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The Role of Meaning in Education

A number of years ago, a fellow dyslexia practitioner told me of a conversation she had had with a seven-year-old boy whose parents had brought him to her for an initial consultation.

“I know how to spell ‘elephant’!” the boy had suddenly, spontaneously blurted out with considerable pride.

“Really? Tell me,” my associate replied.


Most readers of this article who are involved in primary education will know what had happened here. A common way of teaching the spelling of because in the UK is via an acronym: Big Elephants Cannot Always Use Small Entrances.”

This boy’s misunderstanding of the lesson objective teaches us a crucial point. The boy was a visual-spatial thinker. He learnt with and through his imagination. Pictures played a more important role in his thinking processes than did words. He probably had little use for auditory, phonic instruction. So when the teacher’s acronym caused him to imagine an elephant, B-E-C-A-U-S-E became the spelling of the word that fitted his mental image.

Words are but symbols. They stand for what they mean, but without resembling it. The word tree does not have a trunk, branches and leaves. An obvious point, maybe, but a point crucially overlooked in many systems of education. Words encode meaning, but they do not of themselves contain it. Comprehension occurs when we decode words. Comprehension resides, not in our word based thinking, but in our mental imagery.


According to Ronald Davis, author of The Gift of Dyslexia and The Gift of Learning, every word has three parts: what it looks like (i.e. its spelling), what it sounds like, and what it

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means. Traditional phonic instruction builds the link between the first two of those three, assuming that the third – our mental image of what the word means – will take care of itself. Should we make this assumption? Or would we enrich our children’s education if we brought all three parts – spelling, sound and meaning – together in a single learning experience?

What is the meaning of the word because? It is the law of cause and effect – a fundamental principle of Newtonian physics and of our understanding, both of the material universe and of human interaction. Why on earth would we want to exclude the meaning of because when we teach the word?

In secondary education and beyond, there are many individuals who have learnt to memorise, but not to comprehend: Year 10 and 11 students who, on the eve of their GCSE public examinations in Chemistry and after many years of teaching, have still not grasped the difference between electrons, protons and neutrons and barely understand the

concept of an atom, let alone a molecule; adults with higher education degrees who think that the seasons occur because the earth travels further away from the sun in the winter and closer to it in the summer; destitute individuals who spend the ‘same’ money twice, because they never fully grasped the concept of subtraction, and then have no money left to pay their rent.

The irony is that the most vulnerable learners in our educational system are those who process meaning best. Dyslexic learners often excel at visual-spatial processes. Their vivid mental imagery is a powerful tool for processing meaning. Yet sadly – so sadly – amidst our auditory, phonic processes of learning, this tool so often lies dormant.

Richard Whitehead

June 2015

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