Monday, 9 July 2012

More about language acquistion and the teaching of babies and toddlers to read

We looked a few days ago at language as the manipulation of symbols. Let's return now to the subject of reading. There are basically two ways to teach reading. There is the complicated way and the easy method. The complicated way involves studying a lot of strange words and alien ideas such as morphemes and phonemes, blending and sequencing, synthetic phonics and whole language teaching. No need to panic at this point, because we shall be using the easy, and incidentally far more effective, method. For teaching babies and toddlers, this is the only method to use.

Most traditional techniques for the teaching of reading involve breaking the word down into little pieces and then building it up again. Most of us have some vague idea that the alphabet is the basis of reading and that children must first learn this and try somehow to combine the letters into words. This is the difficult way and it is quite unnecessary. Consider the following sentence;
The little dog ran across the road to his owner

When you read this sentence, did you laboriously sound out the letters and so decode the meaning of the words? When you read "dog", did you say to yourself, "Duh...oh...guh..spells dog"? I am guessing that nobody who read this did anything of the kind! Instead, we glance at the word as a whole and simply see "dog". We don't even need to know the letters of the alphabet in order to read the word, much less sound it out. It wouldn't really have helped you to do that any way with three of the words in that simple sentence. Look at "the" and try and sound it out. the. Or how about howaboutruh...oh...ah...duh...spells road. Or even owner.

I'm sure that you are getting the idea. We actually read words as wholes. We don't split them up into little pieces to decipher their meaning. We teach children to do this when they are learning to read so that they will have what teachers call "word attack" skills to decode unfamiliar words which they encounter. It is a good aim, but unfortunately it has the effect of making the whole business seem very hard for many small children. Most importantly of all, it is completely unnecessary.

So if we do not actually break words down into little bits when we read, what do we actually do? It is very simple; we look for familiar shapes. We really read by spotting the shapes of words, based largely upon the ascenders and descenders which they contain. This will be the only technical jargon used in the whole of this course and it really is impossible to avoid discussing ascenders and descenders. What are they? Simply the bits of letters which stick up above the rest of the word, in the case of ascenders or hang down below, on the case of descenders. For instance, in the word


there is an ascender in the letter "d" and a descender in the letter "g". These bits jutting out give words a characteristic shape or pattern. If we look at a few words in the light of this, we will soon see that they most of them have distinctive shapes;

ball, aeroplane, cat, it, and, the, tree

The individual letters which they contain need not concern us and there is certainly no reason at all to tax a small child with untangling these letters and then trying to remember their names, sounds or correct position in the word! How can we be sure that this is what we are doing when we read? Very easily as it happens. If we actually read by looking at the letters and then understanding the words, then the following lines should not be any more difficult to read than the ones which go before. ThE lEtTeRs ArE hErE fOr AlL tO sEe BuT tHE WoRdS tHeMsElVeS aRe NoT aLwAyS iMmEdIaTeLy ApPaReNt. I am pretty sure that even the most fluent readers will have had to slow down in order to make sense of the last sentence. This is purely and simply because the words do not have their usual and characteristic shapes. After all, they contain exactly the same letters as they normally do. Let's look at another example. Here is a passage which specifically leaves out all the letters without ascenders and descenders;

I thxxk thxt xxxt pxxplx xxll bx xblx tx xxxd thxx xlthxxgh x lxt xf lxttxxx xxx xxxxxxg.

Now compare the above sentence, still fairly easy to read because it includes all the ascenders and descenders which give the words their familiar pattern, with this;

xn xxis xassaxe axx xxe xexxers wxicx xux oux axove xxe xine or xexow ix xave xeen xefx oux, maxinx ix mucx xarxer xo reax.

(In this passage all the letters which jut out above the line or below it have been left out, making it much harder to read).

We read in ordinary life by spotting the patterns of the words, primarily with reference to the position of the ascenders and descenders. These mean that words have particular shapes that we take in at a glance. There is of course nothing at all strange about the idea of reading whole words at a glance in this way by picking out their distinctive patterns. At least a fifth of the world' population have done this very thing for thousands of years. Each Chinese symbol or ideogram represents one word. Children learning Chinese simply memorise the signs and away they go. It is perhaps no coincidence that the incidence of dyslexia in countries using this method of reading is astonishingly low. Indeed, some years ago research was conducted with dyslectic teenagers in the USA, which involved teaching them Chinese! To general astonishment, they learnt far more quickly than they had been able to learn to read English. It is the complicated business of putting letters and sounds in their correct sequence which seems to confuse children with dyslexia. Just looking at a whole word and reading it without analysing its internal structure is far easier.

Our brains are divided into two halves or hemispheres they are usually called. Different hemispheres control different aspects of our skills. Language, including reading and writing, is usually handled in the left hemisphere. Pattern recognition, on the other hand is generally dealt with by the right hemisphere. Sometimes, people have what we might describe as wiring faults in that part of the brain which handles language. This can lead to a delay in talking, dyslexia or problems with writing and spelling. Because we are in this course treating words as shapes or patterns, we do not have to worry about any of this. Children who are prone to reading difficulties can get into an awful tangle when they try and use the left half of their brains to work out spellings and so on. Because we are using whole words here, this problem cannot arise.

Something to bear in mind about our brains is that although we often talk about them as being like super-fast and fantastically efficient computers, there is one very significant difference. When we buy a computer, all the wiring is in place. All that we do is add various programmes; the computer remains precisely the same after we install them. This is not at all how it is with the brain. Our skills and actions are of course affected by the brain and its circuits, but this is a two way street. Our actions and thoughts actually change the brain as well. In other words, if we do the same action over and over again, or even think the same thought again and again, this causes a physical change in the structure of the brain. Using our ears and listening to music, actually makes certain parts of the brain richer in circuits than they were before. The same thing happens with talking and reading. This process is far more marked in young children than it is in adults.

Scientists call this ability to change, the "plasticity" of the brain. A baby's brain is growing very rapidly and new connections are being made very hour between different parts. If these connections are not made when the baby is young, they will be far harder to make in later years. Sometimes, if the connections are not made in early childhood, they can never subsequently be made; the brain simply has to do without those connections in later life! That is why it is vital that babies are given the opportunity to form these pathways when they are young. This is particularly so with the parts of the brain which deal with symbols and patterns.

Because we are embarking upon a course of instruction for small children which will depend upon the interpretation of shapes, we must consider how this ability may best be established in the baby's mind and brain. To begin with, we will need to use very simple and large shapes. Many inset boards and puzzles are available through commercial outlets, but often they tend to be fiddly and confusing for very small babies. What is needed to begin with are simple, clear and brightly coloured geometric shapes; a triangle, square and circle to begin with. Next week I shall be providing some examples of this sort of thing which can be printed off. The main thing is in the early stages to keep the whole thing very simple and to make sure that the child is capable of recognising, say, a square or triangle before moving on to more complicated patterns. Hand in hand with this work must go the baby's development of symbolic understanding. This is best achieved by play. Play which is intended to stimulate certain aspects of a child's development and understanding is best directed and planned by an adult.

There is a very strong link between symbolic or representational play and language development in general. In children with autism, which is really an extreme for of language problem, ordinary play of this sort is unknown. An autistic child might chew a toy car or spin the wheels repetitively, but he will not push it along the floor pretending that it is a real car. He simply cannot see that it is a symbol. This lack of symbolic understanding in play also shows in language development.

Obviously, when we are trying to get a baby to understand and interpret symbols we will not be starting with a two dimensional set of black squiggles saying "elephant". To begin with, we want the symbol to resemble as closely as possible the thing that it stands for. So at first, we might have perhaps a doll. Even very young babies can pick out faces from among other objects on show. It will not take a great mental leap for your six month old baby to realise that the large doll is similar in many ways to a human being. We can encourage this identification of the doll as representing a person by brushing its hair, talking about the doll having a bath and so on. This is the beginning of a very important process for the baby; the realisation that some things can stand for other things. A doll can represent a person, a toy telephone can stand for the real thing, a model car can be thought of by the child as being in some sense a proxy for the family car. In the next module, I shall be giving a detailed set of activities that may be undertaken to this end.

Structured play of the sort described above will have many incidental benefits, quite apart from laying the ground for learning to read. For one thing, the emphasis on representational play with dolls and so on, will boost a baby's language ability in itself. The increasing use of symbols in this way will prime the child's mind for the general use of symbols, not only in play but also in the use of expressive language - talking. This language development will also be enhanced by the conversation which takes place between parent and child during play. This brings us neatly to another aspect of language development and reading; the use of televisions and computers.

Children learn to talk from adults. Other children are neither good role models for speech, nor are they good teachers. They do not moderate their own language or tone of voice in the way that parents do automatically. Even worse from the point of view of language acquisition is television. Despite the huge number of special DVDs available for young children, there is not a shred of evidence that any of them have any sort of beneficial upon a child's development. they are baby sitters and not very good ones at that. The same goes for computer programmes which promise to boost a child's intelligence. There is simply no substitute for the undivided attention of one adult who is devoted to the growing child's welfare and education. In practice, this means a parent and almost invariably a mother.

Not only are television and computers useless for the education of small children, there is a good deal of evidence that they may be positively harmful. The rapid changes of scene, bright colours, cheerful music and flickering light becomes addictive to a baby. Books soon become pale and uninteresting in comparison to the instant gratification offered by the screen. If you are determined that your child will become a reader, then turn off the television or at least set strict limits upon it.

The use of symbols will progress over the weeks from fairly obvious representations of real objects such as dolls and toy cars, until pictures are being correctly understood by the child. This is a great leap forwards in understanding. Once a child is able to glance at a two dimensional image such as a photograph and identify it as symbolising some aspect of the real world, then she is almost ready for reading. These preliminary stages cannot be skipped and should not be hurried. The idea that a set of sounds spoken by an adult can represent "milk" or "dog" is a strange one, although most children grasp the idea before they are twelve months old. That a set of black marks can do the same thing is an extraordinary proposition and a relatively recent discovery from a historical perspective. We must give babies time to get used to this weird notion!

The overall home background also has a good deal of influence upon whether babies will see this whole business of "reading" as one which they are anxious to join in. Is there masses of printed matter laying around the house? Is the baby constantly bombarded by print, wherever she looks? Newspapers and magazines all over the place? what are the adults around her doing? Does she see her mother and father engrossed in books and newspapers? Does she actually see people engaged in the activity of reading? Because if a child sees her parents watching television, then she will wish to do the same.

We all know that children copy the activities of the significant people in their lives. Are your children seeing members of their family reading for pleasure? If not, what motive do they have for getting to grips with this activity themselves? Next week, we will look a little more closely at this particular aspect of reading and how it has a long lasting impact upon a child's whole view, not only of reading but of education in general. Many children regard "reading" as a school subject, something which they are compelled to do at school but would not dream of doing for their own pleasure. For these unfortunate individuals, reading has no more relevance in the real world that they inhabit than would solving a quadratic equation. They are both boring things that teachers make them do. As soon as they can, they stop doing them.

None of this means that teaching your child to read is going to be hard work and involve giving up television or watching DVDs. It does mean that it is necessary to consider what sort of background you are creating for your child. Perhaps the television can stay off until he is in bed? Maybe you can read to him more and let him watch fewer cartoons? The good point about all this is that parents who undertake programmes such as this typically report that it makes them closer to their children. Half an hour cuddling a small child and reading stories together, brings a far warmer sense of closeness than when she has just spent an hour and a half watching her favourite Disney film again. The teaching activities, such as those involving puzzles and inset boards also make parents feel more in touch with their children. Another spin-off is that children who are regularly receiving masses of one-to-one attention like this are far less likely to act poorly in order to demand attention from their parents. Why should they, they are already getting the attention.

We have seen that reading cannot be taken out of context and regarded as just another skill like riding a bicycle or swimming. In order to become good, fluent readers from a young age children must be exposed to an enriched language environment and parents will probably have to make some changes in their own lifestyle. The rewards though, are tremendous. Not only will the four year old who reads fluently "hit the ground running" when starting school, he is likely to achieve more overall and be less prone to bad behaviour caused by frustration and inability to verbalise his wishes.

We have cleared the ground as it were and looked at reading in a wider context. Next week we shall be getting down to it and actually be starting the job of teaching a baby how to read.


  1. I think that both my children learned to read using a mixture of word recognition and some knowledge of phonics. When my son was three/four he could pick out the word coelophysis from a page of text, which must have been from recognising the shape of the word as you wouldn't get far with sounding that one out!

    One aspect of this that interests me is the relationship between reading and writing. I know that both my children (but perhaps more so my son) learned a lot about reading from writing and vice versa. He went through a prolific stage of phonetic writing between three and five that developed into more orthodox spelling through self-correction - presumably as he read more. A baby of a year or even 18 months doesn't have the motor skills to write and I wonder how that happens if they've already been reading for a few years?

  2. It can be great to see when it works as it did with one of mine. I think I've already said that one of mine was reading by 3, I think through a mixture of word recognition combined with a very basic phonics.

    The second had other ideas though and, although they learnt to read a few words whilst very young, were not interested enough to learn to read properly. They seemed to prefer having books read to them, possibly because the subject matter tended to be more interesting than the books they could attempt themselves and they disliked interrupting the flow for them to read the easier words!
    They really enjoyed the decoding experience of phonics when they learnt to read later though.

    I'm sure different methods suit some children better than others and their age can make a big difference. Phonics may seem impenetrable to a young child but be an intriguing challenge for older children. The second child also built phonics on top of the pre-reading skills they had already developed whilst much younger which must have helped a great deal.

  3. As I am sure I have mentioned before, I am inclined to agree with you about the way children, generally learn to read. I wasn't involved directly in my oldest ds reading process, but with my other three children phonics were incredibly difficult(or in two cases, impossible) to grasp. My children were so frustrated that they couldnt read so I gave up phonics. I taught whole words, using memory games then as we read together I would reach phonic sounds where necessary. We also do loads and loads of cloze activities using box font (common in US workbooks).

    I also want to pick up on Allie's point though. All my children learnt to read around the age 7/8 and all learnt to write before they learnt to read. I do think there is an element of interconnectedness between the two that is lost on young children.

  4. We didn't find the connection between writing and reading to be completely missing in our early reader. We used to do things like drawing letters in sand, painting big letters (then usually turning them into other objects), tracing raised letters on street signs, etc, and we would usually say the sound of the letter at the same time - so a combination of basic phonics, writing and reading. The large actions meant that fine motor control was unnecessary.

    The child who learnt to read using a phonics scheme was quite a bit older than 7/8 at the time, so that probably made a big difference. I think it was a 'spy cracking a code' type experience for them. They found it easier to memorise the phonic sounds first and then built up a store of memory words after working them out phonically enough times themselves. By comparison, they found it quite difficult to build up a store of sight words without using phonic first and struggled for a while to memorise common non-phonic words. Maybe this was why they didn't learn to read in the same way as my early reader.

  5. 'They really enjoyed the decoding experience of phonics when they learnt to read later though.'

    And so to did my daughter when once she was reading. Obviously, it's a handy skill for tackling unfamiliar words, but I have always found that it is better left until after the child has built up a good sight vocabulary. I would have hesitated to try and teach a fifteen month old baby to combine letters into words, but when presented with whole words, it seemed to be a natural process. The main thing was that learning early made it far more part of her life than if she had only begun at the age of five or six.

    I have know children of eight say that reading is boring or that they are no good at reading. if a child learns early enough, this is simply impossible. It becomes as much a part of life and speaking. No child without a disability ever said, 'Talking is boring' or 'I can't talk'!

  6. "but I have always found that it is better left until after the child has built up a good sight vocabulary."

    That's great if it works out as it did for my early reader and your daughter. My early reader was reading before 3 in much the way you describe.

    "I would have hesitated to try and teach a fifteen month old baby to combine letters into words, but when presented with whole words, it seemed to be a natural process."

    My early reader mainly learnt via whole words I think, though as I say, we also drew and sounded out letter sounds from a very young age. Not sure how much that contributed to learning to read - probably not that much, as you say, it's not ideal for babies and toddlers.

    But my late reader found phonics easier than the whole word method - fewer things to remember, at least initially. Obviously they have memorised most words now and only sound out new words phonically, but they seemed to need to initially learn the words using phonics before they could commit them to long term memory. It sounds strange, but that's how it appeared. As I say, they learnt to read phonic words far more quickly than non-phonic words that had to be learnt by sight alone.

    "The main thing was that learning early made it far more part of her life than if she had only begun at the age of five or six."

    Yes, this was our approach for all of our children from babyhood, they all had a similar environment and learning opportunities, but it didn't have the same result for all.

    "I have know children of eight say that reading is boring or that they are no good at reading. if a child learns early enough, this is simply impossible."

    We didn't get this either, with the early or later reader, except possibly with the late reader as a toddler when I tried various alternative approaches when they seemed uninterested in reading for themselves after learning a few words. They didn't actually say they were bored (a bit young for that), but they soon made it clear that they had other priorities, and there I was, expecting them to follow the lead of their sibling and learn to read in much the same way!

    If you have a few children, it's quite amazing how differently they can approach learning to read despite growing up in much the same environment with similar resources (though I dare say some families are more homogeneous than ours!).

    1. "My early reader mainly learnt via whole words I think, though as I say, we also drew and sounded out letter sounds from a very young age. Not sure how much that contributed to learning to read - probably not that much, as you say, it's not ideal for babies and toddlers."

      Replying to self now, which seem a little sad... Found an interesting book on learning to read on Google books, which suggests that maybe the letter sounds played a larger part in my early reader's reading development than I'd considered.

      What kinds of connections are formed to store sight words in memory? You are probably familiar with the traditional view, which holds that readers memorize associations between the visual shapes of words and their meanings. For example, if you outlined the borders of the following words, each would exhibit a distinctive shape:

      dog green tent on ate

      However, in my research I have found that this view is incorrect. Consider the feat that skilled readers perform when they read words by sight. They are able to recognise in an instant any one of many thousands of words. They recognise one unique word and bypass many other similarly spelled words. For example, consider all the words that must be overlooked to read the word "stick" accurately: not only stink, slick, and slink, which have similar shapes as well as letters, but also sting, sling, string as well as sick, sing and sink. Moreover, skilled readers can remember how to read new sight words with very little practice. Memorizing arbitrary associations between the shapes and meanings of words cannot explain how skilled readers do what they do. Sight word reading must involve remembering letter in the words. These are the distinctive cues that make one word different from all the others.
      Word Recognition in Beginning Literacy
      By Jamie L. Metsala, Linnea C. Ehri
      (the quote is from page 12)

      Much of what I've read so far chimes with how my late reader learnt to read too. The phonics scheme they worked through had sections on recognition of common word endings as described on page 7, for instance. The scheme also made use of the following by bringing together groups of words with similar phonemes but different graphemes and specifically mentioned exceptions:

      Findings of my research indicate that readers learn sight words by forming connections between graphemes in the spellings and phonemes underlying the pronunciations of individual words. The connections are formed out of readers' general knowledge of grapheme-phoneme correspondences that recur in many words... Readers look at the spelling of a particular word, they pronounce the word, and they apply their graphophonic knowledge to analyze how letters sympoblize individual phonemes detectable in the word's pronunciation. This secures the sight word in memory.

      I definitely recognise this process from how my late reader described learning to read. It's more difficult to tell how my early learner learnt since they couldn't describe it to me in the way my late reader could.

  7. "Look at "the" and try and sound it out. the. Or how about howaboutruh...oh...ah...duh...spells road. Or even owner."

    Just remembered which phonics course we used and looking at the web page brought back some memories; it's called Toe-by-Toe. Certain words can only be read by sight, 'the', being one of them and the course introduces some at each session for memorisation. But words like 'road' would be blended together as, r-oa-d and 'owner' as ow-n-er, if I'm remembering correctly. Blending the sounds together rather than making the sounds separately is important too.

    The scheme teaches the various grapheme-phoneme relationships rather than attempting to sound out every letter of a word, which as you show, does not work. It uses nonsense words to introduce each sound before moving onto actual words. The course states that it is unsuitable for children under 7, which may explain why phonics didn't work for C's children but did for mine. It does seem quite a complex, 'adult' way to learn to read.

    Only one of my three children learnt this way, and it worked really well for them. We worked through just over half the book in about 3-4 months and by then they were off and reading so we didn't bother to finish the course. This child is probably my most logical and organised child, so maybe that's why a steady, progressive and logically ordered method for learning to read suited them and not the others.

    I might take a look at the stairway to spelling myself - I could do with some help there! Thank goodness for spell checkers.

  8. This is the sort of post I think should appear more often. I found it so interesting, and the discussion (i.e. the comments were also helpful and in good spirit).

    Since I am the one who asked you to write this sort of thing, I've popped back to say thank you. We were off-line for a few days, so I have just read this feature.


  9. Brilliant article.

    We just read with our elder two, didn't really put much thought into how we were teaching them to read. Eldest was a little Matilda, the middle one struggled more. To her, words were 'wibbly-wobbly' and school just shrugged their shoulders over what I thought was an important issue. I stepped up the teaching to read at home, on various coloured paper and tints and so on. Eventually we managed to get her eyes checked at the hospital. She has a developmental problem in her right eye.

    Anyway, school continued pushing the phonics whilst my husband (who's dyslexic) taught her to 'guess' words by the shape and context. She now loves reading and is top of her class, despite words still seeming wibbly-wobbly. However, having heard some of the other mums complaining about having to read to their children, or their kids wanting to read the same book again and again, I'm not sure how much of an achievement being top in your class for reading is. ;-)

    My youngest is 20 months and we're on shape and 2D recognition. He's so clever, he definitely needs more activities to keep him away from learning how to unlock doors and such now he has conquered all the child locks. Please keep these articles coming!

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