Teacher question: I have read the work of researchers like Louisa Moats, Stanislas Dehaene, and Linnea Ehri and have an understanding of how reading works in the brain. I understand the critical role of connecting graphemes to phonemes. My question is what is the true role of the kinesthetic activities promoted in many intervention programs?
The idea of tracing words to improve literacy has been around for a century. You’d think in that amount of time, we’d have a clear idea on whether or not tracing (and all of the other haptic and kinesthetic responses to letters and words) helps and, if so, how and why.
But you’d be wrong.
This method was first described by Grace Fernald and Hellen Keller in 1921. Fernald, a clinical psychologist, with a practice focused on reading improvement, applied the method with severely disabled readers. By all accounts, she was a remarkable teacher and her article described what she did and how well it worked (the boys and girls that she worked with learned to read). She didn’t devote much space to why she thought tracing was such a boon.
Needless to say, her idea caught on and ended up in a number of remedial reading programs, most notably in the one created by Gillingham & Stillman (these days referred to as the Orton-Gillingham method or the O-G method). And, via that route, there are today several commercial instructional programs aimed at dyslexia that include various kinds of tracing and air writing and that sort of thing.
Over time, these V-A-K-T (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, tactile) practices accumulated a plethora of explanations for why they worked (Shams, & Seitz, 2008). Many of these explanations focus on memory – the person you listened to seems to be in that camp – that idea of building either additional neural pathways or reinforcing visual-auditory pathways in the brain through physical movement and touch. But there are also attentional and perceptual explanations and there have been many a rationale based on whatever the current thought on brain architecture and neural processing may have been at the time. Some of these explanations have fallen by the wayside as it has become apparent they are out of sync with the way the brain works, but many are still unresolved.
Personally, given more modern descriptions of neural processing (D’Mello & Gabrieli, 2018), I’m more in the attention camp. I’m not convinced that these practices create alternative neural routes or facilitate the paring of alternative paths typical of learning.
My own guess – and this is no more than that (and mine is not necessarily any better than yours) – is that the various kinesthetic schemes do little more than increase the amount of time that readers look at the letters and words when trying to learn them and focus the readers’ attention better on those things that have to be learned.
I say “no more than” as if focusing and extending student attention on a word’s construction were a trivial matter. But that is also true of many successful mathemagenic behaviors (those actions that give rise to learning). Think, for instance, of many study skills; they simply get students to spend more time thinking about the ideas in text by highlighting or taking notes (Rothkopf, 1970).
When youngsters simultaneously look at a word, say its name, and trace its letters, it is certainly possible that they are improving word memory for some subtle neurological reason, but it could simply be that they must keep their eyes trained on the word longer and that may encourage some of the kinds of phonological stretching (drawing out the pronunciation of a word to highlight the phonological parts and make them more phonetically accessible).
Of course, providing a rationale for why tracing works, assumes that it does, which raises a big, “Not so fast.”
Unfortunately, though educators have tilled these fields for a hundred years, it is unclear whether that it works or not.
Part of the problem is that despite numerous investigations concerning the impact of V-A-K-T approaches on learning, the issue has never gained so much sustained attention from the scientific community that deep understanding and insight has resulted. Often when there is a considerable amount of study of an issue, we start to figure out which paradigms are most informative and which study designs may be misleading us. That has not been the case here.
Making it even more difficult to sort out is the fact that many of the studies that have been done tend to be small (frequently with no more than a few children), and they are quite diverse in the outcomes they aimed for or the students whom they were teaching. They are so diverse in these regards I doubt that a meaningful meta-analysis could even be executed.
Certainly, some of the studies support the idea of teaching reading (or aspects of reading such as letter recognition or blending) using multisensory approaches (Campbell, Helf, Cooke, 2008; Connor, 1994; Gentaz, Cole, & Bara, 2003; Ho, Lam, & Au, 2001; Itaguchi, Yamada, & Fukuzawa, 2015; Itaguchi, Yamada, Yoshihara, & Fukuzawa, 2017; Nash, Thorpe, & Lamp, 1980; Thomas, 2015; Xu, Liu, & Joshi, 2019). However, for the most part these studies were conducted with non-alphabetic languages like Japanese or Chinese, or included fewer than 10 students. None of the studies done in Western languages made any attempt to control or measure the time differences between the trainings, which though not necessarily supportive of my earlier supposition that the effect is coming from more time on task, certainly does not refute it.
Yes, there are those studies that support tracing, but there are also many studies that reported no clear or consistent benefits from such approaches (Hulme, 1981; Lee, 2016; Myers, 1978; Schlesinger & Gray, 2017; Wilson, Harris, & Harris, 1976). And, there are still other studies showing that tracing can be distracting or irrelevant, leading to lower relative performance than more traditional visual-auditory approaches to decoding (Berninger, Lester, Sohlberg, & Mateer, 1991; Rau, Zheng, & Wei, 2020); Vandever, & Nevelle, D. 1972).
After 100 years, I still can’t tell you if tracing improves learning when it comes to reading.
Of course, there are a number of instructional programs that incorporate tracing, and studies have shown some of these programs to be effective. That, however, is not a contradiction, since these successful programs do much more than tracing. Maybe the tracing they are doing is beneficial, maybe it is simply inert adding nothing (though perhaps wasting a bit of time), and even if the tracing was disruptive, it obviously is not so damaging as to outweigh the remaining benefits of these programs.
Given all of this, as a teacher I would not specifically seek out multisensory programs (though I wouldn’t go out of my way to avoid them either).
If I were using such a program, I’d do what I could to ensure that the tracing was not distracting the students from matching up the sounds and spellings by ear and eye; I much prefer having students looking and sounds along with the tracing (which means I’m not a big fan of air tracing despite its effectiveness in supporting the memorization of Japanese characters).
I used the analogy of study skills earlier, and I think there is something to be learned from that work. Take a study skill like highlighting the key points of a text. Sometimes highlighting supports learning and sometimes it doesn’t. It helps when it leads students to think hard about the ideas in the text, trying to determine which parts should be highlighted, and then, going back and rereading the highlighted portions. But when students simply highlight everything, it does nothing to improve comprehension or recall.
I suspect tracing gains such a mixed bag of results for the same reason. If tracing supports more thorough and careful looking and listening, it could be beneficial. When it doesn’t, it may have no impact whatsoever. And, when learners get all wrapped up in rubbing the letters or dipping their fingers in goop, it could be a distraction that reduces learning.
Tracing, if it is to be used at all, should slow students down, focusing their attention on the letters and helping them to think about the letters and sounds more thoroughly and carefully. The teacher who uses this method has to be vigilant to make sure that it delivers.
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