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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
An Essay on the Teaching of Reading

by F.B. Lott
Volume 8, 1897, pgs. 350-358

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The Method indicated in the second part of this essay was suggested to the writer by French Lessons given on the Gouin Method.

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To be able to read is to be able at sight of written or printed signs to take in their meaning: to be able to read aloud is to be able to utter the sounds which will convey to a hearer the meaning of the written or printed signs.

This description of reading and of reading aloud, if correct, ought to help towards a criticism and a construction of method in the teaching of reading.

Much labour is nowadays bestowed on training children to be able to utter the sounds which correspond to certain written or printed signs, without recognition, or at any rate without direct recognition, of meaning thereby conveyed, and to be able to name or to write the signs which correspond to sounds. These processes are "word-building" and "spelling."

I do not propose now to discuss either word-building or spelling. I remark, however, that word-building is subsidiary to reading, and spelling to writing. I further make the remark that a good many words may be read and used in reading by children before they have been either built or spelt. This last remark will not be assented to by all teachers. I would ask those who do not assent to reconsider it after weighing what follows.


I propose to consider what sort of written matter should be placed before those who are beginning to learn to read in the sense in which I understand the word "read."

I would teach children to know a few words such as "a," "an," "the," "is," "on," "in," "to," by sight, as though they were letters; and teach them some other words, some nouns and some verbs, by sight, but always with reference to and with actual looking at the person or thing or action signified. Thus if children are learning in an ordinary schoolroom let them learn "pen," "pencil," "ink," "slate," "chair," "desk," "table," "door," "teacher," and perhaps the names of two or three of the children; let them also learn "goes," or "walks," "runs," "takes," "puts," "dips," "sits." Let them learn perhaps only a few of these, perhaps more than these before they attempt a sentence; but let this be the object in teaching the words chosen--that the written signs shall soon make the child spontaneously look at the thing or person signified, and afterwards that the written sound shall make the child think of the thing whether he at the moment actually looks at it or not--that it shall make him see it in his minds' eye. So, too, with the verbs: let a child run when "run" is read, or put down or take something when "put" or "take" is read, or let the teacher put or take, or let the children act the action of putting or taking.

If children who can talk have acquired the power of reading a few words in the sense in which "reading" has been here used, they will be able to begin reading sentences. As with the words, let each sentence be one which they can see (acted) before them. Let it have no word which they have to see its signification, their minds should work towards that without hindrance: to puzzle at one of the words is a hindrance. So let the first sentence put before them be something of this sort--"Tom runs" or "Bob walks" or "Mary sits." Let them have the sentence (i.e., the words put together) while the separate words are unforgotten, or, in other words, directly after they have learned, not probably for the first time, each word separately. Let the sentence be accompanied as closely as can be by the sight of Tom running, of Bob walking, or of Mary sitting. Perhaps it would be well devise some other sentences consisting of a name and a verb, such as "Tom writes," "Mary knits," or "sews," "Bob reads," and to keep the children occupied with sentences of two words for a few lessons not dreading their learning them by heart if only they learn to see and to imagine what is signified. Perhaps it would be wiser as soon as three or four of these sentences were learned to add a few words to them, as--

runs to the door.

walks to the door.

sits on the chair.

sits at the desk.

writes on a slate.

But care should be taken to teach the words used in each sentence before the sentence is put before the children.

After a time or three short sentences might be given together, as--

sits at the desk.
writes on a slate.
writes with a pencil.

which might possibly be followed by--

 Teacher sits at the table.
writes on paper.
writes with a pen.

The words and sentences which have been given are not proposed as the best possible: probably each teacher would do well to choose her own words and make her own sentences, to spend some thought on the choice, and to vary her selection as experience may indicate. I think that using a vocabulary of from thirty to fifty words the children might acquire the power of looking at a little simple sentence and seeing its meaning and saying it, provided that the sentence was always one of which they could realize the sense, and that it was always in the third person, indicative, present (or in the imperative).

I would here ask the teacher to bear in mind that this essay is not intended to lay down doctrines, but rather to make suggestions. Experience alone can decide how far the suggestions already made are of practical utility. There is, however, a question which must not be ignored. That question is, "How far should words of which the spelling is regular be selected for the first lessons?" My own opinion is that, spelling, the meaning of the word, its being suitable and familiar to the mind of the child, should be the chief qualification for use in early reading lessons.

When the child has had a little practice in reading he may be led to see a similarity between words which he has used, such as "men," "pen," "hen," "Ben," "ten." Such syllables as "an," "en," "in," "on," "un," may not unprofitably be taught as an exercise distinct from, but helpful towards, reading. But to read nonsense, or to read what is to the child void of sense, for the sake of acquiring readiness and fluency in the utterance of syllables at sight is, I believe, to lay the foundation of reading with as little understanding as possible. (See "Possible Reading Lessons" note at end of this essay).


Let us suppose that a child has learned to read a little--has made a start in reading--and let us ask "What are we now to aim at in his reading lessons?" I would say these three things-- clearness, fluency, accuracy: but primarily, clearness, fluency, accuracy of thought: after that, clearness, fluency, accuracy of expression. It is possible to train clever children of six so that they can read aloud at sight the leading articles of the days' newspaper with clearness, fluency, and accuracy of utterance. I am told that it has been done. But when I hear of such a thing I always fear that along with the art of uttering the sounds indicated by the print the child has acquired the habit of uttering sounds which are indeed indicated by the print, but which to him are meaningless. I fear that he reads not only without understanding the sense, but without a consciousness that there is sense to be understood. Now this is the exact opposite of the habit to be aimed at. If the child has established a good habit in reading, he will at sight of the print either begin to take in the meaning or he will feel that he cannot read it. When such a reader comes to a word or phrase or sentence which he does not understand, he will feel that he has come to a difficulty. I fear that many children and some older people feel no difficulty in reading so long as they can go on saying aloud or imagining in themselves the sounds which are represented. But difficulties in the sense are of greater import than difficulties in the sounds. "Contemporary" is to me a hard word, because I am apt to bungle in uttering the last syllables: "Sciolist " was a hard word, because I did not know what it meant. To bungle at the last syllables of "contemporary" is a fault, but to pass over such a word as "sciolist" without recognizing that I did not understand it would be a far graver fault.

By what processes can the habit of reading with clearness, fluency, and accuracy of thought be established when children are taught in a class? I can no more give full and sufficient directions for such teaching than I could give directions for always speaking wisely and pleasantly and saying the right thing in conversation, but I will try to throw out some hints or ideas. One great difficulty is the choice of suitable matter for the reading lessons. The matter should be fairly, but not too easily, comprehensible by the children. Perhaps the best of all is a plain narrative or story, true or fictitious, in which the characters, actions, and motives are simple, and in which descriptions are short and clear, and reflections, if any, short and trite. Dialogues are difficult, but if good they should not be excluded, because clever children quickly come to enjoy them, and clever teachers soon get children of ordinary quickness to follow. But, as a rule, passages in which the writer assumes the first person should, I think, be excluded.

If the book is on a subject which the children are learning such as Geography or Elementary Science, and the children are under say ten years of age, they should not, I think, read what they have not already learned. The Reading Lesson should follow the Object Lesson or the lesson on the map.

The literary style of the lessons may next be considered. Of course, it should at first it should be easy and gradually become more difficult; or, in other words, for the lower classes all the sentences should be easy to analyse, and as the classes become more advanced the sentences should gradually become more complex and their sequence more difficult. Adverbial sentences, adjectival sentences, noun sentences, sentences involving two past times or two future times, quotations, the indirect narrative, are difficulties to children. Children may easily learn to utter them, but they often utter them without that fluency of thought which is the first thing necessary for comprehending them. Again, such words as "it," when it does not stand for some noun, "this," when it sums up a previous sentence, "now" and then," when they do not express simple points of time, "so," in almost all its uses, indicate difficulties in the thought expressed, and should not be allowed in books for young children whose power of following the thought of the writer is very little. As children grow older they should, of course, come to these difficulties, but their teachers should recognise that in mastering these difficulties of thought, and not chiefly in the utterance of long words or in "minding stops," is the secret of good reading.

So much having been said about the matter and the style of what is to be read, let us suppose that a teacher and his class are coming to a paragraph in a reading lesson. How shall it be treated? No one rule can be laid down. At any rate do not let the teacher as a matter of course read it through: have it read simultaneously, have it read by one child, by another, perhaps by another, ask a question or two, or perhaps defer all questions; and pass on to treat the next paragraph in the same manner. This or something like this, is a widely accepted method, and it is inculcated by many treatises. But, though I would not maintain that a paragraph should never be treated by this method, I think that as a rule for general practice it is fundamentally unsound. It places the utterance of the paragraph first and the understanding of it second, and second by a long way: it aims at a modulated utterance which is called expression, but which is really imitation,-- "expression" is a transitive or an elliptic word, and it ought to mean expression of the sense; there can be no real expression without understanding. Worst of all, this method tends to establish a habit of reading without following the thought, it trains the children to think that they can read a passage if they can utter it. I would suggest some such procedure as the following:--Let the children look at the paragraph, tell them to make out silently what it says. If there is a word of which they cannot fairly be expected to know the meaning or to gather the meaning from the context, ask if they know what it means, after asking them if there is any word which is hard to them or of which they do not know the meaning; help them to get or tell them the meaning of such words. Then ask a few questions which they will be able to answer if they have been able to read the paragraph, but which they will not be able to answer without reading it; if there are difficulties help them through. When most of the children have fairly grasped the sense ask one child to read the passage; watch carefully for any mistake of phrasing or of punctuation, and if there is such a mistake consider whether it indicates a failure to follow the sense; if it does, try to get the child to see the sense and so to read aright, instead of reading the sentence correctly and telling the child to imitate you.

Throughout the treatment of the paragraph bear two principles in mind:--Firstly, let each child as much as possible make out the sense for himself: secondly, avoid as far as possible calling on a child to red a passage aloud till you have ensured and ascertained that he has grasped the meaning of it.

Such is the course of procedure which I believe to be good for children who are reading new lessons which are divided into paragraphs. It is a method of dealing with a sentence or paragraph: hard words may, if necessary (I do not think it often will be necessary), have separate treatment before the lesson begins, some judicious pattern reading after the paragraph has been questioned on and read through will often be most valuable.

Of course as children grow in power they may be required to read through more than a paragraph, they may prepare a chapter, or they may be called on to read a paragraph aloud without any preliminary study of it, and then be at once questioned on the sense. I think, however, that it will be found that the power of at sight simultaneously uttering sentences and following their sense is developed later in a scholar's school life than is generally supposed.

If my attempts to criticize a generally accepted method of teaching reading and to construct a method have much truth in them, they indicate, I think, one cause why the time and labour spent in Elementary Schools in teaching reading have so often produced inadequate results, why so many children have left school with little power of reading to themselves, and with little taste for reading. I would say let our first aim in reading be to train the children to follow correctly the sense of what they read, to give their minds the power of letting their thoughts flow with the thoughts of the writer; let reading aloud be both an instrument for acquiring this power and an accomplishment going beyond it, yet founded on it.


N.B. -- Confer Gouin Method of learning a language.

The pen is in the box.
The pencil is in the box.
The penny is in the box.
The box is on the chair.

The pen is on the chair.
The box is on the chair.
or "puts" Henry put the pen into the box.
(So with pencil, penny, half-penny?)

The pen is on the desk:
or "inkpot" The ink is on the desk:
or N or M "dips" Dip the pen into the ink.

The box is on the chair.
The pen is in the box.
or N or M "opens" Open the box.
Take the pen out.
(So with pencil and penny).

The pencil is on the chair.
The box is on the chair.
Tom opens the box.
Tom puts the pencil into the box.
Tom shuts the box.
(N.B. --Have a box with a lid.)

If the children confuse "in" and "on" they should be led to see the difference between, e.g., a pen "in" the box and a pen "on" the box and to connect the words with the things seen; it should not be a mere matter of "i" "n" "in"--"o" "n" "on."


Tom Washes.

Tom goes to the sink;
He takes off his coat,
He takes off his waistcoat,
He takes off his collar;
He rolls up his shirt sleeves.
(Not "turns up," children have corrected me.)

He takes (gets?) the bowl,
He puts it under the tap,
He turns the tap on:
The water comes out,
The bowl is full:
Tom turns the tap off.
Tom takes the soap:
He dips the soap in the water,
He rubs his hands,
He washes his hands,
He washes the soap off his hands.

Tom takes the flannel,
He soaps the flannel,
He washes his face,
He washes his neck.

Go on to let him pour away the water, put back the soap, dry his face, neck, hands, put on his coat, &c. Omit half of the above or put in more, but get the children to fancy it all; let them often give the next step, and do not be afraid of reading what has just been said. Do so with putting on boots, brushing hair, lighting pipe, making tea, finding egg, taking it in and boiling it. To these lessons, "then," "after that," "because he is dirty," "till it is full," may be gradually introduce, or "yesterday" may be prefixed, thus changing the tense, &c., &c., till a book be used.