[Spelling Progress Bulletin, Spring 1980 pp16-18]
[James Pitman: see Journals, Anthology, Bulletins.]

What do we really need in teaching reading?

by Sir James Pitman, KBE, London, England.

It is odd and sad how persistent have been quite wrong ideas on READING READINESS and even odder and sadder, how absent has been awareness of the right idea - that the most important, indeed the only essential element of reading readiness for all is to have skill in the mother tongue, which, before reading begins, must necessarily be skill in oracy-: i.e., to be able to understand words spoken to them and, even more important, to be able to form and to speak sentences which others will understand.

Why for so long have we supposed that "children lack visual discrimination"? Children who have, from a very early age, been able to recognize their parents, brothers and sisters too, and to detect, and return, a smile on their faces? Surely it is a useless exercise to suppose that they need training in visual discrimination. If they fail to associate, the sight of any of the 42 spellings for the sound of /æ/ with that one particular sound, is it not most likely the learner will need no such training if he is learning in i.t.a. in which there is only one spelling, not 42? And furthermore, is not the eigh in /eight/ a very confusing spelling and an even more depressing experience for the learner, seeing that, if an h is put before eight, it does not spell the sound of /haet/ but spells the sound of /hiet/, and if a t is added to though /ħoe/, it becomes thought /ħaut/.

Why, too, for so long have we supposed that children lack auditory discrimination when they can not only recognize the 40 or more sounds which make up the words they understand but even speak them? The ears and speech organs of the vast majority of children must be beautifully attuned, first to receive sounds and not only to discriminate all of the over 40 sounds of English and so the words spoken to them, but also to choose and form the right sounds in their own local dialect for the words which their fathers, mothers and others will in their turn bear from them and understand. No wonder it is a misdirected effort to act as if their hearing was at fault. Is it not much more likely that if they cannot relate sounds to sight, they need a system like i.t.a., in which the sound in /wun/ is always printed as wun and never as beginning with the sound of /on/ and ending as /onky/?

It is indeed very odd, and very sad, that we teachers have so long been misled into supposing also that our children do not need teaching in oracy and in the meaning of so many words they hear and do not know and so fail to understand so many words. They "get by" instead with guessing, and not always correctly, the gist of the sentences they hear.

There is no justification for the very common generalization of unreadiness of young children as "five-year-olds" and more particularly of "pre-school children." They should be individualized not generalized. They differ in fact enormously in their knowledge of words. At one extreme we have the very well authenticated case of a 3-year-old who, having been stung by a wasp one day, was asked the following morning whether it still hurt and replied, "The agony has somewhat abated"! At the other extreme are even 5-year-olds who come to school knowing very few concepts and the words associated with the concepts. Such children in reality know very few, and have in consequence come to school with little if not virtually no skill in oracy. Indeed they have "contracted out" of expecting to understand communication by words. They have found that situational clues, even the tone of voice of the speaker and, in many cases, their observation of the effects of the speaker's utterances upon others present, give them the gist of what has been said and allow them to deceive speakers into thinking they are skilled English listeners. The final educational disaster for the child is when he comes to accept that he will not understand language and it becomes habitual to skip over many of the words in listening, and will come, even when learning i.t.a. happily to skip all words he does not understand. And he may seem none the worse.

I know this well because, as I have become deafer and deafer, I find myself under compulsion of poor hearing to guess, often successfully, what have been the actual sounds of some of those words I have not heard and to begin "skipping" When the speaker does not take the hint from my repeated requests 'please say that again.' It is wonderful how well I can hold my own in a conversation nevertheless and how easily speakers are deceived that they can disregard my handicap. They so often continue nevertheless in sota voce!

For much of the time I am hearing by context. My past skills in listening stand me in good stead. I am able already to guess what the next words are likely to be, even if later spoken too softly for me to have heard them. Equally words that I have misheard and so skipped are heard RETRO-AUDITORILY by reason of the words which followed, which fortunately I did manage to hear.

This experience of the value of language skill enables me to understand the apparent miracle of young children making so easily the transition from i.t.a. to T.O. 80% of the words the child reads in T.O. are actually or virtually the same as they are in i.t.a. (and, for, but, did, had, it, in, on, up, etc.) or are so alike that the skill of context need play no part ita words. and of the remaining 20%, most of them are similar in many respects to the i.t.a. forms. Context takes over. Even the real shockers, ought and eight, end in t and at the end of whose there is an os which slightly resembles (ita for 'whose'). The Schonell Graded Word Reading Test with its single words (so that context is unable to act)and its high proportion of 'shockers' is no better than a look-and-say test, proving - what words have not been presented over and over again in "flash cards." It is certainly not relevant as a test at the transition for children who have learned to read in i.t.a. Nevertheless it was so used in some of the most important researches to compare learning in i.t.a. with learning in T.O.

Of course one of the reasons why the i.t.a. taught children, in all but the bottom section in the fourth test in Graph 5 page 75 of the i.t.a. Symposium (John Downing, The National Foundation for Educational Research in England and Wales) [1] are shown as so much better than those taught with T.O., was clearly the effect of the language teaching which i.t.a. had incidentally achieved. From the very beginning, the deciphering element in reading was accomplished so much earlier that the sentences came to be understood and context began to play its all-important part in reading.

Every i.t.a. teacher will know that those children who come from homes with the best environment in oracy are those who learn to read most quickly, who make the transition on their own, who then have at their disposal all the books which publishers produce for children. Those who lag behind do so only because the skill in language which they brought from their homes was only minimal., It is not that they are slow learners in literacy; rather they are poor listeners in oracy, but have not been found out. Reading, and depending upon context leaves gaps in sentences when children skip over words they don't know. Reading more and more books in i.t.a." - and not understanding what is printed because so many words have been skipped - will do them little good. The job is to teach them the English language as to a foreigner. This is most important.

It may appear irrelevant and a digression but the following story is in fact very relevant. In my shorthand teaching experience, I needed to go round the classes looking over the shoulders of the girls transcribing the shorthand that they had just written from dictation.

I was interested particularly in what words they had been forced to leave blank (i.e. were needing to skip); then I would read their shorthand notes and would find the place of the "outline" which they had failed to read successfully. I would find not only that I could read it with certainty but that it had been written in accordance with the rules of the shorthand system and had recorded accurately the sounds which the writer had correctly heard. The cause, over and over again, was that that particular word was evidently not in their vocabulary, even with the correct outline and the help of the context. They failed because the word, not being in their vocabulary, could not be read by them in its abbreviated form.

It was only with the greatest difficulty that shorthand teachers were persuaded not to blame the students for lack of knowledge of shorthand and not to put the student (not at all usefully) to deeper and more intense study of the principles of the system, instead of arranging for the student (and the teacher of English) to collaborate in learning and in reading the English language to better effect.

Fortunately there were a series of books published in Canada: "Words are Important." On each double page opening there was on the left-hand side, each line numbered, 20 words; and on the right hand side, also but differently numbered, each sentence with a dotted space, always of the same length, a sentence into which one of the 20 words could aptly be fitted - to make good sense.

The teaching took the form of inducing the students to look up in a dictionary each of the 20 words on the left hand page, to study the definitions carefully, then find the sentence on the right hand page into which that word would fit and would make good sense.

The six or eight books were graded in difficulty and by the time they had been worked through conscientiously, the student had added greatly to his experiences of concepts and to his vocabulary and had much less difficulty, in context, in reading successfully the outlines for those words, notwithstanding that in any shorthand system an appreciable amount of the identifications of any word is absent from the outline because of the need for abbreviation.

If the shorthand student was reluctant to collaborate with the English teacher, the task was to convince him of his weakness in English and of the value of so studying words in the dictionary and fitting them aptly into prescribed sentences.

For this purpose a number of illustrated cards or a related sequence of actions were provided (say taking dead flowers from a room, emptying the flower vase of its water, cleaning it, putting it back in a cupboard, going into a flower shop, buying a bunch of flowers, entering a front door carrying a parcelled bunch of flowers, taking off the paper, getting a vase from the cupboard, filling it with water, arranging the flowers and finally replacing them on the same table in the living room on which their dead predecessors had been displayed).

The student was asked first to arrange the haphazard collection of cards in a right order, and then to write an account, in story form, of the actions portrayed.

Judging by a student's writing is the best indeed the only, reliable way of testing a student's skill in his mother tongue. Basing a judgement on the student's reaction to words spoken to him can never be really reliable. What goes on in his brain by reason of what words strike his ear is secret, within a closed skull. What words come out his brain in writing have certainly come not from outside but from his own brain. Tape recording his speech is a lengthy, rather laborious process, and discussing the contents of the tape with the speaker is much less convenient to the teacher, and less helpful to the student too. 'The above test is most convenient.

All of this which is so relevant to the teaching of English to shorthand students in their turn needs to be applied differently and in a practical way to the teaching of language to non-linguistic young children (or even adults) - but with different applications, to remedial illiterates of all ages, up to the grave.

The first application is to recognize, as stated in the beginning of this article, that the most important, indeed the only essential element in 'reading readiness' is skill in the mother tongue and that, if that is deficient, the obvious tasks are first to diagnose the deficiency and then to plan deliberately to teach language rather than to waste valuable school hours encouraging the learner to read more and more i.t.a. books - which anyhow he will not properly understand.

The time for more books will come later, but only after he has made the transition; and then the books read should be in T.O.; by which time demands on his knowledge of English will have become more hopeful and the choice of books almost limitless.

It needs therefore to be a judgement for each teacher in the knowledge of each child's language skill to decide when to begin teaching language and when to stop teaching reading in i.t.a., because the basic language requirements have been proven to be absent and most important.

But how? How do we assess a young learner's skill in his mother tongue?

I suggest that the teacher ought, for every child, at the appropriate time even as soon as he has finished the first story book, (even its first pages), to insist that the child reads it through again to the teacher so that the teacher may stimulate the child to tell her the story of the different pages of the book, with each page open in front of them both.

Whenever the child, in respect of each page, uses, as he very well may, and indeed ought, a word on that page the teacher thinks he may have guessed at, she should then ask him to point with his finger at the word on the page and she ought also herself to point to a word and ask that that word be read and included in a different sentence.

Additionally the teacher should begin reading the page and then to judge the child's sense of context, stop abruptly and ask the child to supply the next word. If the child does not respond, the teacher may read up to that point again and substitute the word "blank" for the missing word, or even speak "missing word."

Those children who satisfy the teacher that however many times she repeats the process with variations, that particular child will produce the varied and correct responses, then she will know that that child will be among those who will very quickly make the transition and will be set firmly on the pathway to literacy and to a valuable career in schools and in life, because language and success in school at an early age are closely interwoven and are so important.

For those who, in varying degrees, are not able to satisfy her, she will need to group them and plug, plug, plug, language teaching.

But how do we best teach language? Sesame Street, so perfect for language teaching, was spurned by the BBC, claiming as it happened rightly in the case of those children with a good foundation of skill in English, that their own programmes were world-leaders; but they spurned it wrongly, because the BBC did nothing, deliberately for those whose language was not adequate.

We all know that picturable nouns like dogs, and demonstrable and experienced actions like running, eating, and laughing, and tangible qualities like rough, smooth, hot and cold which the child has or can experience, are easy to teach, but that the real trouble begins among words for abstract concepts and above all - yet, yesterday and perhaps.

Reading to the children, with discussions of the words in the paragraph which has just been read, asking for other words with the same meaning and for a sentence to be put in other words are all very valuable, but the most important point is surely to be aware, and for the children to be made aware, that the reaching is directed to making them able to communicate facts and ideas to others, and to receive communication correctly from others - or else why is it any good for them to come to school, and for the teacher or the book to give them words and facts if they are not able to understand.

Just as the teacher needs to know how skilled (or unskilled) in language each different child is, so too she needs to know how to teach each different child language.

I realize that individual teaching is not practical and that this, therefore can be done only in groups.

I hope that some of these ideas and facts may be helpful to the teacher on whom necessarily lies the responsibility for doing the best for every child.

At any rate, the more successful a teacher is in teaching language, the bigger will be the group of children who will really enjoy school because they are not like a deaf child but are able to understand all or nearly all the words they hear from others and read in books of their own level.

The joy of learning, which success brings, will work away quietly and each child will need individual teacher-attention only for suggestions and stimulation, rather than for specific teaching, which after all are a teacher's two most important and most valuable functions and the ones most quickly and joyfully given.


Before a pupil can be given training in literacy, he must have a certain degree of oracy with understanding of the nominative structure and the necessary syntax to be able to speak and to write sentences which will be understood by all.

Communication is a two-way street.

[1] There are good but lengthy reasons why that fourth test ought to have been omitted.

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