Reading before Talking. A Father's Programme of Home Teaching Author article list 

Leslie W. Duffen
© National Society for Mentally Handicapped Children 1978
ISBN: 855 37049 I
  Reprinted with the permission of the author

This pamphlet is one of a series designed to give parents the benefit of the experience of others with similar difficulties.
It is important to remember that as each child is an individual and each family unique, no claims are made that the results will be the same in every case.
Some general principles for guidance are given, and the accent is on practical help.
My own experience with my daughter Sarah involved many periods of boredom and rebellion. I persevered because I believed in the immense importance of the development of language and its association with the development of 'intelligence', and the stimulation of response in the child by any means whatever.
     I think it important to persist in teaching reading to some children whether they enjoy the process or not. To achieve efficient two way verbal communication must be the first aim of every parent and teacher. Some children cannot develop language from listening and cannot and will not learn to read of their own volition, only parents can decide the amount of pressure it is proper to use in teaching their children to read.

Reading readiness
The concept of 'reading readiness' has no more validity than a concept of 'listening readiness'. If your child can see, hear arid repeat sounds- approximately-he is ready to learn to read. Similarly there is no evidence that any of the many pre-reading activities serve any useful purpose. The best preparation for reading is reading. Anything else is, at best, less efficient and, at worst, a waste of time. I am quite sure that to leave it to the usual school age of five is to leave it much too late. Sarah started at about 3½ and I very much regret that she did not start earlier.

I do not claim any originality for any part of the process by which Sarah learnt except in one respect. At no time did I assume that the letter, word or sentence which Sarah was learning to read was already familiar to her in the listening or spoken form. In fact, in the vast majority of cases, it was not. Nor did I expect Sarah to 'understand' the word or sentence she was reading. 'Understanding' can come with repeated use in reading in different contexts in exactly the same way as in listening. I never asked or expected Sarah to read anything that I had not already taught her to read. There was no question of guessing by transfer from speech because there was virtually no speech when we started. All other reading methods rely heavily on transfer from existing speech and this is why they fail with children who have no speech.

Flash cards
We used a mixture of approaches but basically it was a 'look and say' whole word method. The essential piece of equipment is the flash card. This is simply a card on which a letter or word has been written, small letters only to begin with except for the capital letters of names.



Examples of flash cards

     You can buy these word flash cards in the Ladybird series from Smiths or Woolworth's or you can, and you will need to sooner or later anyhow, make your own.
     I started off' building up Sarah's word reading vocabulary roughly in the order suggested by the Ladybird book, Teaching Reading but modified considerably by bringing in words of direct interest to Sarah such as her own name and the name of her dog Jasper, etc.
     I started off with a batch of about five flash cards. I showed one flash card to Sarah and, while she was looking at it, said 'Mummy' and asked her to say the word also while looking at it. I made sure that Sarah was looking at the card while I said the word on it and while she said, or tried to say the same word. It is probably helpful if you move the card in some way into the child's field of vision. Her eyes will automatically follow it, and, as soon as it stops you say 'Mummy', repeating the same procedure when getting the child to say the word.

Praise and blame
Perhaps a word here about praise and blame might be useful. Whilst I insisted on Sarah following the programme I never criticised her if she got a word wrong or failed to get a word. She received plenty of praise and loving for getting words right and just an unemotional correction if wrong. But, basically, I made every effort to stop her getting things wrong. For example, I never asked her to read a word unless I was almost sure that she could do so. Even then if she hesitated for more than a second or so, or seemed in the least bit worried, I said the word for her and postponed the attempt to get her to read it.

Sounds of letters
To go back to the first stages. I showed Sarah the pack of five cards, one at a time, saying each word and asking Sarah to say the word. I went through the pack three times in this way. At some other time during the day we repeated the procedure with flash cards of letters of the alphabet, doing only half a dozen a day initially but going right through the alphabet in four or five days. The sound of the letter is used rather than the name, i.e. 'a' is sounded as in 'cat' rather than as in 'plate', 'b' as in 'ball' and not as in 'bee'.
     At some other time during the day we started learning to write the letters of the alphabet that we were learning to say. There are several procedures for this. The one I found most effective was to use a flash card on which I had written, fairly large, about one inch square, a single letter in a pastel coloured felt-tipped pen and Sarah wrote over it in a 36 pencil. This can then be rubbed out and used over and over again.
     The rate at which you build up a reading vocabulary will depend on you and your child. Before Sarah stopped using flash cards she had a vocabulary of over two thousand words and we revised this at about 40 words a day. One interesting point was that we found that a batch of 30-40 cards worked better than a small batch of five or so, so the sooner you can work up to a batch of 30-40 the better.

Building to 40 words
The method of increasing to a batch of 30 40 was as follows. After a week or so, or a month or so with a small batch of cards you will know whether your child can recognize any of the words and say them without help from you. If he can this is the time to do the first test. Using the same batch go through it one card at a time but explain that you want your child to say the word before you say it. If he can he will be glad to demonstrate it. If he hesitates over a word then immediately say it for him, never let him get a word wrong and never push him into saying a word unless you are completely certain that he knows it and is just being awkward. With luck he will get one or two of the batch right without hesitation. Put these one or two aside into a separate pile and add three or four new flash cards, but be careful always to maintain a balance so that the working batch contains only a small minimum of new cards. Do not ever attempt completely to master a batch of cards before adding new ones or moving on to a new batch.
     If you repeat this test procedure at the end of every week or so you will eventually end up with a working batch of about 30-40 and another stock of cards which have, at one time, been immediately recognised by your child. It is at this stage that it might be advisable to stabilize the size of the working batch and be fairly systematic about routines of addition and testing. I worked with a batch of 30-40 cards for a week, tested at the end of the week and added the same number of new cards as those removed because they were immediately recognized. At the end of a month I tested again the batch of cards which had once been immediately recognized and put back into the working pile all those not immediately recognized again.
     After some months, or a year or so of this you will find that the batch of cards which had at one time or another been immediately recognized becomes too large to revise even at monthly intervals. At this stage I rearranged all the flash cards into sections by initial letter and put them in alphabetical order in separate compartments in a large box-like filing system. Later still, I had to break each letter into sections such as ab-al, am-ap, and so on. We then revised a batch of 30-40 a day, working through the alphabet again and again. At this stage the flash card work consisted solely of this revision and was then ultimately dropped completely.

Writing work
Concurrently with the word flash card work the letter flash card and writing work had been continued until all the letters of the alphabet could be recognized, said and written. Work was then started on writing complete words and then sentences, firstly by 'writing over', then by copying and finally by free composition.

Reading for fun
Concurrently as soon as a low level of reading ability had been attained Sarah started working through the Ladybird 'a' and 'b' series and-later-the 'c' series. Also concurrently she started getting books from the library and reading, for pleasure, her own stock of books. This was one area in which there was, and is, no compulsion at all. She reads what she wants, when she wants, and can disregard any suggestions from us if she wants to.

Reading aloud
As soon as a low level of reading ability had been reached I started using this as a method of developing her spoken language. We used flash cards of words which Sarah could read and placed them in a track of some sort. This could, for example, be a saw-cut in a length of wood. All that is necessary is a method by which two or three and, later, eight to twelve flash cards can be placed upright or-better-leaning slightly backwards in a fixed order and able to be removed and replaced at will- preferably too the device should be mobile so that the set of flash cards in the fixed order can be carried around.

Initially very short sentences were made up of words that Sarah could read easily individually. For example, 'my name is Sarah'. Since Sarah could read each word of this sentence easily she could read the sentence easily. We made up one sentence each day and Sarah read it several times in the course of a day and soon demonstrated that she could remember sentences, when not looking at them, but after reading them, that she was quite unable to remember after only hearing them. The complexity of the sentence was gradually increased and the method of formation varied.
     Sometimes Sarah suggested the idea for a sentence, incomplete and not properly formed. I would put it into reasonable English; we would both find the correct flash cards and put them in the track and that would then be the sentence for the day. Sometimes I would suggest the sentence and Sarah would find the flash cards (by that time they were arranged in alphabetical order in boxes). In the later stages I found it more efficient for me to find the flash cards, whoever suggested the sentence, simply because there were so many that, though Sarah could do it, I could do it much quicker.
     When Sarah had become reasonably proficient at reading we introduced new flash cards as required to complete whatever sentences we were thinking of, but rarely more than one new flash card per sentence. Each new card was practised individually and then in sequence in revision. By this time Sarah knew all her letters and assimilated new words into her reading vocabulary very quickly, but we never spelt them out to her, it was always a 'look and say' approach.
     We dropped the flash card system only when Sarah was able to speak and write fairly well and thus able to form and write her own sentences, or to copy others, without direction or effort.

If you decide to teach your child to read you can expect criticisms, usually on the lines of:

     'Parents are emotionally involved and do not make the best teachers of their own children.'
     There is some truth in this and you do have to be careful about over-reacting and over-pressurising but if you are not emotionally involved you would not like the considerable trouble and effort involved. In any case parents teach their children most of what they learn up to the age of five. Reading is just one more item, though perhaps the most important, among many.

     'Teaching reading is a complex and difficult process which can only be taught by qualified teachers.'
     This is based on a complete misconception of the specific nature of the reading process. Anyone who can read can teach reading.

     'Children are not able to read until they are five or six.'
     This is just not true. Five or six is much too late for reading to have the maximum effect on the development of language and intelligence.

     'Children who are not very "intelligent" cannot learn to read.'
     This is based on a complete misconception of the nature of the reading process and a very confused idea of 'intelligence'. There is no correlation between 'intelligence' and ability to learn to read except insofar as 'intelligence' can be developed by reading.

     'You are being cruel to your child by teaching him to read when he should be out playing. School will be soon enough.'
     Most children spend much of their time being bored. If only some of that wasted time were usefully employed in learning to read it would be a step in the right direction. School is much too late.

     'Leave it to the teachers.'
     Teachers do not see the children until it is much too late. When they do see them, in most cases at five, there are not enough teachers, in primary or special schools, to give the large amount of individual tuition that some children need. If you, the parent, do not teach your child to read, and he has little or no language at four or five then the most probable outcome is that he will not learn to read, or if he does, it will be much too late for maximum benefit.

     'Children who cannot speak fluently cannot learn to read.'

Revised: December 28, 2001.