Using Comic Books to Support Writing

Super heroes are all around us. In the movies, on TV, on T-shirts, on lunch boxes, and of course in comic books.  While you may think of the stereotypical comic book character from the Simpsons, these visual narratives can offer young readers a new approach to learning. On this episode of the Mind Matters Show, Dr. Craig Pohlman talks to Dr. Pat O’Conner about how comic books can be used to support writing. (Check out part 1 on comic books and reading instruction here)

The first thing comics offer is a hook. If your young student struggles with getting motivated to write, the popularity of super heroes and drawings might spark their interest. Rather than trying to get through paragraphs or pages of plain text, try shifting the format. Creating a super hero storyboard of panels with narration and dialogue can be more fun and intriguing, while still providing writing practice and expression.

Another way to use comics is as templates. A parent or teacher can scan pages of comics and blank out the prewritten speech bubbles. The exercise would be to have to the student fill in the missing text based on the visual context. For example, what would this character be saying in this panel? Why would they be reacting like this? This scaffolding approach can be a fun different way to get students involved in the writing process.

Comics can offer an alternative approach to writing with visual storytelling potential as well as a fun and educational writing exercise. So why not give it a try?

 This post was originally published on Southeast Psych’s blog

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Organization of Object and Action Categories in the Brain

article-0-1698BF2A000005DC-343_964x597The team at Gallant Lab at UC Berkley has been looking at how the brain processes and maps words/subject/objects. (Their recently published paper in Neuron) The result is a fascinating look into the workings of the brain and yet more evidence that we have only barely begun to uncover the mysteries of the mind at work.

Check out the video below explaining the research and then head over to their site where you can play with the data yourself (they recommend using Chrome as your browser).

While we can’t make assumptions or jump to conclusions about what this means for working with students, the research does offer a springboard for a whole host of other questions. For example:

  • What role does background knowledge play in the shaping and writing the semantic map?
  • Do the semantic maps look different when focused on a single topic — such as vehicles, buildings, or plants?
  • How might this research inform methods of vocabulary instruction?
  • If the information were provided in different contexts or delivery methods (text or verbal rendering vs. movie clip rendering), are the areas of the brain that are oxygenated different? What implications might this have for classroom learning?

Such research illustrates, once again, how little we know, and how much more there is yet to learn. What we do know is this: students’ minds are complex and pliable. The experiences and environments we design and deliver help shape how they process, understand, and interact with the world. It is up to us to make those experiences worthwhile.

Want to know more? Read Ben Thomas’s piece, “Meaning and the Brain: How Your Brain Organizes Reality” at Scientific America. 

Image: via Daily Mail via Gallant Labs

What’s Up with Kate? (Part 2)

Last week we told you about Kate, a 6th grade student with some learning challenges.  Kate is earning good grades, but she really has to work hard for everything – seemingly much harder than her peers.  She struggles to retain new vocabulary words, recall information from reading passages, follow multi-step directions, and master math facts.

So what’s really going on with Kate?  We got some terrific responses to last week’s post, with thoughtful analyses of Kate’s challenges as well as creative strategies for using her strengths and affinities to help her.  Here’s what we think:

The Good News

Kate has strengths in expressive language and writing.  She is also very creative, a function of higher order cognition.  She enjoys graphic design and computers, indicators that spatial ordering could be a strength for her.  She also loves animals, especially cats.  We’d want to continue to encourage her in these areas, and take advantage of these strengths and affinities when coming up with strategies to help Kate. (See the comments on last week’s blog for some great ideas on how to do this!)

Getting at the Root of the Problem

As many of our readers suggested in their comments, memory seems to be an underlying theme behind Kate’s learning issues. While retrieving information from long-term memory is okay, getting the information into long-term memory is a challenge that is showing up when she studies new spelling and vocabulary words and tries to master her math facts. Summarizing what she reads also relies on functions of memory, including active working memory. Weak active working memory could also be making it difficult for Kate to follow multi-step directions. 

Talking to Kate

The first step we’d take is to discuss with her the reasons behind some of her difficulties in reading and the resulting academic struggles. It’s important to highlight Kate’s strengths as well as the areas in need of improvement.  As one of last week’s readers alluded to, we’d also want to foster her confidence that she can succeed in these areas.

We’d talk with Kate about the different types of memory, and tell her that she has difficulty “getting things into” her memory. We might make this idea more concrete by using an analogy such as putting clothes in a dresser or papers in a file so she can easily find them later.  We’d share with her that subjects like social studies and science have a lot of factual information and more memory demands than other subjects, which is why she struggles more in these areas.

Working toward Success

As we mentioned earlier, we’d want to capitalize on her strengths and interests when thinking about strategies to use with Kate.  Here’s a few examples:

  • Support Kate’s interest in animals by having her read about a species or particular animal and practice summarization skills and memory strategies by role-playing as a zoologist. 
  • In addition to supporting Kate’s art activities, give her the opportunity to work with experts in set-design and construction, so that she will see multi-step processes and instructions at work.

Other strategies you might try with Kate include …

  • Help with reading – Provide her with some basic accommodations in reading assignments to help her experience some success in class and to improve her learning of the content. For example, give her outlines – possibly partially-completed – from text book chapters to guide her to important information.  As one reader mentioned, graphic organizers, charts, and drawings might also work well for Kate.  Have her save these “tools” to study for tests.  These tools might vary based on the subject.  For example, in history, she may benefit from making timelines or creating cause-effect flow charts.  In math, she may benefit from making reference cards with the technical vocabulary words of an upcoming lesson.  One reader also recommended using visuals to help Kate remember math facts (e.g. the program “Nine Lines”).
  • Help with tests – Give Kate specific guidance in what is expected of her on tests and assignments. For example, instead of just asking Kate about the author’s intent in a story, provide instruction to her: “The next few questions will ask you about the author’s intentions in writing the story. Use what we learned about the author’s feelings about the subject to help you understand her intentions. Use facts in the story to back up your conclusions.”
  • Help with vocabulary – Limit the number of new vocabulary words she’s asked to learn at one time. Too many vocab words can be overwhelming for her, especially if other rules are introduced at the same time. For example, the word endings for action, suspicion, and suspension all sound the same, but are spelled differently. Some students find it easier to practice these rules one at a time.  One of last week’s readers also suggested having Kate “visualize” her vocab words.

See the comments on last week’s blog entry for more great strategies for working with kids like Kate.  What strategies would you use?  What are some other ways we could leverage her strengths and affinities?  If you haven’t done so already, share your ideas with us by leaving a comment below!

Related links:

What’s Up with Kate? (Part 1)

Last week’s blog was our last installment of our book-inspired series. We received quite a few thoughtful and inspiring comments, and we gave away five free copies of Schools for All Kinds of Minds! We hope you enjoyed the sneak peeks into some of the ideas in the book, and we hope the series inspired you to pick up a copy if you hadn’t done so already.

Up Next …

This week we’re trying something a little different – a case study of Kate, a 6th grader with a puzzling array of learning challenges. Read Kate’s story and let us know what you think is going on with her and how you’d approach her challenges. Then, tune in next week for our explanation and recommendations!

Nothing’s Easy for Kate

Kate, a popular 6th grader, earns good grades and participates regularly in class. But Kate always has to work really hard to succeed. Nothing seems to come easy, but once Kate knows something, she appears to know it well and apply it effectively.

Occasionally, Kate’s dad helps her with her homework and studying – but by both accounts, these sessions are painstaking and don’t seem very productive. Kate can go over a list of spelling or vocabulary words repeatedly for more than an hour yet retain only a few of the items. The same goes for reading – she can read a passage easily but remembers only bits and pieces.

What Kate’s Teacher Sees

Kate’s teacher is puzzled by Kate’s constellation of challenges in the classroom. She’s noticed that Kate often needs to have explanations repeated and that she has a lot trouble complying with multi-step instructions of any type. It also takes Kate a long time to copy from the board; her classmates finish when she is barely halfway there!

Kate’s teacher has also observed that Kate does much better in day-to-day class work than she does on tests.

Reading and Math: A Mixed Bag

In the last year, reading has started to be a problem for Kate, especially in social studies and science. She has a particularly hard time summarizing what she’s read, despite her general ability to express herself well verbally.

While Kate is good at understanding math concepts, it’s been hard for her to master math facts, so she needs more time to complete math assignments and quizzes.

What’s Going Right

Kate seems to have a knack for graphic design. She looks forward to her computer class and has talked about being an architect one day. She loves animals and has a very special fondness for cats and has written several very perceptive reports about cats.

What do you think?

What areas are strengths for Kate? Weaknesses? How could you leverage Kate’s strengths to help her improve in other areas? What would you say to Kate?

Share your ideas with us, and next week, we’ll share our thoughts about Kate with you!

Summer Blog Series Post #2: The Role of Memory in Reading Comprehension

Reading comprehension is one of the most complex academic skills. Skilled readers construct meaning by synchronizing a bottom-up approach to reading (decoding words fluently and accurately) with a top-down approach (using prior knowledge and experience during reading).

Neurodevelopmental factors:

Reading comprehension involves a variety of neurodevelopmental functions, including attention, memory, language, and higher order cognition. In this post, we’re going to focus on the role of memory.

Memory:

While reading, we must hold important information and concepts in our minds. We must process words, sentences and paragraphs together in order to gain full meaning of what we’re reading. In addition, we must call up relevant information we already know. Memory is essential in helping us comprehend as we read, make associations between prior knowledge and new information, and remember that same information at a later time, such as during a test.

Here are some possible signs that a student is succeeding with the memory demands of reading:

The student …

  • Is able to pick out main ideas
  • Paraphrases/summarizes well
  • Holds onto the beginning of a story while reading the end
  • Keeps in mind the plot of a story while working on a single part of a paragraph
  • Easily learns new vocabulary words and definitions

Here are some possible signs that a student is struggling with the memory demands of reading:

The student …

  • Feels overwhelmed by the number of ideas presented
  • Retains only fragments of what was read
  • Can restate the gist of ideas, concepts, or directions, but not the details
  • Loses the meaning of a passage when looking up the definition of an unknown word

Strategies to help students struggling in this area:

  • Have students read in pairs, alternating between passages and then switching parts to re-read the text.
  • Have students take quick notes that describe the main idea of what they are reading. For example, have students stop to summarize what they’ve read after each paragraph. This approach will help ensure that students are recording important information in their minds.
  • Stress self-monitoring of comprehension while reading, by encouraging students to ask themselves: “Is this passage about what I thought it was going to be about?” “Have I linked what I just read to the parts I read earlier?,” etc.
  • Teach students how to create useful notes that reinforce understanding and help to trigger information recall at a later time. For example, teach students how to create concept maps based on their reading, as one technique for consolidating and organizing what they’ve read. Have students save their maps, and use them as study tools for upcoming tests.

We’d love to hear what strategies you’ve used to help students struggling with the memory demands of reading.  Leave a comment below with your ideas!

Related links:

Learn more about our summer series

  1. More information and strategies about the role of memory in reading comprehension (See “Tips to Help” links for more strategies!)
  2. General information about the neurodevelopmental demands of reading
  3. Research on active working memory and reading
  4. Reading resources on the web