Stories: Entrance into Worlds of Enchantment and the Rational Realm of Science.
Renée Fuller, Ph.D.
Abigail's results on the Stanford-Binet IQ test gave her an IQ of 20. Having watched her being tested through a one-way mirror I thought that the score, if anything, was generous. The young woman was said to have a vocabulary of three words; although these could not be elicited during the testing. Nor did Abigail show any recognition of the examiner she saw almost every day. The severity of Abigail's retardation was such that, although able to move around reasonably well, she was unable to relate to the people around her or even demonstrate any awareness of their existence. Quite simply, she was not "there". In the not very polite parlance of some in our medical profession Abigail was a "turnip" – a cognitive vegetable.
Reverend Peter who headed the Center for the Cognitively Impaired was a perpetual sunny optimist. With aplomb and utter assurance he told me that his Center would teach Abigail to read using the special reading system with which they had been so successful.
My rather authoritative response (after all I was considered an expert in child development and retardation) was: "No way. Abigail's totally out of touch; she doesn't have the necessary vocabulary – or for that matter any vocabulary. Your staff claims that she's got three words. But your people couldn't get her to produce them."
Smiling gently Reverend Peter answered me with: "You'll see. We'll have Abigail reading by the next time you come."
Several months passed before my return visit to the center. As I entered the main door I was greeted by a young woman who smiled broadly at me, said "hello" and then valiantly tried to say my name.
Later Reverend Peter laughingly said, "You didn't recognize her, did you?"
"Who?" was my puzzled reply.
"Abigail of course; the young woman who greeted you at the front door. The one you'd been so sure would never learn to read. Well she's reading now. And it's done wonders for her."
"How could this be?" In utter amazement I said to Peter, "She's not recognizable. She bears no resemblance to the patient I watched being tested and even tried to talk to." I was too polite to say in disbelief: "The woman who met me at the front door is definitely not a turnip. She's a person, an individual, a genuine human being. From her happy smiling face one would surmise that she appears to be a person with at least some happy human emotions."
As for Abigail reading?
To my incredulous amazement Reverend Peter had been right in his sunny prediction. Watching through the one-way mirror my bewildered gaze confirmed that Abigail was actually reading, albeit slowly, the continuation of the story she was deciphering out of the third book of the series. Her halting word building was astonishingly accurate. Abigail even correctly anticipated future words in the sentence she was reading. And more important, gauging from the appropriate giggles after some of the funny scenes she had deciphered, it was clear that Abigail understood the meaning of the sentences she had just read.
I wanted to see whether results on a repeat Stanford-Binet IQ test would reflect the cognitive changes in Abigail. Again I watched through the one-way mirror as she was given an alternate Stanford-Binet IQ test. The score this time was significantly higher than the previous one. She scored in the mid 30s – a world of difference from her earlier IQ of 20. But by the standards of our school systems there should have been no way that someone with an IQ in the 30s could possibly learn to read or understand what they were reading. According to our school systems the usual cut-off point for the successful teaching of reading is an IQ in the 70s. And that does not even include the expected difficulties and failures among those with higher IQs who have been labeled as dyslexic or learning disabled. Yet Abigail, not only was able to read, she chattered away about the story she had just read and attempted to anticipate what would happen next. She spoke haltingly and very ungrammatically, and had difficulty pronouncing her words. But what she said was understandable and her smiling face indicated a thorough enjoyment of the reading session.
It took me years to figure out what aspects of cognitive organization had been tapped that were responsible for the unexpected and dramatic results in teaching reading not only to Abigail but also to the large population of severely retarded people in our research study. What was it about learning to read with this particular system that accounted for the startling cognitive, personality and actual appearance changes that we saw repeatedly? In the years prior to the new reading system my research with retarded populations had corroborated the correctness of the requirement that a minimum IQ of 70 is necessary in order to be able to learn to read and comprehend what has been read. So what was it about the novel reading system that made it so different cognitively from the way reading is usually taught? What aspects of cognitive organization had this particular reading system tapped that were responsible for the astonishing cognitive and personality changes in even severely retarded students? What had caused the break-though?
Taking a good look at how reading is usually taught I was surprised at how similar today's teaching methods are to the monastic instruction of the Middle Ages. Contrary to the approaches used by ancient Greek philosophers who sought to teach through understanding, through context, the monastic teachers drilled their students in bits of information, which their students were required to memorize. Contextual learning was largely avoided, perhaps out of fears of speculative thought. Subsequent to the Middle Ages the Renaissance created major changes in rational understandings and therefore communication. However, the new learning and teaching approaches of this philosophical reawakening have now, centuries later, still not fully reached the teaching methods used in our elementary schools.
Rote and drill memorization instruction continues to persist, boosted by the current assumption that out-of-context bits-of-information are easier for elementary school children and the retarded to master than contextual material. Consequently, in the teaching of reading children are usually drilled in alphabet names and recognition followed by drills in phonemic awareness, in isolated word coding and decoding skills, etc. Only after isolated words have been taught and mastered are most children finally introduced to contextual reading; which, alas, is usually of low interest if not downright boring. Considering how many youngsters fail with rote-memorization-of-out-of-context teaching methods, their continued prevalence is puzzling; especially since among those having difficulty in learning to read when such out-of-context techniques are used have been some of our most brilliant minds, starting with Leonardo da Vinci and going on to Einstein, Churchill, etc. Indeed, today's labeling of many minds with normal or even superior IQ as learning disabled and, or impaired, or as merely dyslexic, should long ago have raised questions about the effectiveness of the out-of-context bits-of-information teaching methodologies.
Abigail and our severely retarded research students are living demonstrations that even for such brain damaged students successful learning is possible if interesting contextual methods geared to our human cognitive organization are employed. When contextual learning is made cognitively meaningful and interesting, which ad agencies have learned to do so well, then the superiority of in-context teaching compared to rote and drill methods have profound educational implications. So how did Abigail, our retarded research students, and numerous four-year olds, learn to read so easily with so much enjoyment, and most important, in such a short time? How can learning to read be given a contextual organization?
The novel reading system begins by showing how all the alphabet letters can be made with just three basic forms – a ball (a circle), a stick (a line), and a bird (an angle). These forms are so basic to human cognition that even newborns are able to give different responses to each of them. To simplify alphabet recognition the easiest configurations are taught first, and to further reduce the need for memorization, students, rather than being taught the often-useless alphabet names, are initially given a letter's most usual sound.
Already with the presentation of the second letter with its most usual sound the first word is created. With the learning of the first four letters and their sounds several words are built which introduce a fast moving science fiction story. In this way, instead of waiting for the mastery of all of the alphabet configurations and their sounds, meaningful reading has already begun during the first lesson. The developing story is further enhanced with illustrations in glowing primary colors on shiny paper. These illustrations tend to be of the main characters such as Vad of Mars who has rockets for feet, Mimi the comet, and Happy Cat Dick who has a rocket on his back. Although the illustrations by themselves don't actually tell the story, in combination with the text that's being deciphered they facilitate story involvement and eagerness to read in order to find out what's going to happen next.
Words in the first two books are built with the most usual sound of a letter. Later books present alternate letter sounds and the more complicated spelling patterns. Complex spellings patterns that are similar are grouped in word lists, which are then immediately used in the continuing story. Many, if not most, of our complex English spelling patterns are a result of such words having been adopted (stolen) from other languages. These adopted words frequently continue to maintain the spelling of their original language. Such linguistic similarities in spelling patterns made it possible for the reading system to group the similar-complicated spellings into lists. We found that these lists resulted in the implicit learning of the complicated spellings, thereby facilitating both their subsequent recognition as well as their correct orthography in later written communications. Amusingly it also improved the spelling of our teachers – as told to us by the pleased secretaries.
The sentences in the beginning of the first two books consist of just a few words. These early sentences are built primarily with a noun, and a verb in simple tenses. Thereby they recapitulate language acquisition that takes place during child development. Note: by making the early sentences consist mainly of a noun and its verb only a few words have to be deciphered in order for the beginning reader to become involved in the developing story. As the science fiction story the student is deciphering progresses, adjectives then adverbs are added along with the more difficult parts of speech such as prepositions, etc. Also in order to get immediate involvement in story reading the fast moving science fiction story of the first two books start to unfold even before all of the alphabet has been introduced. In this way the student is already reading for context beginning with the first lesson. As our research was to demonstrate, the excitement created by the hilarious context turned out to be an essential component in teaching not only reading but also vocabulary to all our students – even severely brain damaged students were aware and delighted with the humorous aspects of Vad of Mars with his rockets for feet.
And yet how could verbal context (contextual thinking) be the driving factor for Abigail when she started her reading lessons having only three (hard to elicit) words in her possession? Nor were the rest of our retarded research students endowed with the minimum vocabulary schools expect of first and second graders in order to teach reading. So how did the system teach the necessary vocabulary that allowed severely retarded students to progress in the reading enterprise? Observations and subsequent testing demonstrated that in addition to the importance of the hilarious story context, it was the system's recapitulation of how language is acquired in normal toddlers that simultaneously taught both the often-new vocabulary (language) as well as the ability to read these same words.
The early sentences of the first two books are built primarily with just a noun and its verb. The system in its obviousness taught these words (often representing new vocabulary). In so doing it assisted both comprehension and reading for context. Gradually, as the story in the books progresses, anticipation and story cohesion helped in the correct anticipation of words – if the student was at least vaguely familiar with the likely vocabulary. Sometimes the correct concept was anticipated which, however, was not the actual word in the text. Then the student had to backtrack and decipher the actual (often unfamiliar) word. This made for the learning of meaningful, in context, vocabulary.
What we humans are good at is trying to make sense out of the world around us; in other words, create context. In contrast, meaningless rote material turns out to be surprisingly difficult for the human brain to remember and master. Which is why Abigail and the numerous Ball-Stick-Bird students are living demonstrations that once we break out of the monastic drill-and-memorization tradition, learning to read can be introduced in such a way that it comes easily and naturally to the human brain. Contrary to the often-quoted statements by reading establishments that written communication is an unnatural cultural development, and therefore can be difficult to master, our research, much to my surprise, revealed how easily even a severely damaged human brain can master context-driven literacy. Perhaps this ease explains why diverse forms of written communication have developed in a number of different cultures. Transforming language communication into written communication apparently can come easily and naturally to our human brain. So why is the teaching of reading to our youngsters made into such a production?
Exactly how is context organized in the human brain? It became obvious to Fred, one of our severely retarded students, that it was story power that was the root explanation for the success of our students. As Fred explained it to me, it was the excitement and the inherent logic of the science fiction stories that were the reasons that he and the other severely retarded students had learned to read. In the ten years prior to his reading sessions with us Fred had attended an excellent special school. In spite of the dedicated efforts of his Masters level teachers, Fred had failed to learn most of the alphabet – after ten years of trying. But then the rote learning of the alphabet requires the memorization of out-of-context material. And for severely retarded Fred such simple rote learning was an impossible task. Amazingly Fred, with (or rather despite) a Stanford-Binet IQ just below 50, was able to coherently explain the abstraction that story cohesion made the difference even for alphabet learning. He carefully explained to me that it was the stories that had made it possible for him and other severely retarded students to learn to read. Our research corroborated Fred's conclusion: the comprehension of stories allowed not only severely retarded students, but the learning disabled, the dyslexics and normal four-year olds to enter worlds of enchantment helping reading come easily and naturally.
How are stories structured cognitively? Developmentally, we see the essential core of stories appear in toddlers when they join together their first nouns with a simple verb. I labeled this essential cognitive building block of a noun and its verb the "story engram." Once the toddlers have created their initial story engrams these then serve as the building blocks, which are then rapidly elaborated with adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, etc. The toddlers are now capable of constructing a full-fledged story.
Here we see the reason for Abigail's success. It was the recapitulation by the reading system of how toddlers first learn to build simple story engrams, and how they then learn to elaborate the simple story engrams, that showed Abigail how to accomplish this feat. In a matter of months she had mastered a few simple nouns and verbs (story engrams) and thereafter how to connect and structure these to create more elaborate meaning. The simultaneous learning of reading and the words she was reading allowed her to enter the world of enchantment of Vad of Mars with his rockets for feet. It also gave her the vocabulary, albeit limited, that made it possible for her to connect with the world around her. The erstwhile turnip was now very much "there".
Are we humans the only ones on our planet who have developed the story engram with its loaded contextual meaning? As we look around at the animal world we can hear something resembling our story engrams in the early morning audio communication of birds. And then there are the vervet monkeys who have been observed to produce different sounds to warn other monkeys of the diverse predators they have spotted. That certainly appears to be story engram communication. Not to be ignored are the observations of most dog owners. Many of our pooches are able to comprehend and respond correctly to a number of simple sentences. These contextually loaded sentences usually consist of a noun and a simple verb in the present tense: ergo, simple story engrams.
Although some of the higher mammals and birds appear to communicate and understand simple story engrams there is something that is ours alone. Of all the animals on our planet we are the only ones that tell our fellow humans and ourselves stories. The success of Abigail and our other students demonstrated the importance of story contextual organization in the development of cognitive abilities. Here we have the reason why we should let go of teaching methods that require the memorizations of out-of-context bits-of-information: methodologies that have doomed many students to failure. All of us humans have developed the ability to use the essential contextual building block, the story engram, to produce narratives that help us understand the world around us and give us an entrance into realms of enchantment. And we humans are the only ones who have utilized our cognitive connection with the real world to lead our story engrams into the esoteric spheres of science with its speculations about how the cosmos was built, with its explanations about the composition of our world and ourselves.
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© 2002 Renée Fuller
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