The Indispensable Elements of Reading
By Dr. Hilde L. Mosse, MD
Those conditioned reflexes needed for reading are much more difficult to establish than those needed for naming objects. The visual stimuli are letters, which are two-dimensional abstract forms that bear no immediate relationship to objects or feelings and whose only meaning is the sound. It must be explained to children from the very beginning that letters represent speech sounds that are a part of every word. This explanation is quite indispensable because not all children can deduce this on their own.
I have examined too many children of all ages up to high school who had reading disorders because they did not fully understand this basic fact. It either had not been explained to them properly or not stressed consistently enough. Learning, even the acquisitions of automatic functions such as conditioned reflexes, always requires understanding; the highest and most advance parts of the cerebral cortex must always be activated, otherwise learning cannot take place.
To show a child a group of letters and to tell him that this means “house” – as is done in those kindergartens and first grands where children are introduced to reading with so-called “sight words” – confuses them, interferes with the formations of conditioned reflexes, and teaches them a lie. The letter sequence h o u s e stands for the word “house” and not for the house they see; pictures do that, but not letters.
To achieve conditioning with the greatest possible speed and accuracy the child must know exactly, step by step, what he has to learn. He must be told for instance, that the letter “s” stands for the sound “s” and for nothing else, and that he must learn to say the sound “s” when he sees “s”. Whether single letter or a fixed combination of letters forming one single sound are taught, the conditioning process is the same. The child must be helped to form an automatic association between the seen letters and the spoken letters. The formation of such an association is the key to reading (Schmitt, 1966).
The formation of such a conditioned reflex requires that the child experience the visual and the spoke letter together repeatedly, without inference by any other stimulus, and always in the same sequence, namely, by looking at the letter briefly before saying it. The teachers should make certain that the child is looking at the letter while the teacher sounds it and the child repeats it, or later on when the child reads it on his own. The teacher’s pronunciation must also act as the child’s feedback correction until his own feedback system is working. This is why it is so important to let the child read aloud at first and to correct his pronunciation right away. It takes time for a conditioned reflex to be established, and it cannot possibly function until the child has developed reliable visual and acoustic images and formed a close connection between them. Silent reading cannot achieve this.
The best way to teach this skill is by having the child write the letters and make the sounds as he writes them. Writing affixes the forms of letters faster and more firmly in the child’s mind than reading because it combines the senses of vision and touch with motor, kinesthetic and proprioceptive (arising from striped muscles, tendons, joints) sensations. Simultaneous writing and speaking affixes the visual and the acoustic images of the letters more firmly in the child’s mind than any other method, strengthens the connection between them better, and forces the child into the correct left-to-right sequence from the very start. No other teaching technique establishes the necessary conditioned reflexes with greater speed, accuracy, and reliability. Another reason reading is best taught through writing is that the reading feedback is exactly what the child must do when writing – namely, proceed from his own sounding of the letter via the engram complex to the visual signal (i.e., the letter), so that he can write it down. With dictation he has to proceed from someone else’s sounding of the letter, and when he writes spontaneously, he has to start from his own acoustic memory image of it. All this strengthens the entire reflex. For this reason, the beginning reader should not be permitted to write something he cannot read or to read something he cannot write, and should always say, or at least articulate, the letters and words while he writes them down. The current practice of silent copying from the backboard violates these principals. [See sections of Teaching Writing (p. 184) and on Distractibility (Vol. II, p. 581).]
WORD READING. The reading of words becomes reliable only after the child has acquired conditioned reflexes to letters and to fixed combinations of two, three, or four letters forming a single sound. Spalding calls these fixed combinations “phonograms” (Spalding & Spalding, 1969, p. 18). The neurophysiologic basis for reading a word is the formation of a sequence of conditioned reflexes. Only in this way can the visual representation of a world become the spoken word. It is the connection between the seen and the spoken word that present such difficulty for most children with organic reading disorders, and it is this connection that must be taught properly; otherwise perfectly healthy children do not learn it either.
For word reading, each letter or phonogram must elicit its specific speech sound with lighting speed, so that the child can quickly say one letter after the other in correct sequence, from left to right. The linear arrangement of the letters makes the reading of a word possible. If the letters were scattered all over the page, we could not read them.
LINEAR READING. The child must learn linear reading from the very beginning. He must be taught to sound the letters carefully, one after the other, from left to right, and not to skip a letter or a line. This slows reading at first; but is absolutely essential for the fixation of the required conditioned reflexes and for their combination with eye movements. Special fiber tracts connect the eye muscles, which move the eyes, with the organ of hearing in the inner ear. This makes it possible to look at the source of a sound with great speed. It also facilitates the connection of eye movements with reading (House, Pansky, & Siegel, 1979, p. 194). Reversal of letter sounds within words and reversal of entire words is frequently due to defective linear reading. (See Linear Dyslexia, p. 127.)
Speed and accuracy of reading, and ultimately of understanding, depend on the completeness of the early conditioning. It works in the following way; when the child is supposed to read the short word “me” for example, he pronounces the letter “m”. It must be stressed that he has learned the sound of “m” and not its name, because for reading and writing he needs to know the sound; the name can only interfere with conditioning. As soon as he hears himself pronounce “m” and senses that his pronunciation is correct, he moves his eyes to the next letter, “e”, selects the pronunciation of it he has been told to use or which had been indicated for him on the letter (e has two sounds, as in “end” and in “me”), says it, and corrects it if necessary. It is unlikely that he will have to go through these separate conditioned reflexes for very long when he reads such a short word. He will very quickly learn to say “me” and become conditioned to the entire word, but the first separate conditioning is an indispensable phase he has to go through. Not only does this assure correct pronunciation of all words, but it also guarantees left-to-fight linear reading because the child’s attention and eye movements are forced into the required left-to-right direction, and a special association is established between feedback sensation and eye movements from the start. No eye movement takes place until feedback confirmation of the sounding of the letter has been established. (See section on Linear Dyslexia, p. 127.).
This transition from one conditioned reflex to the other can be compared with the mechanism of a typewriter. Its carriage does not move until the letter is pressed down (Schmitt, 1966, p. 30). The connection among vision, speech and eye movements becomes fixed through this cyclic mechanism. With practice, it can be carried out with great speed and eventually becomes automatic. If this basic training for reading is done properly, no reversals will occur in heathy children and reversals will be prevented in very many children whose organic defect is only mild. It might take longer for them to establish these automatic responses, and they may have to practice harder; but in the end, the reading process will become automatic for them as well. (See sections on Automatic Mechanisms, Vol. II, and on Teaching Writing, p. 176, and Vol. II, p. 470.)
BLENDING. That the child learns to pronounce the word as a unit whose sound differs from the sounds of the individual letters is due to a synthesis called “blending,” which the child performs on a higher level. If the word he is reading is familiar to him, he will recognize it while sounding the letters and quickly say the word, pronouncing it exactly as he does when using it while speaking. It must be stressed that he recognized the word’s sound first, before he can recognize its meaning. We read, after all, before we know what we are reading. If the word is new for the child, he will try to blend the letter sounds using acoustic memory images of words he already knows.
The ease with which children learn to blend varies. One example, dramatically presented, may be sufficient for some children to understand and remember the technique of blending for the rest of their lives; others need months. Some children with organic reading disorders have difficulty with it, especially when they also have hearing or speech defects. If taught well, all children except a very few with the severest forms of organic reading disorders, should be able to blend by the end of first grade. The prerequisite for this is careful conditioning and clear explanation of reading technique. I have examined many children from the elementary grades through high school who did not know what blending was all about. It had apparently never been explained to them. The expression on their face of sudden excited understanding when I explained to them that letters stand for sounds and how these sounds blend into a word is unforgettable. This was a breakthrough experience for many of them which they should have experienced in the first grade. I undertook this explanation for diagnostic purposes, namely, to determine whether their reading disability was organic or due to faulty teaching. To test whether this really was a breakthrough, I gave them first short and then longer words to read, and they could frequently read them after only this single explanation. Of course, all these children had to be referred for remedial reading anyway because they still have to learn the sounds of all the letters and phonograms. This is what the “visual”, sight/word”, “global” “word picture” “whole word” method of teaching reading to beginners leads to. There are young men and women in high school to whom reading remains an eternal mystery because no one ever explained to them its basic, indispensable elements, and the necessary conditioned reflexes were never established.
From The Complete Handbook of Children’s Reading Disorders, Vol I, p 81-85
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House, E.L., Pansky, B., Siegel, A. A systematic approach to neuroscience. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co. 1979
Schmitt, C.F., Theorie des Leseprozesses auf der Gundlage des bedingten Reflexes, In C. F. Schmitt (Ed.), Die Lese-Sythese, Farnkfurt, w. Germany: Verlag Moritz Diesterweg, 1966 Chap. 6 (a)
Spalding R. B., & Spalding, W.T. The Writing Road to Reading (2nd rev. ed.). New York: William & Morrow Co., Inc. 1969 (First rev. ed. 1962.).
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