Computers and Beginning Reading Not a Good Combination

Children with electronic notepads
Electronic devices being handed out like worksheets to children too young to need them.

As schools shift to online instruction, electronic notebooks are being handed out like so many worksheets, not just to children in the upper grades, but to the youngest, who are just beginning kindergarten.

Computers are wonderful tools, but they are not the ideal tool for teaching children the most important skill they have to learn in Grades K-3: how to write and read.

Note that I put write before read.

The superiority of taking notes by hand—rather than by typing them into a laptop—has recently caught the attention of researchers. For example, here’s the summary of such research:

Writing by hand strengthens the learning process. When typing on a keyboard, this process may be impaired. Neurophysiologists have examined research which goes a long way in confirming the significance of these differences. When writing by hand, our brain receives feedback from our motor actions, together with the sensation of touching a pencil and paper. These kinds of feedback [are] significantly different from those we receive when touching and typing on a keyboard.

As most of the publicized research about note-taking has focused on college students, I was pleased to find an article in Psychology Today about the value of handwriting for beginning readers. However, I didn’t know whether to be amused or angry when I came across this assertion:

Both research and practice are offering a novel idea: Teach kids to read by writing.

The idea of teaching children to read by writing is not at all “a novel idea.” It’s an idea researched and perfected in the early twentieth century by neurosurgeon Samuel Orton, psychologist Anna Gillingham, and teacher Romalda Spalding. In fact, Spalding’s hugely effective reading program published in 1952 has the title, The Writing Road to Reading.

That writing should come first in teaching a child to read makes absolute sense.

Books written in English are written with an alphabet.

Before the alphabet was invented, there was nothing for anyone to read. Shopping lists, inventories, and epic poems had to be encoded with an alphabet before they could be decoded by the act of reading. Writing has always come first.

The most effective way to teach children to read is to teach them how to form the letters with a writing implement at the same time they practice producing the speech sounds the letters represent in writing.

If your child is in the early stages of learning to read, don’t rely on computer instruction alone to bring them to reading fluency.

Even before the pandemic disrupted school attendance, half the children who began school at the age of five or six failed to become fluent readers by the fourth grade. Reading instruction that privileges flash cards and “invented spelling” over writing instruction fail children who have not already been immersed in books and reading for the first five years of their lives.

Writing by hand engages multiple learning channels. The child who learns to read by writing the letters internalizes the process in ways that are not duplicated by manipulating a keyboard or touch-screen.

Make use of the lessons on this site to give your child the necessary writing-to-reading experience at home.

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