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Underlining (or Highlighting): Cueing the Computer Brain
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The Teaching of Reading and Spelling: a Continuum from Kindergarten through College


   There are many good reasons to get your students in the habit of underlining (or highlighting) words which they don't know while they are reading.  The most obvious is that it allows you, the teacher (or parent, as the case may be) to find out which words they don't know.

    It also leaves a record which can be rewarding to both you and your students when you later on have them re-read from a book with loads of underlined (or highlighted) words which they--by then--can read.

    As a teacher, I learned to prefer having my students mark up their books with pencil marks than to copy something and call it a book report.   By giving students the choice of writing a 500 word report or underlining (or highlighting) words they don't know, I usually was able to get students to do it my way.  And my way did have its built-in teacher advantages.  I could easily tell:

  1. How far into a book they were.  If words are only underlined (or highlighted) in the first 25 pages, that's as far as they are.

  2. Whether or not the book is too easy or too difficult.

a.  More than five underlined or highlighted words per page may indicate it's too difficult.  Certainly three underlined (or highlighted) words per line (as has happened!) indicates the book might as well be written in Sanskrit.

b. No underlined (or highlighted) words or only one every five or six pages usually indicates the book is too easy.  In fact, no underlined (or highlighted words usually meant that the student hadn't read the book.  Of course, there will always be those who think they are smarter than the teacher.  They will swear up and down that they read all 1200 pages of Tolstoi's War and Peace, but didn't underline or highlight any words because they knew all of them.  A quick check of:

1. What's this word?

2. What's this word?

3. What's this word mean?

generally reveals the story.  They were bluffing.

I tell my students that they must remember the agreement.  They are to read the book and underline in pencil or highlight all the words they can't pronounce and all words whose meaning they are not sure of even though they may be able to pronounce them.  If they are not willing to do the underlining (or highlighting) then they must do the writing of the 500 word book report.

    But the real reason for having my students underline (or highlight) words is to help them discover that they can learn words by themselves--if, they alert their computer brains, that there is something that needs to be learned.

    That's Ze very act of underlining or highlighting is a cue to the computer brain that there is a problem to solve.  Without the cueing, the pattern of letters skipped over will no more be retained by the computer brain than the zvcxtwmtqs of a foreign language or the position of the telephone poles and fire hydrants you pass by every day on the way to work.

    When I give my students the instructions about underlining or highlighting I also give them the reason.  I don't want to leave the impression that I'm asking them to underline or highlight because I have stock in a pencil or a highlighter company.  I tell them that when they are reading they are bound to come across words they can't pronounce or whose meaning is beyond them.  They can't just stop reading because the word is lough.  They must go on.   Unfortunately, the student doesn't just go on.  The student SKIPS the word.   Skipping is something we do when it isn't important.  Skipping gives the computer brain the incorrect message.  But underlining (or highlighting) doesn't.

Underlining (or highlighting) CUES the computer brain that this is a problem for it to solve.

If a cue is repeated frequently enough, one of two things is liable to happen.  The most common is that the computer brain will solve the problem and all of a sudden you just know what the word is and what the word means.  This is how we learned all our basic vocabulary as infants and small children.  The computer brain solved problems for us.

    The other thing that happens after a specific word is underlined or ;highlighted time after time after time, is that even though the computer may not have solved the problem it is now triggering you into action.  It will try to help you learn by making you mad enough to ask, "Hey Ma, Hey Jack, Hey Mr. Smith, Hey anybody, what does lough mean.  Does it rhyme with tough, bough, dough, or through?"

    I know that the constant encountering of the same word can be infuriating, because that's what happened to me when I was reading Trinity by Leon Uris.  After about the seventh time, I encountered that #%&*@*^! lough  that I couldn't pronounce or even puzzle out the meaning from the context (there never was any), I was so furious, I actually used the dictionary.  Because I was so angry I learned the lough is the Irish spelling of lake and is pronounced the same as in Scotland where they spell it loch but say something that sounds to me like "lock."

    Good readers, like you and I, mentally underline words which we don't know as we read.  And because we read a great deal, our vocabularies are large.  What the readers who aren't as good as you and I can do to develop the MINDSET for learning is to get into the habit of using a pencil to underline or highlight words they don't know.

    There are two main reasons for underlining or highlighting:

  1. To alert the computer brain that the word is a word that you need to learn.

  2. To alert the computer brain that the particular passage is meaningful to you and you want to remember it.

Underlining or highlighting is an active process and it helps to make reading an active rather than passive process.

We urge you to adopt this method, and we urge the researchers at the universities to test out this theory that underlining or highlighting can be a cue to the computer brain.

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