critical thinker and the last to develop… Knox, Richard, Teen Brain: It’s Just Not Grown Up Yet

While the brain is quite adept at learning, it’s important to ensure the quality of information, not the quantity. We can do this by purposely orchestrating meaning. A delightful fringe benefit is that the exploration for meaning can be very intrinsically motivating.  Wrighton, Charlene A., 1984.

When something is meaningful during reading, there’s usually more activity in the left frontal, temporal, or parietal lobe.  Posner, Michael M.D., University of Oregon 2013

Evidence suggests these factors are likely: relevance, emotions, and context and pattern making. Why and how do emotions engage meaning?   Hooper and Teresi 1986

Intense emotions trigger the release of the chemicals, adrenaline, nor epinephrine, and vasopressin…. They signal the brain, ‘keep this, this is important!  McGaugh, James, Neurobiologist at University of California at Irvine 

Presenting information that is too complex, lacks relevance, or provides insufficient sensory stimulation will be difficult to learn.  Jensen, Eric (2005); Teaching with the Brain in Mind

Through emotion, synapse strength is modified and the responsiveness of neuron networks can be dramatically changed… Emotion and thought are physically entangled— immensely so. This brings our body into the story because we feel our emotions in our body, and the way we feel always influences our brain. Brembs, Lorenzetti, Reys, Baxter, & Byrne, 2002

James Zull on “Using Stories for Teaching”… I’ve given up on explaining as a teaching tool. When I began to understand knowledge as consisting of networks of neurons….my students’ knowledge was actually physically different from my own… our networks differed. When I explained something, I had to use my own networks; and for my students to understand it, they had to use theirs. Maybe the two sets of networks were just too different. So I reduced my explanations and instead turned to demonstrations, metaphors, and stories. As much as possible I tried to show rather than explain things. And when explaining seemed inescapable, I asked other students to do it, reasoning that their networks were a better match with those of their peers.

James Zull on “Whole-Brain’ Engagement”  A useful, although greatly simplified, way to view the cerebral cortex is to divide it into four major regions with different functions (see fig. 1): sensory cortex (getting information); integrative cortex near the sensory cortex (making meaning of information); integrative cortex in the front (creating new ideas from these meanings); and motor cortex (acting on those ideas). If teachers provide experiences and assignments that engage all four areas of the cortex, they can expect deeper learning than if they engage fewer regions. The more brain areas we use, the more neurons fire and the more neural networks change—and thus the more learning occurs. Zull, James E. (2011). From Brain to Mind: Using Neuroscience to Guide Change in Education

On Use of Visual Cues for Easy Sound-Symbol Retrieval

The SECRET STORIES® integrates visual picture cues with phonics patterns as a means of enhancing learners’ visual acuity for their more immediate recognition in text, as well as sound cues for each embedded within the graphics for easy retrieval.

After investigating various kinds of associative mnemonics in young children and found that “the best connectives for remembering pairs of pictures or words were meaningful “actor-action object” relations… Rohwer (1996)

Paired-associate learning in children is much improved when learners create or are provided with concrete, meaningful, interactive, and imaginable connections that link the stimulus and response terms in memory.  Davidson & Adams, Ehri & Rohwer, Lippman & Shanahan, Rohwer & Levin, Rohwer, Lynch, Levin & Suzuki

The task of learning letter-sound associations is not an easy one for beginners. Difficulties arise from several sources. The number of associations to be mastered is considerable: more than 40 sounds for 52 visual figures, plus sounds for combinations of letters (i.e., digraphs). Many of the lowercase letters are visually similar and hard to discriminate. The phoneme sounds as well as the visual letter symbols are meaningless. Although the phonemes occur in normal speech, they are difficult to recognize when pronounced alone because their form in isolation is quite different from their form when blended with other sounds. Furthermore, the associations between letters and sounds are totally arbitrary, as there is nothing inherent in the visual symbol that suggests its name or sound…first graders had much trouble learning pairs of arbitrarily associated, meaningless terms. Pictorial Mnemonics for Phonics, Linnea C. Ehri, Nancy D. Deffner, and Lee S. Wilce,  Journal of Educational Psychology, 1984, Vol. 76, No. 5, 880-893.

The superiority of the integrated picture group over the disassociated picture group indicates that only one type of picture works, namely, one that links the shape of the letter with the way it sounds.  Ehri, Deffner & Wilce; Pictorial Mnemonics for Phonics

On Use of Body Intelligence, via Motor/Muscle Memory, to Bypass Lack of Cognitive Readiness in Early Learners (for accelerated acquisition of individual letters and sounds)

The SECRET STORIES® employs muscle-motor memory and action-based cuing for acquisition of individual letter sounds, as well as for bypassing issues of developmental readiness, processing and/ or language delays.

Children learn by touching and doing. Eric Jensen says this: “For younger students, learning has simply got to be hands on, experiential, and relevant for patterns to develop.  Jensen, Eric (2005). Teaching with the Brain in Mind

Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence is the using of one’s mental ability to coordinate one’s own bodily movements. This intelligence challenges the popular belief that mental and physical activities are unrelated. Gardner, Howard; Theory of Multiple Intelligences: When the Body Moves, The Brain Remembers

It may seem ridiculous to say this, but children take their bodies with them wherever they go… As more parents and teachers begin to recognize the ignorance of the body in learning, we’re likely to see a sharp decline in the number of so-called disabled learners.   Armstrong, Thomas; In Their Own Way.  

Contamination occurs when you have too many events or materials embedded in the same location (like months of learning in the same seat, in the same classroom in the same school)…the information is there, but it’s nearly useless. This often happens to students who really do know their material but lack the specific ‘hooks’ or mental ‘file names’ to retrieve all their learning… Forgetting occurs because such cues are rarely present when the recall is needed.  Jensen, Eric; Teaching with the Brain in Mind

On Use of Music to Manipulate Sound Patterns so as to Mimic Decoding and Encoding Processes and Prompt Dual-Hemisphere Engagement 

The SECRET STORIES® integrates auditory pathways for learning through learner-engagement in musical brainteasers for rapid manipulation of letters and phonics pattern sound skills. 

Learning is enhanced by challenge… Asher, James

The left side of the brain processes rapid auditory information faster than the right. The skill is critical in separating the sounds of speech into distinct units for comprehension. The left hemisphere, usually responsible for language development, develops slower in the male brain. Thus, males usually develop more language problems than females.   Jenson, Eric; Teaching with the Brain in Mind

Additional Research References for Strategy Base

On Accessing Alternative Neural Pathways for Abstract (Phonics) Skill Instruction/Retrieval

Harvard’s highly respected cognitive scientist Howard Gardner theory of multiple intelligences continues to make a profound and positive difference in education worldwide. His ideas are in thousands of schools, and teachers are asking, “How are my students smart?” By offering skill content through multiple learning modalities (visual, auditory, kinesthetic) learners gain easier access and are capable of more immediate retrieval. (Marjorie Siegal, Rereading the Signs: Multi-Modal Transformations in the Field of Literacy Education Language Arts; Sep 2006; 84, 1; Research Library)

When students find the right connections, they will learn. They won’t be able to help themselves. Concentrating heavily on storage and recall of unconnected facts is a very inefficient use of the brain. Studies show that with whole brain teaching (also known as Total Physical Response) children learn faster, retain more, drop out rates decrease by 90%, and the health of the brain is improved (use it or lose it) (Asher, James, Brainswitching- A Skill for the 21st Century)  

On Use of Multi-Layered Memory Instruction for Acqusition of Abstract (Phonemic) Skills

Sensory lobes in the back store sensory memories. Frontal lobes focus on critical thinking and problem-solving strategies with the front part of the lobes in charge of planning and rehearsal activities. The frontal lobes play a very important role in regulating our emotional sates and judgments. It is the critical thinker and the last to develop. (Richard Knox, Teen Brain: It’s Just Not Grown Up Yet, 2010) Evidence suggests these factors are likely: relevance, emotions, and context and pattern making. Why and how do emotions engage meaning? (Hooper and Teresi 1986) Intense emotions trigger the release of the chemicals, adrenaline, nor epinephrine, and vasopressin.  They signal the brain, ‘keep this, this is important (McGaugh, James, Neurobiologist at University of California at Irvine) Presenting information that is too complex, lacks relevance, or provides insufficient sensory stimulation will be difficult to learn.  (Jensen, Eric (2005); Teaching with the Brain in Mind) Through emotion, synapse strength is modified and the responsiveness of neuron networks can be dramatically changed. Emotion and thought are physically entangled— immensely so. This brings our body into the story because we feel our emotions in our body, and the way we feel always influences our brain. (Brembs, Lorenzetti, Reys, Baxter, & Byrne, 2002)

A useful way for educators to view the brain is to divide it into four major regions with different functions (see fig. 1): sensory cortex (getting information); integrative cortex near the sensory cortex (making meaning of information); integrative cortex in the front (creating new ideas from these meanings); and motor cortex (acting on those ideas). If teachers provide experiences and assignments that engage all four areas of the cortex, they can expect deeper learning than if they engage fewer regions. The more brain areas we use, the more neurons fire and the more neural networks change—and thus the more learning occurs. (Zull, James E. (2011). From Brain to Mind: Using Neuroscience to Guide Change in Education)

On Visual and Auditory Cueing for Critical (Phonemic) Skill Mastery  

The task of learning letter-sound associations is not an easy one for beginners. Difficulties arise from several sources. The number of associations to be mastered is considerable: more than 40 sounds for 52 visual figures, plus sounds for combinations of letters (i.e., digraphs). Many of the lowercase letters are visually similar and hard to discriminate. The phoneme sounds as well as the visual letter symbols are meaningless. Although the phonemes occur in normal speech, they are difficult to recognize when pronounced alone because their form in isolation is quite different from their form when blended with other sounds. Furthermore, the associations between letters and sounds are totally arbitrary, as there is nothing inherent in the visual symbol that suggests its name or sound…first graders had much trouble learning pairs of arbitrarily associated, meaningless terms.  (Pictorial Mnemonics for Phonics, Linnea C. Ehri, Nancy D. Deffner, and Lee S. Wilce,  Journal of Educational Psychology, 1984, Vol. 76, No. 5, 880-893)

Integrating visual picture cues with phonics patterns enhances learners’ visual acuity prompting more immediate recognition of these complex patterns in text. Through investigation of various kinds of associative mnemonics in young children, it was found that the best connectives for remembering pairs of pictures or words were meaningful ‘actor-action object’ relations…” (Rohwer (1996) Paired-associate learning in children is much improved when learners create or are provided with concrete, meaningful, interactive, and imaginable connections that link the stimulus and response terms in memory.  (Davidson & Adams, Ehri & Rohwer, Lippman & Shanahan, Rohwer & Levin, Rohwer, Lynch, Levin & Suzuki)

Through employment of learners’ muscle-motor memory and action-based cuing, it is possible to bypass weaker areas of the brain (i.e. due to developmental readiness and/ or processing/ language delays) and accelerate sound skill acquisition, so as to increase learner-momentum in both reading and writing. Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence is defined as using of one’s mental ability to coordinate one’s own bodily movements. (Gardner, Howard; Theory of Multiple Intelligences: When the Body Moves, The Brain Remembers)  When too many events or materials embedded in the same location (like months of learning in the same seat, in the same classroom in the same school) the information is there, but it’s nearly useless. This often happens to students who really do know their material but lack the specific ‘hooks’ or mental ‘file names’ to retrieve all their learning. Forgetting occurs because such cues are rarely present when the recall is needed.”   (Jensen, Eric; Teaching with the Brain in Mind)

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Brembs, B., Lorenzetti, F. D., Reys, F. D., Baxter, D. A., & Byrne, J. H. (2002). Operant reward learning in aplysdia: Neuronal correlates and mechanisms. Science, 296(5573), 1706–1710.

Caine, R.N., Caine, G., McClintic, C., & Klimek, K. (2005). 12 Brain/mind learning  principles in action: The fieldbook for making connections, teaching, and the human brain. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Damasio, A. R. (1994). Decartes’ error: Emotion, reason, and the human brain. New York: Avon Books.

Draganski, B., Gaser, C., Busch, V., Schuierer, G., Bogdahn, U., & May, A. (2004). Neuroplasticity: Changes in grey matter induced by training. Nature, 427 (6972), 311–312.

Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Lapp, D. (2009). In a reading state of mind: Brain research, teacher modeling, and comprehension instruction. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Gentry, Richard (2010).  Step by Step Assessment Guide to Code-Breaking: Pinpoint Young Students Reading Development and Provide Just-Right Instruction.

Hardiman, M.M. (2003). Connecting brain research with effective teaching: The brain- targeted teaching model.  Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Jensen, E. (2008). Brain-based learning:  The new paradigm of teaching (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

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