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Learning To Read without a Teacher: A Case Study*

This chapter is the story of John, middle child in a black family of five, son of a trucker and a hospital maid, living in subsidized housing in a crowded southern city. According to most predictions, John should have reading problems all through his school career. But John is one of the thousands of children who somehow learn to read in much the same way that millions of children learn to speak—before they arrive at school, without the help of a teacher, and without very much in the way of obvious instruction from parents or other adults. Like many other precocious readers, John taught himself to read with the aid of labels and television. John was not disconcerted because English spelling was not perfectly consistent with his pronunciation. He "asked the right questions" about the relations between language and print, and he read for meaning, not words. In short, John appears to have known (implicitly) at the age of four much of what has been asserted in the previous chapters of this book. Jane Torrey addresses herself to the question of what happened to John that enabled him to learn to read with such facility. An equally valid question asks what happens to many other children that makes learning to read so difficult. Dr. Torrey's paper was published, first in Elementary English, 1969, 46, 550-556, and is reprinted by permission of the author and publishers. Most children are taught to read after they are in school, but a certain number have some reading skill already when they enter first grade. Dolores Durkin (1966) reports that about one per cent of approximately 5000 children who entered the Oakland, California public school system in 1958 were able to read as many as 18 out of 37 words in her simple test. Since reading is a language skill, it is reasonable to suppose that children who read earlier than usual do so because of especially high language ability or especially appropriate exposure to language. When children fail to learn reading, it seems reasonable to look for lower verbal ability or lack of appropriate exposure to language. Thus, the reading problems of slum children are commonly attributed to a lack of knowledge of language, and it is suggested that if they were given special training that would make their articulation, vocabulary, or grammatical patterns more like those of middle class children; they would be able to compete also in reading. In view of the explanations that suggest themselves both for early reading and for reading problems in disadvantaged children, it is worthwhile to examine a case of one child of average general and verbal ability according to tests, whose language deviates from standard English both in articulation and in grammar, but who has nevertheless mastered very early and without much help the difficult art of reading. * Extracted from Psycholinguistics and Reading, Frank Smith, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc. 1973.

I had the opportunity to spend three hours a week for four months with a five-year-old
child whom I will call John. John had entered kindergarten in a Negro school in a large
southern city at the age of four years ten months. His teacher discovered that he could
both read and write and that he was not interested in doing much else. The school asked
me to "tutor" him, that is, to observe his reading in detail and help him put his skills to
good use. These sessions took place in the living room of his home, so I was able to
observe his background and environment in some detail.
John's father had approximately eight years and his mother about ten years in the Negro
schools of southern cities. The father drives a truck while the mother works as a maid in a
hospital. With five children, their combined income is low enough for them to qualify for
subsidized housing. They suffer from those "disadvantages" that go with limited
education in poor school systems plus all those others that go with having a dark skin.
Although these are real deprivations, the family has the same kinds of desires and
ambitions as most middle-class Americans for a home of their own and good education
for their children. They seem to be making the best use of their resources toward these
ends. Theirs is not a case of hard-core poverty with the hopelessness and disorganization
that sometimes go with it.
John is the third of five children. At the time I was seeing him, they ranged from less than
a year to eleven years. The older sister and brother had begun their education in a school
that had recently gone from all white to all Negro and in the process had become badly
over-crowded and full of severely deprived children. Their reading was average for the
school, which meant a year or more behind national norms. By the time John entered
kindergarten, the family had moved into the area of a much newer and less crowded but
still virtually all Negro school. (Later John entered first grade in an integrated school.)
John seemed to be on good terms with his siblings, and they all seemed happy and well
cared for, either by their mother or grandmother. The home, a new three-bedroom garden
apartment, was well kept and had the normal equipment such as washing machine, TV,
Hi-Fi and so forth. The children had toys and books.

John's mother reported that he had not begun talking especially early, but that he had
been able to read almost from the time he could talk. She said no one had read to him or
taught him to read. At five he read better than his older brother and sister and was
occasionally able to tell his father a word. His mother once said that he must have
received the gift directly from God (perhaps along with the gift of tongues). The only
plausible earthly source of instruction she was able to mention was television
commercials. She reported that when he was younger, he had known all the commercials
by heart and recited them as they appeared on the screen. She said she could never get his
attention until the commercial was over. My own check on television showed that an average of about 40 words per hour are simultaneously shown and pronounced. On children's programmes a higher proportion of these words are labels on cans and boxes. John's grandmother reported that her earliest evidence of his reading knowledge came when he read labels of cans in the kitchen. Durkin's survey studies of early reading provide a background for comparing John with other early readers. In many respects he is quite typical of this unusual group. Of her sample of 49 early readers only seven came from professional or upper middle-class homes, the rest being like John, from lower middle-class or lower. John also resembled many early readers in that he took the initiative in learning rather than having the skill taught to him at someone else's behest. Like most early readers he took a great interest in identifying words and numbers he saw. Like them, he enjoyed writing and spent much time printing words and numbers. John's earliest reading material, TV commercials and can labels, is quite typical. His social life is also similar to many others in that he was something of a loner, a Mama's boy. He had good relations with adults but lacked enough aggressiveness to be happy and hold his own with other children. He got along well with his own brothers and sisters, being particularly fond of his brother who is two years older. However, he probably did not have the benefit of his older siblings' help in reading, since he read better than either one. His mother reported that he read stories to his brother at night, stories his brother could not read for himself. He took great pride in reading and in showing off that he knew better than his brother. Durkin reports that high competitiveness is typical of early readers. The principal difference between John's case and the others is the absence of any report of his receiving help. His mother insisted, even under cross-examination, that he had learned by himself. All reports of his reading from her or from his grandmother were simple accounts of their surprised discovery of something he already could do. His grandmother had been unprepared for his spelling and reading can labels and written TV notices. His mother had been worried about damage he might do to the library books his sister brought home. She said she often took them away from him and did not know he could read them until one day he read aloud to visitors all of what she described as a "third grade library book." Although John's mother's reports of his reading were all cases simply of his showing off what he knew, it is quite possible that she gave him help without realizing that she was doing it. For example, in getting him to demonstrate how he could do arithmetic, she told him the answer when he guessed wrong. She and others may have done this kind of thing with words, too. She did report his playing bingo and concentration with some teen-age relatives. He could have been told numbers and words by them. The one known source of instruction remains television commercials. It has already been mentioned that John watched and memorized them. Commercials are frequently repeated, so that whatever a child fails to learn in one showing can be drilled ad nauseam in subsequent days and weeks. Commercials are designed to get attention, so they are usually loud, lively and simple. Memorizing of short sentences is facilitated by catchy tunes. Many common words are shown and the unfamiliar brand names (e.g. "Ban,"
"Sominex") are usually short or easy to pronounce. It seems possible that from
commercials a child could get a start on a basic vocabulary and make a few inferences
about phonics, extend his reading knowledge through phonics, use the redundancy of
language in simple books, asks occasional questions and be corrected by adults.
Description of Reading

The tutoring situation made possible a number of direct observation of John’s verbal
skills. His spontaneous speech gave the basic data on his use of language. All the sessions
were taped. He resisted any lengthy reading for me on the reasonable grounds that I was
able to read things for myself. However, if he had to read something in the context of a
game or other task, he never hesitated. Most samples of his reading were obtained in this
way. Another kind of evidence came from his dictating, which occurred when he asked
me to type things that were too hard for him to type himself. He took great pleasure in
seeing his words emerge in print. His style of speaking changed considerably in this
context from his spontaneous speech. His grammar and articulation were at their very
best in dictating and it was rarely necessary to ask him to repeat or spell. It was as though
he were conforming to the special style of language as it normally occurs in print.
John's oral reading was fast and confident. He showed no sign of word calling, but
always read with normal sentence intonation. He could sound out words, but preferred to
ask about those he did not know. Although the material might contain unfamiliar words
and very unusual grammatical constructions, he was frequently able to grasp the sentence
structure. For example, two rather unusual verses he read with correct sentence intonation
The bunny now gets twenty hops,
While in the woods the lolly pops.
Two more hops for the bunny and then
Look out for the Pipsissewah in his den.
Although he asked for help with the words "hops" and "Pipsissewah," he read the
sentences without hesitation, including the noun-verb intonation of the phrase "the lolly
pops." I interpret this kind of performance as indicating that John treated written
language as a natural alternate version of spoken language. He seemed to expect that
print represented sentences and words with meaning. Two other kinds of behavior
seemed to support this view. One was his silent reading, evidenced by the fact that he
could quickly fill in blanks in written sentences without pronouncing either what he read
or what he wrote. Given pictures as guides, he filled in the underlined word below
without reading aloud or mouthing.
Here are some flags.
These are shoes. They belong to a lady. The other evidence of his "natural" use of the written medium was his writing. Nearly all of his written production was in sentences and conveyed direct messages to me, although some were more or less on a fantasy level in that he did not expect compliance. Examples include Put candy in the machine. Touch the candy. Touch the jar of candy, John. Look under the table. Pour candy out the jar. (sic) Jump rope. Once, when I had been pestering him to read aloud, he printed "Get out." In print he seemed not to be afraid of offending me or provoking his mother. Although he used upper case letters wherever possible, he was capable of printing as well as reading lower case. He rarely misspelled a word, but did ask how to spell some words, for example, "laugh," apparently knowing it was a peculiar one. His grasp of the English writing system obviously went far beyond any simple sound-symbol association. John's oral spelling was also fast and confident. Although his articulation was frequently so different from mine that I could not understand his words even when he tried very hard, he could readily spell anything he could say. For example, on one occasion, there was the following conversation, transcribed as well as possible. John: They were tired of shopping over there. Buying toys for Christmas for the ch???s. Me: Toys for the what? John: Ch???s. Me: Oh, churches. John: Uh-huh, ch???s. Me: Turkey? John: Uh-uh, chrns. (Louder and very carefully articulated.) Me: Can you spell it? John: C.H.I. L.D.R.E.N. Although he pronounced a final /s/ clearly, his spelling was the correct plural without "s.” On another occasion he asked for help in finding one of a set of chips bearing single words. The word he wanted was /uh/, a single schwa vowel pronounced very clearly. He rejected the word "a," as in "a boy." Asked to spell what he wanted he said: Uh, A. R. E., uh. It is obvious that John found little difficulty in the fact that standard English spelling was not perfectly consistent with his pronunciation. Although his own dialect of English lacked many of the sounds, especially terminal consonants, of more standard English, sounds that correspond to letters in traditional orthography, he was apparently able to take these inconsistencies in stride, along with the many others that exist for even the most articulate speaker of standard English. John's lack of difficulty raises a question about the need for some kinds of language training as preparation for reading. Although a single case cannot prove that careful articulation of standard English is irrelevant to reading, it does demonstrate that it is not a necessary precondition. John's accurate reading of sentences whose grammar deviated radically from anything he would say himself is an example on the syntactic level of this same adaptation to the peculiarities of the language found in print. John's spelling does not convert all aspects of his language into standard English, however. At one time he dictated an unusually long sentence to be transcribed on the typewriter. Asked to make clear what one of the words was, he responded by spelling the entire sentence, pausing briefly between words. It came out as follows: Gregory put a candy in Johnny and the baby face. Standard English would have inserted "'s" after "baby" and possibly also after "Johnny." John's dialect typically omits this possessive inflection. This particular dialect feature was carried over into his writing. John's language development seemed not to be advanced for his age. The mean length of his utterances in morphemes at 62 months was equal to that of Brown's male subject, Adam, at 43 months. (Brown, 1967). In grammatical development, he was also somewhat behind Adam. Brown found that when Adam was about 44 months old, he did not normally transpose the subject and verb in forming a wh question. For example Adam's Question When the original sentence contains an auxiliary, the auxiliary is transposed with the subject in forming a question in standard adult English. Without an auxiliary, an inflected form of "do" is placed before the subject in forming a question. By John's age (63 months) Adam was transposing nearly all such questions, but John produced the following: What CBS stands for? What they say? John rarely transposed in casual speech but in dictation he did transpose. Where do you live at? In reading questions with "do," he commonly omitted the word, thus producing a question in the form he would have used. Here are some sentences with his reading. In other cases where "do" appeared, he misread in other ways. John's Reading John's handling of "may" was parallel to his use of "do." He rarely or never used either in casual speech, but did dictate correct sentences with both. He dictated the following sentences, clearly enunciating "may." May I go outside? May I play with the blocks? However, in reading he avoided or stumbled over the word. John's Reading Several of the misreadings shown above seem to deviate from the text in the direction of conforming to John's own language. These errors suggest that John expected to find in print the things that he would normally say, that is, that writing to him was firmly understood as a natural alternate form of language. It was as though he read, not the words, but the meanings, and then expressed that same meaning his own way. John's ability to see the meaning of forms he did not use casually would be harder to account for if it were not for the evidence from his dictation showing that he did have some speaking knowledge of these forms. Test Data The Metropolitan Readiness Test was given to John when he entered kindergarten, four months before I first saw him, and again when he entered first grade a year later. Table I shows his scores. Table 1 Metropolitan Readiness Test
Some observations of John in the tutoring situation seem consistent with his pattern of scores. He was preoccupied with letters, words, and numbers and not at all interested in nonsense shapes. Although he took great pleasure in digits, his concept of the quantities they represented was very limited. For example, although he could count as high as needed or identify any number, he was not able to determine the number of objects put before him by counting them. Only after several weeks of training with counting solid objects, was he able to play a parchesi type game in which a counter moves a certain number of spaces. He could write the sequence "6+6==12,” but showed no sign of understanding that if you saw three elephants and then two more elephants, you could say there were five elephants. Similarly with words, he cheerfully read words from a French picture dictionary, pronouncing them as if they were English and showing no concern about their meaning. It is consistent, therefore, that John's high performance should be on the alphabet with scores of average or below on other aspects of readiness. Table 2 shows John's performance on the Wechsler Pre Primary Scale of Intelligence, given to him at exactly six years, after he had entered first grade. There is no evidence here that his extraordinary reading ability is a matter of unusually high intelligence, or of extraordinary verbal ability. Block design is his high point, with performance scores generally above verbal scores. On the Bender-Gestalt Visual Motor Test he showed superior visual motor ability. He drew the required figures quickly and surely, retaining the form in all but the last two figures. He drew the diamond correctly as only about 50 per cent of seven year olds can do. On the Benton Visual Retention Test, whose norms begin at eight years, his ability to reproduce figures from memory was high average to superior. Wechsler Pre- Primary Scale of Intelligence
Full Scale IQ 104
Three other tests were administered. On the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test his
IQ score was 111. On the Wide Range Achievement Test his reading at age six after two
months in the first grade was 4.8 and spelling 5.0. However, his arithmetic achievement
was 1.0. His Draw-A-Man was average for his age, done quickly and labeled “ A Man.”

The following "conclusions" are presented, not as research "findings" from a single case,
but rather as hypotheses suggested by the unusual aspects of the case. Reading for John
seems to have been learned but not to have been taught by anyone who was consciously
aware of teaching him. He appears to have asked just the right questions in his own mind
about the relation between language and print and thus to have been able to bridge the
gap between his own language and the printed form. His case may have some
implications for the more general task of teaching and learning reading.
1) Reading is learned, not taught.

Even in school the teacher can only provide guidance, motivating circumstances, and
answers to questions. No teacher has time to tell each child everything he has to learn,
much less to drill him enough times on each element. The key for learning to read may be
the child's asking the right questions of his environment. If the child does that, he will be
able to get the answers from a variety of sources, not necessarily including a consciously
teaching older person.
2) The key question is "How does something I can say look in print?" or, vice versa,
"What does that print say?"

Effective reading ultimately requires that these questions refer to whole utterances, not to
phonemes and graphemes or even words. John's phonic knowledge and his word attack
skills were strictly subordinate to the task of reading what is said. I interpreted his
intonation patterns in reading to signify that he understood that strings of printed symbols
represented language as it is spoken, not a series of sounds or words. When he did not
understand what he was reading, he slurred over it, skipped words, converted it into something that was normal for him to say or just rejected the task of reading it. He never did wasn’t a word he knew or calling word by word a sentence whose meaning escaped him.
He read as though he always expected it to say something understandable.
3) However useful high verbal ability and high cultural privilege may be in stimulating
reading, neither is necessary.

John has no more than average tested verbal ability and perhaps even less than average
cultural stimulation in the direction of reading. The key factor in reading therefore must
be something else. Large vocabulary, sophisticated thinking, accurate articulation of
standard English, active encouragement and instruction in reading skills, may very well
help a child learn to read. However, even a single case like John's shows that they are not
indispensable, that is, that neither success nor failure in reading can be predicted in
individual cases from these factors alone.
The above comments are based on the assumption that the test scores represent a fairly
accurate measure of John's intellectual ability. It may be, however, that the tests, which
are based on a different cultural milieu from John's, actually underestimate his ability.
For example, the Otis Quick Scoring Mental Ability Test, Form A, contains a sample
item consisting of pictures of a hammer, saw, chair, and pliers. The subject is supposed to
pick out the object that is "different" and name the concept represented by the three that
are alike. John pointed to the pliers and asked what they were. When I pointed to the saw
and asked him if he knew what it was, he said yes, it was a knife. Obviously the point of
the item is lost on a child who can identify only one of the "alike" objects. Since many
standardized test items assume vocabulary and knowledge that John does not have, it is
quite possible that his true abilities are higher than his test scores indicate, but we have no
direct evidence that this is so.

Brown, R. The development of Wh questions in Child Speech, Journal of Verbal
Learning and Verbal Behaviour, 7, 1, 1968, 279-290.
Durkin, D. Children Who Read Early (New York: Teachers College Press, 1966).



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