Recently it came to my notice that Physical Therapist Dr. Glenn Dorman has celebrated his ninetieth birthday. His book, “How to Teach Your Baby to Read,” co-athored with Janet Dorman over forty years ago, started a whole new approach to teaching reading to the very young.
It all began while Glenn Dorman was teaching brain damaged preschool children to read at Philadelphia’s Institutes for Achievement of Human Potential. Dolman claims that a baby will learn the written word as easily as spoken language and can even learn to read before he or she learns to speak. .That is on the basis that the written word is presented repeatedly and in large letters. His book sets out step-by-step teaching sessions, beginning when the child is two years old. There are several daily periods of less than five minutes each. In a sample of a session the parent touches the baby’s toes, pronounces the word “toes”, holds up a large sign with the word on it. It is important that each session is a “game” that both participants find it “joyous” and it must always end before the baby becomes bored.
Dorman’s approach was and still is controversial. No one has any problem with parents reading to their babies from birth. However, claims by experts that most reading problems could be eliminated if reading was taught from an earlier age are not really proven. In Finland the literacy rate is 99.9% but pupils don’t start learning to read until they are seven years old. Four of the top ten countries don’t begin formal reading instruction until age seven.
Certain physical and mental abilities need to be developed before a child can learn to read. The child must be able to hear the differences in the phonic sounds correctly, they must be able to accurately move their eyes across the page. They must be able to sit still and concentrate and of course they must be able to understand what is being read. These are all skills that improve with age.
Educators and child psychologists are generally skeptical about the value of children learning to read at a very early age. They do not doubt that some parents can teach some three and four year olds to read. They feel that the motivation for many parents is that “it represents status”. Some critics even fear that early instruction can be harmful. Dr Paul J. Kinsella, director of the Developmental Reading Clinic at Lake Forest is of the opinion that that a young child’s hearing and sight are so disorganized that parental pressure to read may only confuse children or cause emotional blocks that would permanently impair their reading. Burton White of Harvard’s School of Education even goes so far as to call home-teaching “part of the overemphasis on cerebral development.”
However, no reliable studies of the long-term effects of parental pre-school teaching exist. There is, however, a general consensus that impatient parents, who tense up should not embark on early reading programs with their child.
Supporters of the Gentle Revolution propose that tiny children have within them the capacity to learn virtually anything while they are tiny. They believe that what children learn without any conscious effort at two, three or four years of age can only be learned with great effort, or may not be learned at all, in later life.
Personally I don’t dispute that very young children can be taught to read. But like so many other ideas today one must ask whether long term it increases the chances of producing well-rounded individuals who can cope with life.I know one Jamaican surgeon who taught herself to read and aged two and a half was reading the newspaper. She was clearly an exceptionally gifted child.
Babies are beautifully pre-programmed to do things at the time which is right for them. A baby learns to hold its’ head up, sit up, stand up, crawl, walk when it feels ready. I really wonder if a nine month old should have its cerebral energy directed towards learning to read. Some programs even recommend starting reading at this age.
Starting teaching three or four year olds is a different matter. Some thirty odd years ago I began using the Dorman’s book to teach my then three year old eldest son to read. He was clearly intelligent and he loved books and had an extensive library of his own. In spite of his interest things did not go well. I was very patient, not pushy, but I became convinced that I was a hopeless teacher. I soon stopped the program because I did not want to run the risk that my son felt he was an academic failure before he even started attending nursery. This son was a very late reader, as was I, and for the same reason.
In his second year at university my son was diagnosed as being severely dyslexic in some areas. This was at a time when dyslexia was not known to many school teachers let alone the general public. Neither I nor my son had any special help to deal with our reading problems. My late father, who was a medical doctor, was convinced that I was intelligent and never gave up on me despite my teachers’ attitudes towards my abilities. I continue to thank him for that Both myself and my son reached a point where everything suddenly fell into place by itself and we could read with no further problems. My son and I despite learning to read late went on to university. He is now an excellent secondary school teacher.
Looking back I realize that I had not been able to practice one of the Dolman’s most important precepts i.e being “joyous.” It was only as a Dance and Movement Therapist working with children with special needs that I learned to be joyous in my teaching. Being genuinely joyous completely changes the pupil teacher dynamic. The feeling of joy is powerful, infectious, creative, self-empowering and nurturing. In this troubled world we should try to live our entire lives on this energy. Joy and wonder can still be found in the midst of disaster and conflict if we know where to look.