The Key to Reading

What is the single most important thing we can do to help beginning readers?
 
In her Complete Handbook of Children’s Reading Disorders, pediatrician and child psychiatrist Hilde Mosse writes (emphasis mine):
The child must be helped to form an automatic association between the seen letters and the spoken letters . . . 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 presents 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 the 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. He must be taught to sound the letters carefully, one after the other, from left to right, and not skip a letter or a line. This slows reading at first, but is absolutely essential for the fixation 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 innner 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, Pnasky, & 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 the following way: when the child is supposed to read the short word "me," for example, he pronounces the letter "m." It must be stressed that he has learned the sound of "m" and not its name, because for reading and writing he needs to know the sound; the name can only interfere with conditioning. As soon as he hears himself pronounce "m" and sense that his pronunciation is correct, he moves his eyes to the next letter, "e," selects the pronunciation of it he has been told to use or which had been indicated for him on the letter (e has two sounds, as in "end" and "me"), says it, and corrects if necessary. It is unlikely that he will have to go through these separate conditioned reflexes for very long when he reads such a short word. He will very quickly learn to say "me" and become conditioned to the entire word, but the first separate conditioning is an indispensable phase he has to go through. 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.)  
Mosse is clear on the importance of teaching these letter-sound relationships in isolation:
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 his own.
 
To achieve conditioning with the greatest possible speed and accuracy the child must know exactly, step by step, what he has to learn. He must be told, for instance, that [in the written word HOUSE] the letter “S” stands for the sound “S” and for nothing else, and that he 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 associations is the key to reading. . . .
Mosse continues:
The teacher’s pronunciation must act as the child’s feedback correction until his 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.
Mosse writes:
The best way to teach this skill is by having the child write the letters and make the sounds as he 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 mind 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.
Mosse continues:
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 his 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 of the letter, and when he writes spontaneously, he has to start from his 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 he cannot read or to read something he cannot write, and should always say, or at least articulate, the letters and words while he writes them down.
 
So there you have it. The next time someone asks how they can help beginning readers, tell them what Dr. Hilde Mosse said about the importance of forming explicit associations, conditioned reflexes, between letters and sounds. It’s the key to reading.
 
Here's how it helped Ivan. Please notice that his teacher was merely helping him learn that which he was never directly taught about our writing system. Can you help children (or adults) in this same way? Of course! Don't kid yourself: what one man can do, another can do, and this means you.
 
If you will commit yourself to study and use the Riggs Institute's materials (as recommended), you will be able to teach exactly what I taught to Ivan, passing on the keys to reading. Please call on me if I can be of any help.
 
 

See also: 

Systematic Phonics Instruction Helps Students Learn to Read: Evidence From the National Reading Panel’s Meta Analysis http://www.dyslexie.lu/JDI_02_02_04.pdf
Effective Spelling Instruction for Students With Learning Disabilities
The Effects of Orthographic Pattern Intervention on Spelling Performance of Students With Reading Disabilities: A Best Evidence Synthesis http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0741932516631115

 

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