Learning to Read

Learning to read is the biggest assignment of the firstgrader. Teacher and author. DONALD D. DURRELL initiated and is chairman of a national study of firstgrade reading sponsored by the U.S. Office of Education. He has taught at Boston University since 1930 and was dean of its School of Education from 1942 to 1952.

GEOFFREY sits in the first-grade classroom, looking helplessly at his reading workbook. The words “Color six hens red” are merely clusters of meaningless shapes; he looks across at his neighbor’s work and dutifully starts coloring hens. Despite an intelligence quotient which promises graduate school, a rich and varied speaking vocabulary, abundant energy in a body free from physical defects, Geoffrey is a nonreader.

Geoffrey’s problem has long been the focus of theorizing, facile explanation, and bitter criticism of modern teaching methods. Neurologists contribute theories of dyslexia, congenital word blindness, specific learning disability, strephosymbolia, or inadequate development of laterality. Psychiatrists search for emotional blocking, poor personality adjustment, sibling rivalry, home pressures, or even maladjustment in the sex life of parents. Psychologists have suggested many explanations, some of the more ingenious being severe toilet training, or being the son of a “non-neat” mother or the daughter of a “non-neat” father. Child development specialists lean heavily on “immaturity,” suggesting that we wait until the child is ready. Sociologists are concerned with peer-group attitudes or with the classroom climate being either authoritarian or permissive.

The fact that most nonreaders are boys —reading clinics have ten boys to one girl — has brought its share of diagnoses: the preponderance of women teachers in primary grades, the lack of virility in primer stories, the earlier maturing of girls. Legislation has been proposed in some states for a later school-enrollment age for boys, in the belief that added maturity would help to solve the problem.

Failure to teach phonics is the most popular explanation for poor reading. Diatribes against professional educators as being anti phonics or soft on phonics become best sellers; such plaints are echoed by associations for reading reform. Schools have an increasingly large choice of phonics systems, many prepared by teachers and parents who have had special revelations about phonics. The more enterprising systems are shown on television programs. Scholars in linguistics are entering the field, producing basal readers which regularize phonics, with Fat Sam being a favorite short-a character: “Fat Sam sat pat on the mat.” Inconsistencies in the spelling of English sounds are the target of some British scholars who have produced an initial-teaching medium which adds seventeen new letters to the alphabet.

Let us return to Geoffrey and his troubles with reading. The most obvious difficulty we find is that he does not know the names of many capital and lower-case letters. His second difficulty is less obvious, but more fundamental: he is not aware of the sounds in the words he speaks. Even though his speech is clear and his vocabulary large, he does not notice the separate sounds in the words he speaks or hears.

Though Geoffrey’s problem is in the area of phonics, it will not be remedied by typical phonics programs. He may learn the sounds of letters and blends until he can sing them out flawlessly as the letters are shown. But he cannot tell you the first sounds in the spoken words magic, lake, paste, or the last sounds in steam, knob, or flag. He may even learn to sound out the letters in printed words, but he will not be able to combine the sounds to make words. His first need is ear-training, using techniques of speech correction which show him the way the f-sound feels and looks when he says fire, five, fast, finger, or half, chief, beef. He may catch the idea quickly from learning a few sounds, or he may need specific teaching of most sounds in several positions in words. He has learned to speak by imitating others, but he is no more aware of the separate sounds he is producing than are many adults of the specific notes they sing.

Most children come to first grade with a good background in phonics, although it has not been formally taught. The top two thirds of first-graders know the names of all capital and most lower-case letters when they come to school. They notice the separate sounds in spoken words and can tell the first sound in magic. Since all letter names, except h and w, contain their sounds plus an extraneous vowel, children who know letter names have only a short step to letter sounds. Such children learn to read by any method, either look-say or phonics. They develop quite adequate phonics ability through look-say methods merely by matching the spoken-word patterns to the structure of printed words. But the Geoffreys who come to first grade without knowing letter names and unable to notice sounds in spoken words become nonreaders unless they are given immediate help.

The correction of nonreaders is routine in reading clinics. Individual tutoring under skilled instructors produces rapid gains; thirty hours of tutoring will put Geoffrey in the top group of his class if he is helped early in first grade. A difficulty which has persisted for several years takes longer, but it is common to produce a year’s gain in reading for every two months of clinic instruction. Tutoring has everything in its favor: the instruction centers on the child’s weaknesses; it is immediately varied according to individual learning rates and need; the child works every minute in successful learning, since it is always his turn.

This precision of adjustment is not possible in classrooms with current instructional materials. The basal reader is a tool for uniform instruction, aimed at the average child. Crude adjustments are made through ability grouping in classrooms or in nongraded or continuous progress programs, but the instructional fit is never as exact as in tutoring. No current basal reading system provides adequate ear-training for the nonreader, and most supplementary phonics programs neglect it.

Our reading clinic this year took on the beginning-reading instruction of 450 first-graders in a low-income community where large numbers of reading failures were common. We hoped by good initial teaching to eliminate reading failures even in this difficult situation. Since all of the children could speak English, we felt that they should be able to learn visual symbols for the same words. During the first week of school, we found that many children knew no letter names and had no knowledge of sounds in words. We supplied the teachers with lessons specially designed for establishing an ear-training approach to phonics, materials far more intensive than in the usual basal readers and phonics programs. At the end of fifteen days, we took an inventory of growth in reading and phonics. Eighty-five percent of the pupils had made excellent progress, but the pace was too fast for the lower 15 percent. After twenty more days of teaching there were still sixty pupils who seemed headed for failure. These were brought to the clinic for five weeks of Tuesday and Thursday morning tutoring. Children who were dull-eyed and listless in the classrooms were alert and enthusiastic learners under skilled tutors. After thirty hours of tutoring, every child had learned all letter names, could identify sounds in words, could use phonics, and had a small beginning sight vocabulary. With this kind of start, we expect few failures this year.

In some communities with excellent instructional leadership, beginning reading failures have virtually disappeared. Schools in these communities identify nonreaders during the first week of school and give remedial help immediately. The teachers have acquired or built materials to supplement the basal readers, much of it self-directing, for use by individual pupils or partners. Instead of waiting turns in larger groups, teams of two or three pupils work together on lessons adjusted to reading levels, learning rates, and subskills needs.

The faster learners are not held back; they complete basal readers quickly and move to the reading of library books. In such classrooms the average reading achievement is far above national norms. But we still have too many schools in which the basal reading program of “twenty minutes in the reading circle, forty minutes in the workbook" is the sole diet offered.

The improvement of teaching materials and of teacher education will do much to eliminate the nonreader. At present, however, we are in a stalemate: publishers find teachers not ready for materials which differentiate instruction, and teachers complain of the lack of materials for the purpose. There has been recent improvement in both situations. Some schools of education have taken on laboratory approaches which start with practice tutoring and move to differentiated classroom teaching. Publishers are beginning to be more venturesome and are producing more materials which adapt to individualized instruction. We are more aware of the power of closely adjusted instruction and are attempting to produce in classrooms more of the conditions of effective learning found in the best reading clinics.

The brightest hope for rapid spread of improved practices is the coming national study of first-grade reading instruction sponsored by the United States Office of Education. This will start in September, 1964, with nearly thirty research centers directing a variety of reading programs among twenty thousand pupils. Each center will compare two or more approaches to beginning reading, with the data being combined for analysis. The study will include basal readers, phonics systems, the British program with its new letters, the programs of the linguistics specialists, and most of the current programs now competing for the beginning reading market. The various elements in each will be weighed for effectiveness with different types of pupils. Apart from the information gained about the characteristics of effective programs, the study will stimulate other communities to improve and evaluate their instruction. Certainly the best programs will raise reading achievements and eliminate reading failures, setting new standards for beginning reading in American classrooms.