Early learning of reading skills :
a mistake or an opportunity?

* * *


Among the numerous measures considered and implemented world-wide to address illiteracy, there is one that, obviously, has been very little exploited : early tutoring of reading skills.

Presently, two conflicting theories fight for pre-eminence regarding the earliest age at which such tutoring should be initiated :

  • There are those who believe that before 6/7 years of age, children do not possess the required intellectual maturity. Some psychologists assert even today that "to be able to learn to read, children must have reached the mental age of at least 6 years" ( ! ).
  • Others, in agreement with Doctor Glenn DOMAN , plead in favour of beginning sooner because - as they argue - "The intellectual capacity of young individuals is immense, and the first years of life, from birth to about 6 years of age, are crucial for the acquisition of mental abilities, and particularly for the cognitive abilities required for any further learning ".

    Nevertheless, each time that the problem of illiteracy is broached, only "catching up" or "extra schooling" is considered. And in the numerous debates, symposiums, or reports, extremely rare are those who clearly mention the obvious requirement to anticipate tutoring of the reading skills.

    Moreover, in most cases, catching up programs and extra schooling are applied only after the first year of primary
    school (about 7/8 years of age) or, still more detrimental, only after insufficient mastery of reading skills has caused severe learning difficulties, that is, starting at the age of 11, when it is already way too late !

    Of course, it always a good thing to try and repair the damage, and those who apply themselves to this noble task certainly are doing a wonderful and valuable job, but wouldn't it be more worthwhile to try to prevent rather than laboriously try to cure ?
    * * *

    When in 1965 was published in France the French translation of Doctor Glenn DOMAN's book "How To Teach Your Baby To Read", reaction were mixed, and sometimes even violent.

    Some were indignant. Others, viewing the author as a phoney or a crank, considered the work as prank that did not deserve to be taken account of.
    But a third category of persons - rather rare at the beginning - took his work very seriously, analysed it with care and some even tried the method.
    How surprised they were to observe that the "DOMAN Method" worked and that young children (4 and 3 years of age! even younger!) were easily learning to read, just as easily as they were learning to speak, without pain, with ease and pleasure, without the necessity to wait for the fateful age of 6, primary schooling age.
    Actually, the work of Glenn DOMAN and his pluridisciplinary team was only confirming the research of other scientists, like that of Doctor Paul CHAUCHARD, renowned French neurophysiologist, former research director at l'Ecole des Hautes Etudes in Paris, who, as he carried on the work of PAVLOV, synthesised and explained in a popularisation work published in 1960 the results of 30 years of research on the development and functioning of the human brain.

    This marvellous document - particularly enlightening for the understanding of the functioning of the brain - this extraordinary organ - is today nowhere to be located, and has not been reprinted since. The French publishing house, that we contacted, has informed us that republishing is not considered, which is incomprehensible and regrettable since it still is totally pertinent.
    One is entitled to wonder why such scientific discoveries, so precious for future progress, remain untapped and neglected?

    We also know now, that the idea of early tutoring of reading skills is far from recent! In her book "Apprendre à lire avant de savoir parler", written in collaboration with French pedagogue Rachel COHEN, published in France in 1999, renowned Swedish linguist Ragnhild SÖDERBERGH relates her discovery in 1983, in Stockholm Royal Library, of a small book printed in 1800 (!) by a certain CADMUS, who proposed already to use "reading cards" to teach reading skills to children as they were learning to speak.. The author emphasised besides numerous similarities between the respective methods of Cadmus and Doman.

    More than 2 centuries still have not been sufficient to draw the attention of some retrograde minds! What a mess !

    * * *
  • In France, some pedagogues experimented in the field with Glenn DOMAN's method, adapting and perfecting as they went, and drew a few further conclusions regarding reading skills tutoring.

    Rachel COHEN, for example, pre-school teacher in a popular neighbourhood in Paris during the 1970's, applied the early tutoring of reading skills method her pupils (2/5 years of age), many of which did not speak French to start with.

    She observed then that these children were learning to read at the same time as they were learning to speak the French language. Intrigued by this observation, she decided to further her own education in Educational Sciences, where professors constantly were emphasising that: "Children cannot learn to read before 6 years of age because they are not mature enough!", even though she had observed herself in the field that this opinion was entirely false..

    At the same time, she was pursuing her research at the Ecole Active Bilingue - Ecole Internationale in Paris, that she directed for 10 years, over the course of which period she supervised 2000 pupils aged 3 to 18 years of age, representing more than 30 different nationalities.

    Having graduated as State Doctor in Educational Sciences, she occupied until 1992 at Paris-Nord University, the function of Research Engineer.

    During all those years, she was continuing her actions and research on cognition, punctuated by the publication of numerous papers, that were widely circulated in France as well as abroad.

    She dedicated her whole professional life to understanding and develop the latent potentialities of all young children, without distinction regarding socio-economical conditions, nationality, mother tongue, in a permanent perspective of prevention of school failure and illiteracy.

    Convinced of the immense potentialities of the majority of her little pupils, she experimented with success tutoring a variety of abilities : second language, bilingualism, mathematical concepts, but first and foremost, the tutoring of writing skills before the age of 6.

    She explored, with various teams in the field, with groups of a variety of social backgrounds, in France as well as in collaboration with other countries, the avenues that are opened by means of the Information and Communication Technologies, always with a view to promote development and success in school of children, precondition of success in life.

    Internationally known, it is extremely regrettable that her work and research are so little known in France, when not outright demeaned and taken on.
    It is true that they are contrary to many received ideas and dogmas and that they force reconsideration of habits that are deeply rooted!

    This is how, in 1977, the first French edition of her book "L'apprentissage précoce de la lecture", elicited outright opposition:

    - pre-school teachers were saying (already…!) "they have way more important things to do at that age than to learn to read ", a prerogative reserved to the first year of primary school, according to them.;

    - teachers of primary schools were countering on their part "if children already know how to read when they enter CP (first year of primary school in France), what would there remain for them to learn then?"

    - some psychologists, on their part, were claiming that there was great danger in modifying the normal course of children's mental development, and that tutoring of skills before the normal age involved a risk of grave perturbation for the child, adding that "the required maturity for learning to read is not reached before 6 years of age".

    - besides, Rachel COHEN was accused of favouring children of the "better off" classes of society, to the detriment of children of less favoured classes (the height of absurdity! when we know that the exact opposite is occurring, children of less culturally favoured classes benefiting more from early tutoring)

    - during a symposium on reading skills held in Paris in 1979, didn't a renowned psychiatrist publicly warn against the "great danger" of early tutoring ?

    - and what to think of this orthophonist who ironically suggested to begin teaching reading skills at the 3rd month of pregnancy ? Very simply that this so-called "specialist" had understood nothing...

    We know with certainty today that such beliefs are false, but some persist in asserting them !
    It is true that research on early tutoring is either completely ignored, confronted with incredulity, or sometimes even with fierce irony.

    There is no helping observing, alas, that scepticism regarding early tutoring endures..

    We can see how slow changes in mentalities turn out to be. How can university trained graduates loaded with degrees write such things in our day and age ?

    * * *

    In France again, besides Rachel COHEN, other researchers, equally convinced of the validity of this theory, took upon themselves to extend their knowledge in child psychology and to study the results of earlier attempts at early tutoring of reading skills.

    Jeanine COUGNENC, notably, also a teacher in a primary school in the south of France, then principal of a French maternelle school (ages 2-5), passionately involved in her teaching of reading skills to children, has progressively developed and used with success, over the course of her 38 years career, an original and particularly novel reading tutoring technique, to prepare her little pupils to deal in the best of conditions with the 1rst year of primary school

    Others also, like Françoise BOULANGER, have also explored this avenue with success. Drawing on her own experience, she founded in France an association, "Le Bonheur de Lire" ["The Joy of Reading], that also promotes the need to begin teaching reading skills to children as early as 3 years old..

    This association is also part of the IALFI (International Association for Literacy From Infancy) whose aim is to promote, at the international level, early tutoring of reading skills.

    It is thanks to such pioneers – and no doubt to numerous other, who work in anonymity – that teaching of reading and writing has (at last!) entered in some French Maternelle schools. And it is thanks to their action that there is progress in this direction.

    Let us simply recall here that all of them are field educators, who all have experimented through practice the results of their research and observations, and not daydreaming theoreticians, "pulpit researchers", only able to peremptorily claim "their truth", which is constantly disproved by reality.

    * * *

    True democratic progress is not to pull the elite down to the level of the crowd, but to raise the crowd to the level of the elite.
    Gustave LE BON

     Early tutoring, a mistake ?

    The theory according to which children less than 5 years old do not possess the required mental maturity to learn to read does not resist to analysis. In reality, children can learn to read just as easily as they learn to speak : quite naturally, through continuous interaction with his environment..

  • * * *

    A Significant Testimony

    May 31 of 2001

     Hi, and thank you for your site,

    If only you could come here to explain it to our friends who are constantly giving us an earful when the observe that our children, Samuel (4 years old) and Stéphania (3 years old) can read French and English.
    I simply began with cards with words of 2 cm written in red for French, and black for English. I have been showing them the words as I read them for barely a few weeks, 5 minutes in the morning, and 5 minutes in the evening.
    Now they love it and actively compete at who will pick the right card (among 14 words) when I say for example : "We are looking for the word DOG".
    Samuel, who began earlier, often "wins" and Stephania joyfully exclaims at his victories instead of being envious!
    We speak 3 languages at home when we must: ma father doesn't speak French, my mother doesn't speak German so we chose English as a family language.
    We adopted Stéphania (in Haiti) three monts ago and she can already make her needs understood in French, German and English.
    I do not mix sessions : we do either English or French, and in general I alternate : French for one week, English for one week.
    Today Samuel told me: "Mommy, I don't know why, but I can guess the new words now. ".
    So I explained to him that he had understood the logic of reading and that he can almost read by himself now.
    I use the words on the cards to creates short 4 sentences tales.
    They recognise the words that they already know and understand, and often, they guess, or "read/guess" words like "les/la/du/dans/que, etc"[the, of, in, that, etc].
    But as soon as we tell our friends about this, they effectively counter with : "But why don't you let them play", and when we answer that in our view : "It is precisely what they are doing " , the look back at us with an undertone of : "But who are you kidding?".
    But what the heck, we have always swum against the current... It pays off in the long term!

    Danielle (Germany)
    - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

    Many thanks to Danielle for this testimony which is a perfect illustration of the results that can be obtained with very young children.
    Hopefully, numerous parents will follow suit.


    An opportunity for all ?

    All scientific research, present and past, that was undertaken regarding the working of the human brain, lead to the same conclusion : the optimal period for learning basic abilities (of which reading is a part, just like speaking, walking and no doubt to a lesser degree, writing and calculating) lies between birth and the age of about 7.

    It is during this short crucial period of very few years that all mental abilities specific to human being are established. All verbal stimuli add up to help stabilise the connections (called synapses) between the neurones located within the cerebral cortex. The more children are exposed to these stimulations, the more their "comprehension ability" (commonly called intelligence), will develop.

  • * * *
    A very young child can perfectly learn to read just as he or she learns to speak, very naturally. 
    If we really want to prevent illiteracy (prevent it so as not to have to painfully repair the damage later) and efficiently fight (at long last!) school dropping out, we must really radically reconsider, and systematically begin to teach children to read as early as about 3 years of age !

    A few rare countries, such as France or Belgium for example, are already graced with structured pre-school systems (Maternelles) that allow a satisfactory level of socialisation of very young children
    (from 2 to 5). It would be criminal not to fully take advantage of these structures !

    For children of less favoured layers of society, these schools can, and must, take over from parents. This is how "equality of chances" (that some constantly bandy about) will be established!

    Acquisition of oral language, although important, is not enough. Access to writing is equally necessary well before primary school age.

    Doesn't the distress of thousands of children, most of which belonging to less favoured layers of society, deserve that the question be seriously pondered ?

    Great potentialities exist !

    What are we waiting for to generalise them ?

    Summary :
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    . Illiteracy endures
    . References
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