Engage and Change Students through IRW

By Tina Shanahan

I held a human brain in my hands once. A colleague in my college’s nursing program invited me on a field trip to a human cadaver lab, and I am not one to turn down a learning experience like that! As a human, I was fascinated by he body and its organs; it’s awe-inspiring and a bit terrifying to see all the parts that make us work lined up on a table. As a teacher, I couldn’t wait to see the human brain up close. I’m not a neuroscientist, but I work on the human brain every day.

Learning Changes the Brain

Learning is the result of physical changes in the brain. Let’s say a student is sitting in English class and hears the instructor explain genre. While the instructor is showing examples of scenes from various genres of movies and various genres of writing, the neurons in the student’s brain are growing and making connections. At the 2019 NOSS conference, Janet Zadina, an educational neuroscientist, explained that neurons start to physically change within five minutes of learning something new. After twenty minutes of learning, dendrites start to branch out and make synaptic connections with related neurons. The English lesson on genre has laid the groundwork in the student’s brain for what neuroscientists call LTP, long-term potentiation, the strengthening of connections between the neurons. LTP is the physical result of learning.


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Neurons begin to grow and make connections quickly when we encounter new information, but these changes are not necessarily permanent. Zadina warns that dendrite growth will be re-absorbed if the new connections are not used. Our English student must reinforce the concept of genre from our lesson in order to maintain and strengthen neuronal growth. Each time the student remembers the genre lesson, related neurons fire signals to each other, strengthening synaptic connections and consolidating learning.

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When we understand the basic physiological elements of learning, we can help students grow their neuronal networks.  In Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning, James Lang emphasizes that the work required to wire neuronal networks during learning must be done by the student: “You can’t fire the synapses in your students’ brains.”  However, you still play a vital role.  According to Lang, “Your task is to create an environment that facilitates the formation of those connections.”  What does that environment look like in an integrated reading and writing class?

Engage the Whole Brain

In The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning, James Zull identifies four main sections of the brain, which each play a specific role in learning.  These sections and their functions include: the sensory cortex to process concrete experience, the back integrative cortex to engage in reflective observation, the front integrative cortex to form abstract hypotheses, and the motor cortex to actively test knowledge.  Zull counsels teachers to engage all four sections of the brain.

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The sensory cortex processes what is seen, heard, and felt through concrete experience.  According to Zull, understanding starts in the sensory cortex.  For example, children first hear language, then understand it, and then begin to speak.  Similarly, children often recognize the shape of common words and read them by sight before they are able to decode based on alphabetic principles.  The sensory cortex remains essential in college classrooms.  To incorporate the sensory cortex in class, Zull suggests that instructors give students concrete experiences before developing abstract concepts.

In reading and writing classes, for example, we often start with the rule when teaching grammar, but rules are abstractions.  To first engage the sensory cortex, we could show students sentences with punctuation in different places and read the sentences aloud.  As we discuss which ones look and sound better and why that may be the case, we move naturally to the level of abstraction.  Another way to engage the sensory cortex during editing is using Microsoft Word’s Speak feature.  Students can highlight one sentence at a time and read along as the computer reads the sentence aloud.  When something doesn’t “sound right,” the other brain regions help make sense of it.

The back integrative cortex helps us connect what we’re currently seeing, hearing, or experiencing with what we already know.  In the example above about searching for grammar patterns based on what is seen and heard, you probably recognized that an element of previous experience with spoken and written language is required for that exercise to work effectively.  That’s where the back integrative cortex comes in.

Building on existing knowledge is “the single most important factor in learning,” according to Zadina.  Reading instructors already know the value of building from prior knowledge and often engage this part of the brain through reading aids like anticipation guides and K-W-L charts.  These strategies prime the brain to make connections to new input.  Zull promotes writing activities as a particularly effective way for students to activate prior knowledge and give teachers an idea of individuals’ current understanding of a course concept.  IRW instructors identified using the same topic for reading and writing as a best practice in a 2016 survey.  Themed reading and writing activities help students write to discover prior knowledge and build knowledge through reading.  Typically, then, students also re-construct what they know based on the addition of new knowledge, which requires engaging another section of the brain.

The front integrative cortex generates abstract ideas and explanations.  This is where construction of knowledge happens.  Students use the front integrative cortex when they incorporate information from readings with their own experience to express their own ideas about a topic.

According to Zull, reflection is a pedagogical strategy to engage the front integrative cortex.  Many writing instructors ask students to reflect on their writing experiences and processes.  Students construct their own understanding when they apply concepts from class to their own experience.  Metaphors are a tool to help students reflect on new learning.  Zull recommends asking students to create their own metaphors for course concepts.  In an IRW class, we might have students create a metaphor for the reading and writing processes.  Scarborough’s Reading Rope, for example, is a metaphor for skilled reading.  Having students both draw and explain their metaphor further integrates information in the brain.  Translating between language and image requires further integration that occurs across brain regions.

The motor cortex carries out active testing of ideas.  The motor cortex is involved when students act on or demonstrate their learning.  Zadina suggests giving students options for how to demonstrate learning.  She recommends writing a summary, writing an argument, making a poster, creating a PowerPoint, drawing a cartoon, curating a Pinterest board, completing a service learning project, etc.

IRW students engage the motor cortex as they practice reading and writing.  In reading, a student uses the motor cortex to annotate while reading.  Annotating also requires the other brain areas, of course, but adding a motor function to the cognitive processing of the text means that the student’s brain is making more connections to the material.  Similarly, students are engaging the areas of the brain that process information while writing, but writing also calls on the motor cortex to carry out the activity.

When learning involves the whole brain, students connect to what they learn in multiple ways.  Students gain new concrete experience, build on prior knowledge, construct new ideas, and take action.

Repeat, Rehearse, Remember

Students who engage their whole brain in learning will have a strong foundation for learning, but new knowledge doesn’t always stick.  Some neuronal connections weaken over time while others become firmly wired together.  Repetition and rehearsal initiate neurons to fire together and strengthen learning.  Zadina says students need to “fire it to wire it” by repeating concepts in various ways throughout a course.  Lang calls this technique interleaving.

IRW, by principle, is a course built on interleaving.   For example, although many textbooks discuss main ideas and supporting details in separate chapters, we integrate the concepts repeatedly.  In explaining main ideas, we show students how to check the main idea against the details in the reading.  We distinguish major and minor details by how directly they support the main idea.  Interleaving also occurs naturally when moving between reading and writing activities.  We again discuss main ideas when students write thesis statements and topic sentences.  We talk about the importance of both major and minor details as students write their own paragraphs and essays.  The connections students make to IRW course concepts are more likely to stick when we treat principles of reading and writing recursively.

Teachers can also enhance memory through practice.  Again, the idea of rehearsal is a natural part of IRW as students practice reading and writing in multiple assignments during a course.  The tricky part of practice in IRW is making sure that practice is guided enough that students are making the right kinds of connections.  Lang recommends frequent and focused practice sessions to make the most of in-class practice.  For example, giving students a full class session to read a text or write an essay is less effective than short, focused activities.  A more focused practice session in IRW might involve having students write a sentence for their next essay that mimics the sentence structure of a sentence from a class reading.

Practice needs to be focused on the most important principles for students to remember.  Every assignment reinforces students’ connections to our course and our discipline, which students carry with them in other reading and writing situations.  Have you encountered students who struggle to break the narrative mold because the majority of their previous reading and writing assignments were in a narrative structure?  Or the students who struggle to engage with complex ideas in college writing because the five-paragraph essay model has been become hardwired in their brains?  We influence what students remember through assignment sheets, lessons, rubrics, and feedback.  Use assignments and course materials to reinforce the skills students need most for school and life.

As students practice reading and writing during class and in their assignments, it is important to correct misunderstandings, but according to Zull, “Don’t stress mistakes.  Don’t reinforce neuronal networks that aren’t useful.”  Zull recommends building on what students get right and adding to their understanding instead of drawing unnecessary attention to incorrect information.  In IRW, we can apply this principle by reframing error-correction feedback as additive advice.  For example, we may accidentally reinforce the wrong information if we tell a student, “The thesis statement shouldn’t be the first sentence of your essay.”  Instead, we can build on what students did right and add to their understanding with a comment like, “This thesis statement clearly states your main idea, but in academic essays, the thesis is usually at the end of the introduction.”

Repeating and rehearsing lead to remembering.  If we want students to maintain the neuronal growth that occurs during our class, connections need to be reinforced through practice.  Align opportunities for practice with the reading and writing skills that are most essential for students to remember in college and beyond.

The Brain at Its Best

As I stood in a cadaver lab with my hands cupped around an actual human brain, I was a little disappointed.  The little grey ball of tissue belied human complexity and our potential for learning.  In the classroom, however, I see the brain at its best.  Students process sensory input, integrate what they’re learning with what they already know to create new knowledge, and put that knowledge into action.  Through practice, they get better at reading and writing.  As students become more effective readers and writers, their brains change, which means their understanding of the world changes and they experience personal growth.  And, despite all the value in understanding academic texts and analyzing rhetorical appeals, at the end of the day, isn’t personal growth what reading and writing are all about?

Tina Shanahan

Dr. Tina Shanahan is a reading and writing instructor at Gateway Technical College n Kenosha, WI. Her work focuses specifically on teaching and learning in co-requisite models of developmental education and the integration of reading and writing. She lurks on academic Twitter as @TinaTeachesEngl.

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