Whole Brain Teaching Strategies – Help for Struggling Students

Whole Brain Teaching Strategies
By Dianne Craft

Are you working with a struggling learner at home? My definition of a struggling learner is a bright, hard-working child or teen who has to work too hard to learn. This is the population I worked with in the schools for many years, after completing the homeschooling of my son.

When these wonderful students came to me in my Resource Room, they had IEPs (individualized education plans) and many years of small group or one-on-one instruction. In spite of these valiant efforts by the teachers and parents, these students were still very behind in their learning. Many of my middle school students were reading and spelling at the second grade level, despite all the hours of interventions. That is when I decided to completely change the teaching strategies and curriculum that these students had been using.

Applying Whole Brain Teaching Strategies

Much has been written over the years about the right and left brain hemispheres. We know how each hemisphere contributes to our thinking processes. There are even many “right brain/left brain” jokes … and some of them are very funny! But what was glaringly evident was that we were not using this information and applying it to learning.

We continued to use the same old teaching strategies, in the face of obvious failure with a certain population of students. It is well known that the majority of curricula are oriented to left brain learners.

The techniques are mainly left brain techniques … memorizing lists of sight words by saying them over and over; memorizing math facts by repeated saying or writing; using black and white flash cards to “glue” them into memory; learning spelling words by repeated writing or by memorizing phonics rules; making outlines as pre-writing.

All of these more left brain methods were not working for these students. So I abandoned all the previous teaching strategies, and applied whole brain teaching strategies to the subjects. Was there any curriculum for me to follow? No. I just modified my teaching methods, using the regular curriculum that was available to me. However, much of the time I just put the curriculum aside, or made up my own. I found that wasn’t very hard to do at all. And it was so rewarding; it was as if a fire was lit under all my students … even my most recalcitrant eighth grade boys enjoyed the success they were seeing!

Were all of my students right brain learners? No. But, since the left brain teaching methods weren’t bringing success, I switched to them more whole brain teaching strategies.

Changing Teaching Strategies

From brain research, I knew that the right brain is our long term memory storage, and that it likes to learn things in a “whole” with memory hooks attached to the information, like emotion, color, picture, story, humor, and weirdness.

With that in mind, I totally changed my teaching technique. For Spelling, I put aside the spelling books for a while and used a list of the most commonly used words. We did no writing, since that hadn’t been working. Instead, we made large word cards, taking the “tricky” letters in a word, and putting right brain memory hooks on them like a picture, or better yet, blood or ooze! We just took a picture with our eyes of the words we made, and talked about the grossness of the letters we had drawn. No rules. No writing. No memorizing. At the end of the week all the students got either ninety or a hundred percent on their written spelling test. They were amazed. It was the first time for the majority of these students.

I continued this method each week. The students were really into it. The most satisfying thing to see was that they also remembered how to spell the words correctly in their paragraph writing. This was a sure sign that these whole brain teaching strategies were effectively transferring the words into their long term memory.

Whole Brain Math

We used color, picture, weirdness and emotion, unique to each math fact. They learned them quickly using that method, which made no sense to the math teachers who would come in my classroom and look at these cards! I wasn’t daunted. I saw huge progress and more importantly, happy students who were getting in touch with the smart part of themselves for the first time!

Whole Brain Test Taking

Soon the other teachers in the building began to notice that these students were doing so much better in their subjects. I remember a social studies teacher came in and asked me if there was any way I could help my students pass any of his tests. He said they knew the material, but could never pass any of his tests. I was happy to try.

He gave me the material for the next test coming up. I taught my students how to apply the same right brain memory strategies to this history material. We made notes of the chapter on the overhead projector, using pictures and symbols with blood and ooze where appropriate, to remember the facts and chronology of events. They then took the test with the other social studies students. Their teacher happily brought in their tests to me the next day. They had all passed … for the first time ever in his classroom. He then started using these same memory strategies with the whole classroom. Success followed.

Whole Brain Paragraph Writing

For writing paragraphs, book reports and short compositions, I taught them a technique I called “Right Brain Webbing.” It is totally different than traditional webbing. The student sees the “whole” paper before writing it, and the paper practically writes itself. Once they were good at this technique, then they could apply this to any writing program that was taught in the other Language Arts classrooms. (Email: [email protected], and put “Right Brain Webbing” in the subject line for a free copy of this method.)

The Biggest Challenge 

Even though spelling, writing, math and test taking were all areas of challenge for my students, they were all assigned to my pull out Resource Room because they were very behind in reading. Many of them had all the symptoms of dyslexia (reading reversals, no memory of phonics rules, no memory for sight words, and a minimum of two years behind in reading). Some of them had fewer dyslexic signs, but were really struggling in reading because they were guessing at all new words, not having mastered the phonics “code” when taught in the traditional left brain, auditory manner. Some knew their phonics perfectly, but were reading so painfully slow because they were trying to sound out all the sight words (w-h-a-t). These sight words had not transferred into their automatic memory. There was no reading curriculum I could use with these learners, because all the readers; a) introduced too many sight words in a story; and b) introduced new phonics sounds too quickly. My students were defeated by using these readers, and soon were relegated to guessing, using the pictures as their main tools.

Right Brain Reading

This experience was my most gratifying. I found that I could make sight word memorization a piece of cake for these students by adding right brain techniques like color, picture, weirdness and emotion to the sight words.

Later, when they saw the words in the text, in their mind’s eye they saw the pictures, and immediately remembered the word. The extra bonus was that they could also spell the word. Phonics was easily taught once I realized the importance of the practice of “embedding.” I needed to embed the phoneme (au/aw) directly onto a picture that gave that sound, like the picture of a saw. The brain received the information as a unit, storing the phoneme and picture together, forever. When sounding out a word with that phoneme, they had no problem remembering that sound.

With these new tools, which we made together, we started making real progress. To our surprise, almost all the students made a year and a half to two years growth in reading level, after all those years of making minimal progress each year.

Teach this Reading Strategy at Home

You can use this same process at home with your struggling reader. To read aloud each day, look for basic readers that introduce the new sight words and phonics sounds very slowly.

This will give your child success, without the frustration of having to guess at words. I used the very old Merrill Readers which I found in the back of the school storage room. These readers, which remediate to the end of third grade level, are still available on the internet. When your child has read these nine readers, they will be ready for a fourth grade reader. You can use any readers, now that you know the technique of making right brain sight word cards, and right brain phonics cards of the new sounds introduced in the story. Together, read all the “tricky” words first, before the child reads the story aloud.

If you have a child or teen who is “stuck” in reading, try a totally different method. The success you will see is worth all the work!

God has made us wonderfully … both sides of our brain. Now we know how to use this great brain we have.

Dianne Craft has a Master’s Degree in Learning Disabilities and is a Certified Natural Health Professional. She speaks widely at Homeschool Conventions. Her books, The Brain Integration Therapy Manual, The Right Brain Phonics Reading Program, and her DVDs, Teaching the Right Brain Child, Smart Kids Who Hate to Write and CD set, “The Biology of Behavior” have helped hundreds of families remove learning blocks in their struggling children at home. See her website for many articles on children and learning, and to download her free “Daily Lesson Plans for the Struggling Reader and Writer” Dianne now offers “Personal Internet Consultations” for parents to learn how to work with their child at home. Email her for details: [email protected]. www.diannecraft.org

Copyright, 2014. Used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine, July/August 2014. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.

3 thoughts on “Whole Brain Teaching Strategies – Help for Struggling Students”

  1. Thank you so much for posting this article! Understanding right-brained teaching and learning methods is so important for all students. I graduate as a home-schooler in ’93 earned a degree in math and have tutored, among other subjects, algebra and calculus for over 10 years. Having a non-traditional background has helped me to think about math from a totally different approach. Algebra and calculus make so much more sense when visualized! I believe that all students will understand math better if they can gain understanding from a right-brained conceptual presentation before learning the left-brained number-crunching methods. After all, we all have a right and left side to our brains. Why not use the whole thing!
    I love your webbing technique for writing papers. I always did the automatically know that I would get nowhere with any other approach. I’m going to bookmark this page for reference. You have some great ideas here!

  2. Thanks for reading, Angela!
    Using both sides of the brain can produce spectacular results, and Dianne Craft has written lots of articles about different learners! Glad you found it useful!
    Molly Green Staff

    • Does anyone know what ‘right brain’ research Diane Craft is referring to? I don’t see anything past the early 1990s, at best. A lot has been learned through fMRI imaging since then. We used to think that the immediate results seen from developing sight word habits, adding extra pictures to the brain for sound/symbols, etc, was a good thing. Now we know that true, long-term phonemic language development and stimulation must occur in the left brain, and is stimulable with correct interventions. Adding the right brain adds a whole other step for true learning, and can limit the needed left-brain development. The International Dyxlexia Association, Sally Schaywitz and the Yale Institute, Dr. Molfese out of UNL, American Academy of Pediatrics, and many more are full of this information. I don’t see Diane Craft referring to any of this – just the right brain theory popular in teacher’s colleges in the early 1990s.

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