Frank Bensen and DAI
If we are serious about using a model of instruction based on developmental appropriateness, we need to have a paradigm shift in the way we look at literacy issues. Prior to his death, neuroscientist Frank Bensen proposed a brain structure model that analyzed the structures necessary for producing spoken word and a written word.
In our case, we are dealing with a population whose brain structures may be so severely impacted that the very concept of teaching them to read the written word will never really meet with success.
Back in the old days of computing, a central processing unit on a motherboard was enhanced by installing a mathematical coprocessor chip. If the motherboard did not have such a feature, then the cpu’s ability to process complex math functions was greatly affected, and the computer owner’s level of frustration with the machine was increased along with the owner’s anxiety levels.
In our own case, what if we have students that do not possess the brain structure or structures necessary for processing meaning derived from the common alphabet? What if we are, as teachers, really trying to superimpose our cultural values onto a system which has no ability to process those values?
As a society, we value the individual’s ability to process the written language into meaningful concepts, and the meaningful concepts become the basis for our understanding of the world. We pass laws that require teachers to have children reading at specific grade levels of ability when we have a population co-existing that could possible understand the values, just not the system used by the educators to instill the values. How much anxiety is involved in that process which is doomed to fail from the beginning?
Short of growing new neurons and reprogramming newly grown brain structures (if such a process really existed), how do we successfully superimpose a language system into brains that are incapable of processing language efficiently?
Our own laws already posit the answer to that question – change the way we look at literacy; at least for that 1 to 2 percent of the population who do not possess the mental hardware for processing the language system used by the majority of our culture.
So what then can our population with special needs use as a system for effectively communicating with the alphanumerically literate majority? Our special education classrooms have been using pictures and graphic symbols as a basis for communication for decades. Unfortunately, the English language has developed into an intellectually esthete system that has been used politically to segregate the intellectual elite from the rest of humanity.
In the English-speaking world, if you can’t process multiple synonyms, obscure cognates and a backwards scanning grapheme system, you are judged to be illiterate and therefore, unqualified for the benefits of education.
Ever since the invention of the printing press however, literature that has sought to influence human behavior has tended to use paired associates (words paired with pictures) as devices for increasing human understanding. “With Adam’s fall, we sinned all”, reads the chapbook from the American colonial period.
Not only does that bit of history illustrate my point about the use of paired associates, it also illustrates my point(s) about the use of language to effect desired behavioral outcomes – both moral and political.
All literacy teachers know, whether NCLB has approved of the research or not, that one effective way of teaching literacy involves the use of paired associates. Consider things as simple as children’s alphabet blocks. Literacy teachers often combine paired associates with other techniques to the point that after a while, children learning to read no longer need to associate the graphemic representation with the paired image. At that point, we begin to fade the paired image. Like a child learning to ride a bike using training wheels, we remove the training wheels and the average child learns to read a book in the same manner that the average child learns to ride a bike.
To special educators, things like paired associates and training wheels are simply supports and accommodations required by law in the instruction of children with impaired learning abilities.
So, let’s stop beating ourselves up because we teach a population that often simply does not have the necessary brain structures required for effective grade equivalency literacy achievement. Instead, let’s look at our student with impaired abilities in light of their strengths, which often include the strength to process pictures into meaningful information.