Friday, November 4, 2016

First-hand Experiences Are Essential Cognitive Rehearsals for Writing and Reading (in that order)

When asked to begin a writing assignment, students often respond by asking one of two questions (and often both). Their first question is "What do I write about?" Their  second question is frequently "How do I get started?" According to Colorado master educator, Eileen Patrick, “You can't make the words or ideas come out of your pencil, until you can get them to come out of your mouth first.”
Discourse and dialogue are the vitally important “cognitive rehearsals” that should always precede any writing assignment. Unfortunately, teachers typically tell students, "If you aren't ready to begin writing your essay, then outline it first," which is unwittingly asking them to engage in a higher cognitive task (synthesizing and summarizing) than the writing itself.  
Before students are asked to write about a given topic, they should be afforded (1) an opportunity to have a first-hand or virtual (visual) experience with it to gain some degree of appreciation for the "what," (2) some time allotted to reflect on and digest the experience, and then, (3) time to talk with peers about what was learned, what was discovered that was surprising, and what they might still "wonder" about the topic, both specifically and  generally -- the "why it is so."  Through the talking about related personal/virtual experiences with a given subject, students prepare themselves to write about it. They can write down that which they have just articulated.
Although we are prone to say that "words are used to communicate," before we can even utter those words, we must think about them first. A more accurate statement is "words are used to think, and we can say what we think." It is impossible to speak without thinking  first (yes, there are people who do so, sponsoring more derision than admiration). Prior to expressing our thoughts, we must "think them" first. Preparing a student to think more deeply about a topic and expressing that thinking coherently is the first step in what we refer to academically as "good" student writing.  
During first-hand learning experiences, students quickly add important new vocabulary words to their personal "working" vocabularies. We often hear that students can best learn new words "in context," it should be stated more precisely that they learn new words more efficiently in the context of doing, rather than in the process of reading. This is because, when the written text is unfamiliar, coupled with the introduction of words that the learner has never seen before, neither the concept or the vocabulary will be readily grasped. Most likely, both will remain elusive.
While the accumulated vocabulary that a student brings to a text largely determines if he/she will spend more time trying to understand the target concept or devote a majority of the reading time merely attempting to make sense of the strange new words being used to bring the concept to light.
Research suggests that 95% of what a student gains from reading a passage depends on his/her background knowledge or what the student "brings to the text." Students with little or no background knowledge will likely comprehend far less than a student who is well versed in the same topic. (Similar to cooking without many of the basic ingredients). No prior experience with the vocabulary words tends to expand the gap between the novice learner and comprehending the topic. Having either personal or virtual experiences with a subject, and having talked about and having written about it provide the level of background knowledge that enhances reading comprehension. 
Conceptual development progresses along a distinctly consistent pathway that is grounded in concrete experiential learning.

Experiences Are Cognitive Rehearsals
When playing with objects, learners are simultaneously manipulating/playing with ideas (internal dialogues attach words and meaning to actions – the “mind’s eye”) building the representative brain circuitry.
Exploring and experimenting involve examining relationships, interactions and systems, where learners formulate their own personal “theories” (mental constructs)
Thinking is a cognitive rehearsal for discourse.
Discourse is a cognitive rehearsal for writing (phonological loop or “inner voice”).
Playing with objects and ideas, exploring and experimenting, thinking, talking, and writing become cognitive rehearsals (background knowledge) for reading.
Writing and reading clarify one’s thoughts, generate coherent thinking, and cultivate precision in expressing one’s inner thoughts (supporting long-term memory consolidation).
Experience, discourse and writing become cognitive rehearsals for assessment.

In today's academic world driven by accountability, producing high test scores is viewed as the indicator of a quality education being offered. However, brain-considerate learning strategies such as these have a greater long-term impact on teaching "thinking," which is the true mission of formal education. 

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