The Indispensable Elements of Reading

The Indispensable Elements of Reading

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The Indispensable Elements of Reading

By Dr. Hilde L. Mosse, M.D.

The 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 acquisition of automatic functions such as conditioned reflexes, always requires understanding; the highest and most advanced 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 them that this means “house” – as is done in those kindergartens and first grades where children are introduced to reading with so-called “sight words” – confuses them, interferes with the formation 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 they have to learn. They must be told. For instance, that the letter “s” stands for the sound /s/ and for nothing else, and that the child must learn to say /s/ when he sees “s.” Whether single letters 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 spoken letter together repeatedly, without interference by any other stimulus, and always in the same sequence, namely, by looking at the letter briefly before saying it. The teacher 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 their own. The teacher’s pronunciation must act as the child’s feedback correction until the child’s own feedback system is working. That 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 can not 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 the child writes them. Writing fixes 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 fixes the visual and the acoustic images of the letters more firmly in the child’s minds than any other method, strengthens the connections 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 their 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 for the letter, and when the child writes spontaneously, they have to start from their 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 they cannot read or to read something they cannot write, and should always say, or at least articulate, the letters and words while the child writes them down. The current practice of silent copying from the blackboard violates these principles. [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 word become the spoken word. It is this 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 lightning 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. They must be taught to sound the letters carefully, one after the other, from left to right, and not to skip a letter or line. This slows reading at first but is absolutely essential for the taxation 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 this early conditioning. It works in the following way: when the child is supposed to read the short word “me,” for example, they pronounce the letter “m.” It must be stressed that they have learned the sound of “m” and not its name, because for reading and writing the child needs to know the sound; the name can only interfere with conditioning. As soon as they hear themselves pronounce /m/ and senses that the pronunciation is correct, the move the eyes to the next letter, “e,” selects the pronunciation of it they have been told to use or which had been indicated for them on the letter (e has two sounds, as in “end” and in “me”), says it, and corrects it if necessary. It is unlikely that the child will have to go through these separate conditioned reflexes for very long when they read such a short word. The child will very quickly learn to say “me” and become conditioned to hear the entire word, but the first separate conditioning is an indispensable phase the child has to go though. Not only does this assure correct pronunciation of all words, but it also guarantees left-to-right 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 healthy 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 the child is reading is familiar to them, they will recognize it while sounding the letters and quickly say the word, pronouncing it exactly as they do when using it while speaking. It must be stressed that the child recognizes the word’s sound first, before they can recognize its meaning. We read, after all, before we know what we are reading. If the word is new for the child, they will try to blend the letter sounds using acoustic memory images of words they already know. 

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 of speech defects. If taught well, all children except the very few with the severest forms of organic reading disorders should be able to blend by the end of the first grade. The prerequisite for this careful conditioning and clear explanation of the 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 had to learn the sounds of all letters and phonograms. This is what the “visual,” “sight/word,” “global,” “word perception,” “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

Available at the Riggs Institute


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 Grundlage des bedingten Reglexes. In C. F. Schmitt (Ed.), Die Lese-Synthese. Frankfurt, 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 (1st rev. ed. 1962.).

© Riggs Institute