A Possibility Worth Further Investigation
by Gregory D. Watson, Ed.M.
copyright 1995, 1998


A Vision of a New Possibility    back to top

         After 8 months of playful, game-like interactions with her parents for approximately five minutes a day, a 30 month old toddler sits by herself on the couch reading Shel Silverstein’s “Giving Tree” with the ease of an eight-year-old who reads proficiently at second grade level.  Her eye movements and other signs indicate that she has not memorized the book, and that she is reading as quickly as most adults.  She understands what she has read and can tell you about it.  Twelve months later, at 42 months, she has read over two hundred books (an average of 4 per week), mostly by herself — most of them at third or fourth-grade level.  Many of them cover such subjects as: “Why does it rain?  Why is it hot?  What makes day and night?  What is electricity?”  They take 10-15 minutes to read, so she can easily read 2 or more a day.
          Learning to read is no longer the goal for either the child or her parents—the goal is now using the skill to learn about life.  She has entered what Jerome Bruner (1977) describes as a spiral curriculum about the “nature” of this world, using reading as the transparent tool which all reading teachers hope their students will ultimately obtain.  She can decode words she has never seen before because she has induced the basic rules of phonics (just as she induced the basic rules of language) without ever having been given a single concept or lesson about the alphabetic principle (grapheme/phoneme relationship).  Unlike the typical broken fashion with which phonemic readers sound out unfamiliar words, she reads “fountain,” “multitude,” “manifold,” and “especially” without hesitation.

        One might ask, has she developed a subconscious automatic decoder inside her brain’s fundamental language ability?   Although the ability to decode words she has never seen, and does not yet understand, is a remarkable side-effect of having induced or inferred rules for written language, the fact that she can read about the world with her own understanding is more important, especially to her parents.  She primarily reads words which already have meaning for her.  She can also infer the meaning of new words from the contexts (stories, etc.) in which they appear.  She has reached the level of ability where “authors have taken over as the person helping the child to read” (Smith, 1992).  An existing vocabulary is her base, not her limitation, since it increases from her own reading.

         Another child, 41 months old, appears to read as well as the first child after only 4 months of guidance from her mother for only 5 minutes a day (not counting the regular bed-time stories they read together).  Described by friends as a child so "hyper" that she would never sit still long enough to be “taught” to read, she now reads for 45 minutes as if entranced.  "“It is nice to be safe, back in my warm, comfortable home,” the Little Cat says.”  Repeating the word “comfortable,” she comments on the text: “I like big words for me.”  She silently reads “oven” and verbally substitutes “stove”, illustrating Vygotsky ‘s (1978) claim that the three-year-old child “mentally... sees the object standing behind the word” — she has directly substituted the surface structure of print for the deep structure of meaning.  Print has graduated from second order (standing for the spoken word representing an object) to first order symbolic representation — representing the object itself (Vygotsky, 1934/78):

“ ...a child spontaneously makes use of his ability to separate meaning from an object without knowing he is doing it, just as he does not know he is speaking prose but talks without paying attention to the words.”  (Vygotsky, 1978, p.99)

Educators Ask Hard Questions :                              back to top

         Cazden (1992) presents us with the following question, “Why don't the language learning capacities that work so miraculously at home, work the same magic in school?”  She portrays the “contrast between learning at home and at school” as “disheartening:”

Likewise, Swartz (1988, p.14) looks for the same answer: Caroll (1966) describes a hypothetical land of “brow-folk” where mothers display text on their foreheads through a window called a “mother-brow” (analogous to mother-tongue) by means of which children learn the language visually, not by auditory perception.  Then, while searching for more practical means, Caroll asks: Likewise, Vygotsky (1934/78) wrote:

Background of the Social Problem                      back to top

        The ability to read may be fundamental to “more advanced forms of human thinking” (Vygotsky in Fischer, 1986/1987), yet, 60 million American adults are functionally illiterate (Kozol, 1988).  More than 72 million adults in the US (about 1/3 of the population) have not completed High School (Harvard University Graduate School of Education Alumni Bulletin, 1989); and, according to the last national testing, 76 % of all fourth graders, 72% of all eighth graders and 66% of all twelfth graders are not reading “proficiently” — i.e., at grade level (Ed. Week, 4/95).  About 1 million students drop out of school each year (Purcell-Gates & Dahl, 1991).  Of those who
graduate, 20-40% are functionally illiterate.  The cost of US students repeating a grade in school because of poor reading skill is 2 billion dollars annually (Business Week Special Report, Sept. 8, 1988).   [see diagram]

        Elizabeth Dole, US Department of Labor Secretary, reported in her 1989 "State of the Work Force Address" that 70% of High School graduates cannot write a letter of application for a job.  The US Department of Education reports (1989) that 30 % of all unskilled, 29 % of all semiskilled, and 11 % of all professional and managerial employees are functionally illiterate. (HGSE Alumni Bulletin, 1989, 33).

        More than half of the people on the planet cannot read.  Illiteracy is tied to a cycle of poverty or low-income status, undereducation, dependency (welfare), poor health and crime.  For those who cannot read or write, access to education and good jobs is  limited.  There is a constraint on their social climb no matter how industrious.  Socially, the  illiterate are disenfranchised.  A person who is illiterate, or even functionally illiterate, may have little or no voice in the democratic process.  In many ways, others decide what is best for him, and he may become resigned to this.  He is unaware of the great events of history through the richness of literature — the drama of human life on a larger scale.  He is, to some extent, unaware of himself in the context of an evolving world culture he cannot understand.  He is oppressed, in no mild sense.  With an increasing rate of social evolution and the increasing potential in every human being — not to mention the reality that jobs and other opportunities are becoming more and more dependent on literate abilities — what was formerly the privilege of the few has become
the birthright of the masses.

Society's Stance                      back to top
        Learning to read is a paramount objective for schools all around the world.  In most countries, this modest objective is the consummate objective.  Many educational systems hope that their children achieve basic literacy and numeracy before they drop out around the fourth grade.  Overall, the world's educational systems are not achieving high rates of literacy, yet "school" is still considered the place where children will learn to read, if they learn to read at all.  The efforts of parents, if they are fortunate enough to be literate themselves is seen to be preparatory rather than pedagogical.
        Research findings in psychology, social anthropology, linguistics, and neurobiology now clearly demonstrate that a child’s interaction with the environment during the first few years of life elicit development, and strongly impact his/her chances of success in school and in life.  These findings, recognizing the significance of early parent/child interactions, have contributed to social policy in support of parent education.  Emphasizing the need for new social policy aimed at general child development, including the development of greater "literacy awareness" in children still too young for school, Yale Professor, Ed Ziglar, one of the architects of the new “Zero to Three” Head Start initiative, says,
"Waiting for children to turn three in order to be eligible for Head Start is waiting too long...  Education can never start early enough, and we feel that [Head Start] needs to address the critical period of a child's development up to three years of age."
(Christian Science Monitor, March 17, 1994)
White (in Freeman, 1985) states, “In the first years of life, children can acquire skills that they ordinarily do not; anybody who denies that fact is simply not aware of the literature.” Leading a study on the first six years of life for the School of Education at Harvard it became clear to him:
 “...that the child who looked outstanding at six had a pattern of abilities which... could be found in the three-year-old.  Indeed it was our consensually agreed judgment that... development between three and six was more a case of refinement of a collection of existing abilities than of the emergence of others.  This led us to concentrate on the first three years of life.” (White, in Freeman, 1985).
 Discussing his experiments with young children using abstract notation, Vygotsky (1978, p. 109) states that
most three-year-olds can read symbolic notation with great ease.  Four and five-year-olds can read more complex notation.”proposed by Vygotsky (1978). Briefly, the ZPD links the developmental process in children to premise that learners willbe able to solve more abstract or advanced problems than would otherwise be possible whentheir learning process is supported or scaffolded by a more able peer. The ‘zone’ denot

This situation hardly depends on Vygotsky's model of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), but rather suggests an already present ability.  It is the conversion of the innate abilities into a proficient reading abiltity that draws on the ZPD.  Briefly, the ZPD links the developmental process in children to how much help they receive from teachers and guides in the environment. "Central to the model of the ZPD is the premise that learners will be able to solve more abstract or advanced problems than would otherwise be possible when their learning process is supported or scaffolded by a more able peer [or an adult].  The ‘zone’ denotes the range of activities that the child can perform when supported, but is unable to complete unassisted; this indicates their potential for development, rather than simply their current ability-- or rather their potential to actualize an ability now, thus turning it into a current ability." (Oliver)  It is thus possible for the learner to reproduce (or "internalize") the kind of interactions that create this zone, thus developing their independent ability.  

Harst, et. al. (1984), describe how young children grasp the semiotic nature of print very early.  This can occur by the time children are 12-18 months old.  “They implicitly ‘know’ that print ‘says’ something; that it codes meaning linguistically” (Purcell-Gates, 1995).  They know that print signifies language — that it is some kind of language code.  “They infer the functional nature of written language” (Purcell-Gates, 1996) — that it has meaning (Smith, 1985)

        Despite these findings and this position, our society does not teach children to read until they are five or six years old because the majority of educators do not believe it is appropriate to teach three-year-olds to read.  Moreoever, they do not believe that it is possible for every child.  The evidence that it may not only be possible for all children to learn to read at age three, but that it is possibly easier than waiting until children are old enough to go to school, has been overlooked by most educators.  They do not seriously consider the evidence that infants and toddlers can actually read, partly because conventional wisdom holds the view that this possibility pertains only to extraordinary children, and is not, therefore, of interest to everybody.  Also, they imagine that learning to read always requires the formal methods presently used in schools, and that these would be developmentally inappropriate for three-year-olds.  They do not consider that developmentally appropriate methodologies might be available for toddlers.  Such bias may indeed have created a paradigm paralysis:  As Yetta Goodman (1990) once pointed out in another, but similar, context: “This [presupposition] is a good example of researchers totally missing data because they aren’t looking for it...  We see what we 'know.'

Perhaps it is time for a "paradigm shift," characterized by (Kuhn, 1962) as the “change in perception and evaluation of familiar data.”  It is also time to gather more data.

  “The interaction research... does not focus specifically on what children retain from what they do in the interaction.   ...only a little is known about how these theories [Vygotsky’s... on symbolism embedded in social interaction] actually fit in early reading development.” (Sulzby, 1995)

A New Breakthrough:                 back to top


Theoretical Perspectives Give Promise                     back to top

        The children I have described above were participants in my pilot study, and are among the ones I, myself, have helped learn to read.  Witnessing a two year old learn to read as well as a second grader in less than four months looks like a miracle until you realize what a miracle we witness every time we observe a child learn to speak.  Early language acquisition, in the form of speech, is miraculous, but we take it for granted.  Learning to read when you are two or three-years-old is a kind of language acquisition through the eyes, analogous to learning to speak (language acquisition through the ears) as a child, and it can happen for the same miraculous reason.  During this early learning period, the brain does not really care whether the language is coming in through the ears or the eyes.  Deaf children who typically are "speaking" sign language by the time they are 18 months old are one proof of that.  (Of course the language in the case of a deaf child  is not ubiquitous in the environment, so special presentations of the language to the child must be devised.)  Actually, because we are such visual creatures, learning to read (whether gestures in the air, or words on a page) may actually be easier than learning to talk.  (After all, reading is a relatively passive input function, whereas speaking requires motor control of the vocal cords—an output function that must produce a recognizable effect in the outside world.)  I am finding considerable neurobiological evidence to support this theory — not to mention the evidence (and experience) I have from training seventy mothers to teach their toddlers to read.

       Given the statistics on illiteracy (above), the power and promise of my discoveries and methods are exciting to consider.  They should justify the support of further research.  It may be possible that the years of struggle experienced by most (and the failure experienced by so many), in schools all over the world, can be eliminated simply by allowing the brains of infants to do the job automatically—as part of the language acquisition process.  This would, in turn, bring about a revolution in education, because the first years of school would no longer be dedicated to this laborious, rote process.  Children could begin their exciting exploration of the world (through the arts and sciences) in a more powerful, less distracted way, taking advantage of their holy curiosity, instead of having it killed in school.

        For years, thousands of educators and scientists have tried to stem the tide of this disaster—the illiteracy crisis—and have not.  I think it is time to turn the problem over to the brains of infants.  The infant brain is more powerful than the adult brain for learning language.   For the next phase in my research I want to set up a preschool environment in which we actually train the children over a four-month period, rather than leaving it to the parents.  Because we can control the variable of the teacher and the pedagogy, this further investigation should prove a great deal.

        After examining other evidence of this phenomena (two and three-year-olds reading), Howe (1990) of Exeter University suggests in his book, The Origin of Exceptional Abilities, a direction for future research:

“There is one question which it would be particularly desirable to be able to answer.  That is, is any normal child capable of learning to read considerably earlier than the usual age?”
He expresses his belief that they can, and states:
“...the view that outstanding abilities are beyond the reach of any child who does not have some special genetic advantage is one for which empirical research has failed to produce firm supporting evidence.”
Burton White (in Freeman, 1985) concurs:
“In the first years of life, children can acquire skills that they ordinarily do not; anybody who denies that fact is simply not aware of the literature.”
Smith (1985) states the case even more strongly and specifically:
"It is a hollow argument that learning to understand speech must be different from learning to read, simply because the skilleters haven't yet been given the opportunity of depriving infants of all experience except that with which 'experts' think infants can cope." (p. 412.)
A positive answer to the question posed by Michael Howe could add a completely new dimension or direction in reading teaching initiatives, potentially opening a door to complete and functional literacy for all children, regardless of the SES or educational limitations of their parents.  Of course there must be other solutions to the social problems that contribute so much to the problem of illiteracy; but given the opportunity, our toddler's brains may enable our society to shift our focus away from an artificial problem.  Learning to read could become even more natural than learning sign language is for the deaf.

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