Imprinting- a little trick of the brain

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by Kim Jaworski, Homeschool Resource Specialist
Imprinting is a little trick our brains do to increase efficiency. And this little trick is the key to reading fluently. If your child seems to understand the rules of phonics but still has to sound out each letter in every word, slowing their reading to a painful process, then a little extra time is needed to ramp up the imprinting. Some of us imprint readily, and others need a little more focused repetition to tip the scales. You’ll be amazed what a difference it makes.
Imprinting is your brain’s underlying auto-pilot. As an example, imagine that I have given you a long list of phone numbers and the list includes your number. Your own phone number will practically jump off the page at you. Not because you read them all and found it, but because your brain has imprinted that combination and a simple scan down the list will reveal it. In a similar fashion, your name will jump off the page at you if it happens to be included in a magazine article or memo.
Children with a slower imprinting rates typically start to struggle with reading when vowel sounds start to be combined (ea, ie, ai, ay etc). You can help by spending time working with a designated word family until the basic pattern imprints. Then the words in that family will all be recognized readily and reading will become fluent. This isn’t hard to do and you don’t need any expensive curriculum.
Simply make a list of the words that follow that pattern (take one pattern per week to ensure enough time for slower imprinters) and have the child create flashcards for each word on the list. If you’re working on IGH words, you’ll have light, flight, sight, tonight, delight, tight, etc. You can add prefixes and suffixes to basic words and include them as well, so you’ll also have delightful, tightly, sighting, etc. When you have your list made, sit with your child and read down the list moving your finger down the list as you say each word, then have the child read down the list, aloud. Flashcards can be made on recipe cards, old business cards, or whatever’s handy. The child can write the words in marker, colored ink or whatever interests him. Now each day, twice a day, have the child flip through the stack of flashcards and say each word. This doesn’t require intensive studying or memorizing of each word. Just a simple run through of the stack with the child murmuring each word as he sees it. Once in the morning and once in the evening should be sufficient. This will trip the imprinting threshold. You don’t need to supervise this step. Just remind the child to shuffle through his cards. The stack can be kept in the car, if there are frequent trips to lessons or appts, and the child can use that time to do the flashcards. As long as it’s twice each day, it should be enough.
It can also be helpful to use those same words in other activities during the week. Build the words with scrabble tiles on the dining room table one day, write the words on the driveway in sidewalk chalk the next, or on a window with wipe off markers. By the end of the week, your child will quickly recognize and read words that follow this sound pattern. There is also the added benefit of enabling the child to picture the word in his mind, which facilitates better spelling.
I encourage you to try this schedule for 3 months (basically 12 weeks) and see if you don’t notice a difference in your child’s reading. It will feel like baby steps at first, but in 3 months, you’ll be surprised how far you’ve come. My youngest son struggled to remember vowel combinations and was a delayed reader, and after 3 months of focused imprinting work, he said “Now I can read instead of just sounding out”.