VI. Reading By Sight And Sound
Learning to read is Hard Work.––Probably that vague whole which we call 'Education' offers no more difficult and repellent task than that to which every little child is (or ought to be) set down––the task of learning to read. We realise the labour of it when some grown man makes a heroic effort to remedy shameful ignorance, but we forget how contrary to Nature it is for a little child to occupy himself with dreary hieroglyphics––all so dreadfully alike!––when the world is teeming with interesting objects which he is agog to know. But we cannot excuse our volatile Tommy, nor is it good for him that we should. It is quite necessary he should know how to read; and not only so––the discipline of the task is altogether wholesome for the little man. At the same time, let us recognise that learning to read is to many children hard work, and let us do what we can to make the task easy and inviting.
Knowledge of Arbitrary Symbols––In the first place, let us bear in mind that reading is not a science nor an art. Even if it were, the children must still be the first consideration with the educator; but it is not. Learning to read is no more than picking up, how we can, a knowledge of certain arbitrary symbols for objects and ideas. There are absolutely no right and necessary 'steps' to reading, each of which leads to the next; there is no true beginning, middle, or end. For the arbitrary symbols we must know in order to read are not letters, but words. By way of illustration, consider the delicate differences of sound represented by the letter 'o' in the last sentence; to analyse and classify the sounds of 'o' in 'for,' 'symbols,' 'know,' 'order,' 'to,' 'not,' and 'words,' is a curious, not especially useful, study for a philologist, but a laborious and inappropriate one for a child. It is time we faced the fact that the letters which compose an English word are full of philological interest, and that their study will be a valuable part of education by-and-by; but meantime, sound and letter-sign are so loosely wedded in English, that to base the teaching of reading on the sounds of the letters only, is to lay up for the child much analytic labour, much mental confusion, due to the irregularities of the language; and some little moral strain in making the sound of a letter in a given word fall under any of the 'sounds' he has been taught.
Definitely, what is it we propose in teaching a child to read? (a) that he shall know at sight, say, some thousand words; (b) That he shall be able to build up new words with the elements of these. Let him learn ten new words a day, and in twenty weeks he will be to some extent able to read, without any question as to the number of letters in a word. For the second, and less important, part of our task, the child must know the sounds of the letters, and acquire power to throw given sounds into new combinations.
What we want is a bridge between the child's natural interests and those arbitrary symbols with which he must become acquainted, and which, as we have seen, are words, and not letters.
These Symbols should be Interesting.––The child cares for things, not words; his analytic power is very small, his observing faculty is exceedingly quick and keen; nothing is too small for him; he will spy out the eye of a fly; nothing is too intricate, he delights in puzzles. But the thing he learns to know by looking at it, is a thing which interests him. Here we have the key to reading. No meaningless combinations of letters, no cla, cle, cli, clo, clu, no ath, eth, ith, oth, uth, should be presented to him. The child should be taught from the first to regard the printed word as he already regards the spoken word, as the symbol of fact or idea of full of interest. How easy to read 'robin redbreast,' 'buttercups and daisies'; the number of letters in the words is no matter; the words themselves convey such interesting ideas that the general form and look of them fixes itself on the child's brain by the same law of association of ideas which makes it easy to couple the objects with their spoken names. Having got a word fixed on the sure peg of the idea it conveys, the child will use his knowledge of the sounds of the letters to make up other words containing the same elements with great interest. When he knows 'butter' he is quite ready to make 'mutter' by changing the b for an m.
Tommy's First Lesson––But example is better than precept, and more convincing than the soundest reasoning. This is the sort of reading lesson we have in view. Tommy knows his letters by name and sound, but he knows no more. To-day he is to be launched into the very middle of reading, without any 'steps' at all, because reading is neither an art nor a science, and has, probably, no beginning. Tommy is to learn to read to-day––
"I like little pussy,
Her coat is so warm" -
And he is to know those nine words so well that he will be able to read them wherever they may occur henceforth and for evermore.
"Oh, yes," says a reader, "as in the 'Cock Robin' lesson; grant that the principle is sound––and there is much to be said on both sides of that question––but grant it, who in the world could get through all the pasting and cutting and general messing preparatory to the great lesson? No; the method of the books may be only second-best, but ready-made books must do for me. I have no time to make my own apparatus."
I must own that the cutting and pasting was very clumsy, but the lesson served its purpose because it induced a good friend to education [Miss Miller, founder of a Training College at Oxford)to have a delightful 'Little Pussy' box prepared for us, loose words, nice big type, two lines in a bag. Whoso learns "Little Pussy' as it should be learned will know at least one hundred words––not a bad stock-in-trade for a beginner––all of them good useful words that we want every day. There is one objection; such contractions as 'I'll' are ugly at the best, and I hope that in the word-lessons based upon 'Little Pussy,' pieces will be chosen in which this fault is avoided.
Steps.––And now, we begin. Material: Tommy's box of loose letters, the new 'Little Pussy' box, pencil and paper, or much better, blackboard and chalk. We write up in good big print hand 'Pussy.' Tommy watches with interest: he knows the letters, and probably says them as we write. Besides, he is prepared for the great event of his life; he knows he is going to begin to learn to read to-day. But we do not ask anything yet of his previous knowledge. We simply tell him that the word is 'pussy.' Interest at once; he knows the thing, pussy, and the written symbol is pleasant in his eyes because it is associated with an existing idea in his mind. He is told to look at the word 'pussy' until he is sure he would know it again. Then he makes 'pussy' from memory with his own loose letters. Then the little bag containing our two lines in loose words is turned out, and he finds the word 'pussy'; and, lastly, the little sheet with the poem printed on it is shown to him, and he finds 'pussy,' but is not allowed yet to find out the run of the rhyme. 'Coat, little, like, is, her, warm, I, so,' are taught in the same way, in less time than it takes to describe the lesson. When each new word is learned, Tommy makes a column of the old ones, and reads up and down and cris-cras, the column on the blackboard.
Reading Sentences––He knows words now, but he cannot yet read sentences. Now for the delight of reading. He finds at our dictation, amongst his loose words, 'pussy––is––warm,' places them in 'reading' order, one after the other, and then reads off the sentence. Joy, as of one who has found a new planet! And Tommy has indeed found a new poet. Then, 'her-little-coat-is-warm,' 'Pussy-is-so-little,' 'I-like-pussy,' 'Pussy-is-little-like-her-coat,' and so on through a dozen more little arrangements. If the rhyme can be kept a secret till the whole is worked out, so much the better. To make the verses up with his own loose words will give Tommy such a delicious sense that knowledge is power, as few occasions in after life will afford. Anyway, reading is to him a delight henceforth, and it will require very bad management indeed to make him hate it.
Tommy's Second Lesson.––Tommy promises himself another reading lesson next day, but he has instead a spelling lesson, conducted somewhat in this way:
He makes the word 'coat' with his letters, from memory if he can; if not, with the pattern word. Say 'coat' slowly; give the sound of the c. 'Take away c, and what have we left?' A little help will get 'oat' from him. How would you make 'boat' (say the word very slowly, bringing out the sound of b). He knows the sounds of the letters, and says b-oat readily; fl-oat, two added sounds, which you lead him to find out; g-oat, he will give you the g, and find goat a charming new word to know; m-oat, he easily decides on the sound of m; a little talk about moat; the other words are too familiar to need explanation. Tommy will, no doubt, offer 'note' and we must make a clean breast of it and say, 'No, note is spelt with other letters'; but what other letters we do not tell him now. Thus he comes to learn incidentally and very gradually that different groups of letters may stand for the same sounds. But we do not ask him to generalise; we only let him have the fact that n-oat does not spell the symbol we express by 'note.' 'Stoat'––he will be able to give the sounds of the initial letters, and stoat again calls for a little talk––another interesting word. He has made a group of words with his letters, and there they are on the black-board in a column, thus
He reads the column up and down and cris-cras; every word has a meaning and carries an idea. Then the loose words he knows are turned out, and we dictate new sentences, which he arranges: 'I-like-her-goat'; 'her-little-stoat-is-warm,' and so on, making the new words with loose letters.
Unknown Words––Now for a new experience. We dictate 'pussy in the boat.' Consternation! Tommy does not know 'in' nor 'the.' 'Put counters for the words you don't know; they may soon come in our lessons,' and Tommy has a desire and a need––that is, an appetite for learning.
Like Combinations have Different Sounds.––We deal with the remaining words in the same way––'little' gives brittle, tittle, skittle: pussy, is, I, and her, give no new words. 'Like' gives mike and pike. 'so' gives no, do (the musical 'do'), and lo! From 'warm' we get arm, harm, charm, barm, alarm; we pronounced warm as arm. Tommy perceives that such a pronunciation is wrong and vulgar, and sees that all these words are sounded like 'arm,' but not one of them like 'warm'––that is, he sees that the same group of letters need not always have the same sound. But we do not ask him to make a note of this new piece of knowledge; we let it grow into him gradually, after many experiences.
By this time he has eighteen new words on the blackboard of which to make sentences with the nine loose words of 'pussy.' Her skittle is little, her charm is brittle, her arm is warm, and so on. But we take care that the sentences make sense. Her goat is brittle, is 'silly,' and not to be thought of at all. Tommy's new words are written in his 'note-book' in print hand, so that he can take stock of his possessions in the way of words.
Moral Training in Reading Lessons––The next day we do the last two lines of the stanza, as at first. These lines afford hardly any material for a spelling lesson, so in our next lesson we go on with the second verse. But our stock of words is growing; we are able, as we go on, to make an almost unlimited number of little sentences. If we have to use counters now and then, why, that only whets our appetite for knowledge. By the time Tommy has worked 'Little Pussy' through he has quite a large stock of words; has considerable power to attack new words with familiar combinations; what is more, he has achieved; he has courage to attack all 'learning,' and has a sense that delightful results are quite within reach. Moreover, he learns to read in a way that affords him some moral training. There is no stumbling, no hesitation from the first, but bright attention and perfect achievement. His reading lesson is a delight, of which he is deprived when he comes to his lesson in a lazy, drawling mood. Perfect enunciation and precision are insisted on, and when he comes to arrange the whole of the little rhyme in his loose words and read it off (most delightful of all the lessons) his reading must be a perfect and finished recitation1. I believe that this is a practical common-sense way to teach reading in English. It may be profitable for the little German child to work through all possibly dreary combinations of letters before he is permitted to have any joy in 'reading,' because wherever these combinations occur they will have the sounds the child has learned laboriously. The fact that English is anomalous as regards the connection between sign and sound, happily exonerates us from enforcing this dreary grind2.
1Spirited nursery rhymes form the best material for such reading lessons. A 'Delightful Reading Box' has been issued on similar plan to the 'Pussy' Box, whose one fault is that the verses are a little dull. But this 'Box' should be of great use.
2It is desirable that 'Tommy' should not begin to 'read' until his intelligence is equal to the effort required by these lessons. Even then, it may be well to break up one into two, or half a dozen, as he is able to take it).