Why Complicate What Can be Easy to Learn?

Renée Fuller, Ph.D.

Copyright © 2005 by Renée Fuller

     Marcella, aged eight, was a lively charmer with a delightful smile. Our conversation of a few minutes was filled with giggles as we encouraged each other to produce clever comments about the not-so-attractive office furniture.

     So why had Mrs. Morgan brought Marcella to my office? It was the school. Their examination had given the eight-year old the diagnoses of hyperactivity, attention deficit disorder, learning disability, dyslexia, and verbal dysfunction. I think there were a few more. But I stopped writing them down when we came to verbal dysfunction. The child with whom I had exchanged amusing repartees about the office furniture could hardly be labeled verbally dysfunctional. What was going on?

     The mother explained: "There's been trouble with every teacher Marcella's had so far. They throw up their hands in despair because she doesn't get it. Ever since kindergarten they've been trying to teach her the alphabet, how to hear the different phonemes that compose words and how to take words apart. She just doesn't get it. So they had her tested and the examination showed she had all sorts of deficits. They want to put her in special classes. But I'm concerned that that'll stigmatize Marcella. It'll be part of her record. How will she ever get into a good college? Both my husband and I are ivy college graduates. But at the rate Marcella is going, she'll never make it. She's such a smart girl at home."

     From Mrs. Morgan's facial expression as she uttered the phrase "She's such a smart girl at home." it was evident she didn't expect me to believe her any more than the school had. Since no one in school had even bothered to listen, Mrs. Morgan had steeled herself, expecting that I too wouldn't bother to listen.

     I wondered out loud "How does Marcella feel about school?" The negative response came as no surprise. Four years of drills in alphabet recognition, sounding out words, phoneme recognition (awareness) and taking words apart, all of which after genuine trying Marcella had failed to master, had made school a humiliating experience. Besides, those drills were boring! The bored Marcella had become restless. Hence the diagnosis of hyperactivity and attention deficit disorder. I asked what I thought would be a rhetorical question. "She's reading at the first grade level?"

     Mrs. Morgan's voice reflected her unhappiness. "Not even that! She still has trouble recognizing the alphabet. And she isn't able to recognize the different sounds in words. They say she lacks phonemic awareness, and that she has trouble with verbal processing and in expressing herself verbally. But at home with us and with her friends she has no trouble understanding complicated ideas and expressing herself verbally. Her vocabulary is really advanced compared to other children of her age. But I guess things are different in school."

     My next series of question-statements were ones that over the years had become routine. "So they've been teaching her the alphabet names, the different sounds the letters make, as well as the various sounds that compose words on the expectation that the child will understand how these disparate elements fit together? And that presto she will proceed to read? Why are they making something that could be so easy, could be so simple, so complicated?"

     Mrs. Morgan continued to look unhappy as she said "A lot of Marcella's classmates have figured it out and are reading on grade level."

     Mrs. Morgan's offhand response was; "I'm not sure about how many were placed in special classes. But a number of Marcella's classmates have been pulled out of school altogether. They're being homeschooled."

     My suspicion, based on general statistics, was that about a third of Marcella's classmates were having trouble reading. For many of these failing youngsters this failure would bedevil and plague them the rest of their lives. In our modern world with its demands for competent literacy people who are reading failures function as intellectual cripples. The question that has concerned me for years is why are the schools making something that can be easily mastered so very complicated. These unnecessary complications have insured that there will be large numbers of reading failures. Many of these failures persist despite the flock of reading specialists that school systems have been forced to hire at mushrooming costs to the local taxpayers. Dyslexia and learning disability have become an industry.

     Many years ago my staff succeeded in teaching severely retarded people the alphabet in a few sessions. These same severely retarded students had failed in learning most of the alphabet letters despite having spent a minimum of ten years with Master's level teachers who valiantly tried to teach them the alphabet. What was it that my staff did that was different, that successfully taught the alphabet to retarded students in just a few sessions?

     It was accomplished by something surprisingly simple (by what is now known as the Ball-Stick-Bird method). The students were shown how they could build the alphabet letters with just three simple forms: a circle a line, and an angle. For the fun of it the three forms were called, balls, sticks, and birds. The ease with which the severely retarded students learned to recognize and name the letters after building them with the three simple forms suggested a daring possibility. Might it be possible to make learning to read so easy that even the severely retarded could learn?

     Much to my astonishment this possibility turned into reality. As first reported in a lengthy symposium devoted to the results at the Annual Meeting of the American Psychological Association, a group of 26 severely retarded students became successful readers and began writing on their own. How was this achieved?

     Instead of teaching the various components of reading separately (first the alphabet, then phonemic awareness, etc.), the severely retarded students were taught their first word as soon as two alphabet letters had been presented. Yes, this meant that, in order to speed up learning to read, the sequence with which letters are presented was changed. The usual alphabet sequence (useful in indexing) was later taught through the alphabet song.

     After the retarded students had been presented the first two letters and their first word the initial lesson continued with two more letters. With these four letters they were shown how they could build several words that make up simple sentences that begin a science fiction story. In subsequent lessons, as more letters are presented, an increasing number of words were built allowing for the continuous science fiction story to become ever more exciting and sophisticated. That such an approach, which makes use of science fiction stories and advanced vocabulary, would be effective with and appeal to even severely retarded students is a demonstration of how alike we humans are, regardless of IQ. As various articles and symposia about the system have pointed out, these and subsequent results question basic assumptions implied by IQ tests.

     In our reading research we found that by the time most children are four they have become fascinated with the story building. They have already experienced that language building, that the building with blocks, and the making of sandcastles are similar. Cognitively all these can be made to function as analogous processes making them easy to learn.

     Using this approach I wanted to show Mrs. Morgan how easily she could solve her daughter's "problem." We started with the first lesson of the system and built the first word with the first two letters then continued on through a good quarter of Book #1. After half an hour Marcella didn't want to stop. She was fascinated by the evolving narrative and was eager to decipher what was going to happen next in the story. Mrs. Morgan was close to tears. "She's reading. It's been so easy. Why did the school make it so difficult?"

     Why indeed! "Because the reading establishment thought they were making the complicated task of learning to read simple. They thought that if you taught the bits of information that compose the reading process, and memorized these information bits, then the assembly required to produce reading should be obvious. They didn't realize that for many of us this kind of 'assembly required' doesn't come naturally; especially when we have trouble memorizing what seem like meaningless information bits. The reading establishment had assumed that they were making the complicated task of learning to read logical, and thereby they were simplifying it. Instead, however, they were making what can be a simple task very complicated indeed. The reading establishment should have remembered their own dismayed reaction when the furniture they had ordered arrives in little boxes with the oh so logical explanation 'some assembly required'."

     Half a year after our session Mrs. Morgan called me. With pride she announced that Marcella was reading on a low adult level, albeit slowly. The mother had taken over the teaching I had started. She described how Marcella had "come to love reading" and was immersed in additional books she was procuring from the local public library. "And she's writing on her own!"

     Further calls described how each day Marcella's reading speed was increasing because "She's so eager to find out what happens next in the books she's reading". The success of parental teaching made the Morgans decide that Marcella should not be exposed to further "humiliation" by the school: from now on they would homeschool her, "At least for a while." Additional concern was that the psychological examination results would prejudice future teachers, leading to lowered expectations for their child.

     Is the mistake made by the reading establishment an unusual teaching blunder? Not really. Other fields teach the bits of information that compose their subjects and expect the students to assemble the components into a meaningful whole. How many of us have found beginning chemistry composed of bits of information that have to be memorized with no understanding of what to do with the information bits. I remember that experience well. Only at the end of Introductory Chemistry did it finally dawn on me that atomic structure explained how the various elements can combine to function as the building blocks that make up the world around us.

     How much easier it would have been if, analogous to what was done in the BSB reading system, the first lesson had begun by showing the composition of the simplest element, hydrogen: its atomic structure - what it looks like. Then with the presentation of the second element, and what its atomic structure looks like, the lesson had continued by showing how, because of their atomic structure, the two elements can combine and form a molecule. As the chemistry story continues with further elements we would understand how these, because of their atomic structure, can combine to form different and ever more complicated molecules. Note how this approach avoids having to memorize meaningless bits of information. Instead we have here an introduction into the amazing chemistry story: the story of how molecules can be built, how our world is put together.

     The other sciences can also be simplified by using the story building process. Instead, however, much of science is taught by complicating what should be easy to learn. Again and again we are expected to memorize little boxes of meaningless knowledge with the eventual admonition, "assembly required". Learning can be made so much easier if, as in BSB reading, the building of the chemistry story, the building of the physics story, would begin with the first lesson rather than waiting for the mastery of meaningless information bits. For math, the research results of Catherine Stern in the 1960tees and 70tees demonstrated the power of story building beginning with the first lesson. By so doing, the required assembly of knowledge modules is experienced and understood right from the start. Her approach with its dramatic success with a retarded population is described in CHILDREN DISCOVER ARITHMETIC.

     And of course there is history, our great human story that has been built throughout the millennia. How many of us in our history courses were required to memorize meaningless dates and names? Not surprisingly these meaningless bits of information escaped from our memory as soon as we passed the history exam. If instead we had been taught history as a developing human narrative we would have remembered it as the unforgettable story of mankind.

     Some years have passed since Marcella first learned to read. Mrs. Morgan called recently and described the success of their homeschooling. They had recently moved into a new community whose school system has a superior reputation. Marcella, who was now of high school age wanted to join her friends in high school. This also turned out to be a success, with Marcella getting very good grades.

     The Morgans had made certain that the new school remained unaware of Marcella's previous unfortunate experience with schooling. The parents were adamant that the examination results that had labeled their child as learning disabled, dyslexic with ADHD, etc. should never show up on her record. Since the new school was encouraged to make the assumption that the youngster had always been homeschooled this problem was avoided.

     As Mrs. Morgan told me, "I'm sure that if those examination results were a part of Marcella's transcript her teachers would start to see things that just aren't there."


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