Monday, May 30, 2011

An Answer For Some Struggling Readers - The Reticular Activating System

“Oh my goodness!” I gasped, “Her reading level went up by 5 months in 30 minutes!” I was stunned.  How was that possible?  I call it the “Jared Factor.”  Let me back up a bit.

How it Happened
It was March and one of my second grade students, Karen (not her real name), had been stuck at a 1.3 reading level (1st grade, 3rd month) since December.   I was trying everything I could think of.  I decided to ask Jared, my 18-year-old son, to come read with her.  I shared with Karen that my son has dyslexia and had really struggled to learn to read at her age.  She had met Jared before and was very excited to have this tall, handsome young man coming to see just her! 
On the day Jared read with Karen, I told him to read a page to her, then choral read it together, then let her read it alone.  Karen returned from their session walking on a cloud!  She was animated and excited…traits that she rarely displays.  She was reading with a fluency I had NEVER heard from her!  I was floored and couldn’t resist doing a quick test to find out her reading level.  She was reading at a 1.8.  That was a 5-month increase in 30 minutes!  The Jared Factor was at work.

My AHA Moment
Yet the very next day, her reading returned to the previous level.  So, it appeared the Jared Factor wasn't permanent.  A paragraph from Dr. Judy Willis’s book Brain-Friendly Strategies for the Inclusion Classroom (2007) leaped into my mind.  It says:

“When activated by emotion, the RAS (Reticular Activating System) sends messages to the frontal lobes’ executive function and memory centers.  When the RAS is below normal activity levels, the decreased stimulation of these frontal lobe centers can result in learning and memory difficulties and impaired self-control” (page 64).

I speculated that Karen must need higher than average levels of positive emotion to push messages through her RAS.  Clearly I needed to have Jared visit more often!  Unfortunately that wasn’t possible.  I couldn’t think of any other handsome teenagers I could enlist either.  My first idea was to have her read a book to Jared on a video.  However,  that can only work so many times.  I finally decided to try being extra animated and excited myself on the days I work with her (I’m a very animated person to begin with!) and to try to get her to act the same.  I finally started seeing a steady increase.  By the end of school last week she was consistently reading at a 1.9.   

What I’m Going To Do Now
I’m tutoring Karen this summer.  My goal is to teach her BrainSMART strategies to use on her own to help her get extra positive emotions flowing for learning.  This is part of my BrainSMART action research project.  I can’t wait to share my results in about 3 weeks!

What To Take Away From This
I think the most important message here is that some children with reading difficulties simply need higher positive emotions to get messages through to their frontal lobes.  Since Jared isn't available on a daily basis, you may need to be extra animated and positive when working with them!  If you have a struggling student who is very low-key, this could be the answer.  
Enhanced by Zemanta


  1. I would like to thank you for the efforts you've made in writing this posting. I'm hoping the same very best function from you inside future too.

  2. I am a pre-service teacher, and I was wondering if you had a lot of time for individual help with the students you have? Do you set aside time slots for each student or do you just let them know that if they need help to come to you? I am interested to see, because i believe that individual help is necessary for students sometimes to see improvement.

  3. You're right that individual help is sometimes necessary. I don't wait for them to come to me. If I see a need, I make time. It might be during group work, centers, or whenever I can carve it out! If even more time is needed, I meet with them regularly after school. You're on track!

  4. I've been reading about this a lot recently -- the role of emotion in learning. It's HUGE! This is a great post, Diane, and illustrates how important that affective piece is to learners.

  5. Diane - thanks for sharing your strategy with your lower readers. What a great idea having your son come read with her. I have had high school students come to my class daily before (program called RISE - Reading is Succeeding Everyday - it was an actual class for the high school students). They would actually come in and work with individual students or groups or whatever I needed and my students were so excited to get to work with the high schoolers. They really looked up to the older kids which was great motivation to do well. I saw lots of growth, especially in the lower students that I had read with the older kids more often. Not only is it good for the younger ones, but I think it is also great for the older kids. They really enjoyed coming and working with the kids. I would love to see the RISE program implemented in my current school.

  6. Diane, I've noticed the same thing with my kids. In my tutoring sessions this summer I am having the kids read a passage three times. We time it with each reading...I then have them find the mean and graph it. :) Can't pass up the chance for that mini math lesson.

    They get so excited to see the speed and accuracy increase. I agree with you that the Jared Effect kicks in. I explain to them every time that this shows how much reading daily will help them. My hope is that the connection will be made in their minds and they will be more motivated to read.

  7. thanks for sharing your strategy...
    non voice projects

  8. I teach two levels of what we call in our school "reading focused" classes (high school). I am always looking for strategies to help students increase their reading level. Some of our novels are well below what I know they are capable of. I too, like you mentioned, am very enthusiastic. One strategy might be having local college students come and work with my students (even though they are in high school). Perhaps any kind of change of pace with someone other than the regular classroom teacher might help. Thanks for sharing your strategy!

  9. I've been experiencing the RAS/Jared Factor with a few my lower level ESL students the past few weeks. Your post was helpful, as it showed some of the research behind it! As we set goals and assess their progress, these students are coming alive and excited to see their own growth.

  10. very interesting story. you are great teacher