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A Little Child Shall Lead Them

Marlys, the creator of Picture Me Reading, wrote to us to tell us she would like to share her experiences in helping children learn to read.  Here is her story:

A Little Child Shall Lead Them! 

During the vast majority of the many years I spent in education, I certainly never had any intentions to try to invent a new reading method or to spend my "golden years" of retirement trying to help children everywhere get started in reading.  It just turned out that way, because sometimes, a "little child shall lead them!"

It all began with Jacob...

Jacob was 7 and half way through first grade and he couldn't read at all. He had spent two years in kindergarten in order to master the letter sounds, but even now he could not blend letters back together to form words after he laboriously "sounded them out" one by one. He couldn't recall the words from memory by the way they looked, either. Jacob's mom was worried. She was a playground aide at one of the schools I served as a school psychologist and she was very much involved with her son's education.

Jacob was a handsome little boy, with big blue eyes, and a happy smile. He loved doing the tasks I asked of him during his psycho-educational evaluation, and he did very well with nearly all of them - until I asked him to read a few simple words on an achievement test. Then his face fell and his shoulders slumped, for he could not read even very simple pre-primer words like "red" and "see."

My heart went out to him. Trying to help him "save face," I said, "That's alright, Jacob.  I guess your teacher just hasn't taught you that word yet." He drew himself up, straightened his shoulders and replied sadly, "No. My teacher HAS tried to teach me that word, and I know it is in my reading book, but I just can't remember it!"

I was touched and impressed that this little boy was accepting personal responsibility for his reading delay.  It would have been so easy to let the blame fall to his teacher.  I suddenly recalled something I did many years ago to entertain my first grade class and capture their attention - making funny pictures of the new words I was introducing.  I told Jacob, "I'll show you a way that will never let you forget that word again." Then I wrote "see" on my legal pad, and drew big eyes with eyelashes in the loops of each "e." "This word tells what your eyes do," I said.

Jacob perked up. "See!" he exclaimed, and looked as happy as if he had just won a prize. Quickly, following an impulse, I taught him some more pictographs, one by one, while making a "story" of them. He would not leave my office feeling defeated, if I could help it! I wrote:

I see a horse.
I see a big horse.
I see a cat.
I see a little cat.
I see a big horse and a little cat.

He already knew the single letter words, of course. The remaining six words he figured out instantly, as he watched me draw the pictographs for each. He was excited to be able to read a "story" - something he could not do after 2 years in school, but had mastered in less than five minutes.

Next, just for fun, I put the pictograph words out of sight, and wrote the words horse, see, big, cat, little, and and, in random order on my legal pad.  I asked Jacob to point to them, as I said the words, mixing up the order to make sure he had not simply memorized the placement of the words on the page. He did it perfectly. Next, I asked him to point to the words one by one and read them. Again, he did it perfectly. No matter how they were mixed up, he made no errors.

Jacob wanted to take his "story" when he left my office. He read it to at least three adults on his way back to class. Later, I suggested to his mother that she might get the words to be taught in reading each week from Jacob's teacher the Friday before. With his above average intelligence (80th percentile) and artistic ability, I was sure Jacob could make up his own pictographs to help him learn to read the words in his reading book.

I encountered Jacob's mom again several weeks later. "How is he doing?" I asked. "Well, just last night, he was reading to his dad," she replied, "when all of a sudden, his dad jumped up and shouted, 'Hey! Who taught this kid to read?!'" She went on to explain how Jacob now made his reading words into pictures and then easily was able to recall them from memory. The class' most recent reading story had been about a visit to the aquarium, with lots of words about sea life. "Sharks have tall fins," he explained to his mother, as he added a slash to the top of the "h" in that word, so that it resembled a fin. "That's how you know it is a shark. And you never see a dolphin that is out of the water," he went on, drawing a wavy line under the word "dolphin," to look like water. Jacob was on his way!!

I was pleased to learn my little "trick" had been of such help to Jacob, but then I forgot all about it -- until I met Jessie a short while later.

Jessie was a beautiful 11-year-old girl being home-schooled by parents who had been very successful teaching their older children. Jessie had been adopted in a third world country in infancy, and they had no knowledge of her parentage. By now, they knew she was in real educational trouble, however. Her language skills were extremely delayed. Despite their best efforts, the child could not count, name any letters (much less their sounds), name colors or shapes or most objects - or any of the other bits of knowledge a child should know by early kindergarten. Her private speech/language therapist was advising placement in a special education class in the public schools, and that's why I was asked to evaluate her.

I visited Jessie at her home, taking along only tests that did NOT have language requirements, in order to determine levels of skills not affected by her language handicap.  I needed to know her strengths, as well as her weaknesses.  Even on those, that bright-eyed girl performed in the very lowest range.  I finished that portion of the evaluation, and then conferred with Jessie's mom. "Send her to school," I advised, "not only for the social aspects, but she needs to learn what we call 'survival words' -- such as 'stop,' 'danger,' 'do not enter,' 'women,' and other words we need just to function in today's world. They will not use phonics as you have tried to do, because that technique does not work for her."

Suddenly, I recalled the incident with Jacob! I related it to Jessie's mother, and drew some pictographs on my legal pad to show what I meant. She asked if she could keep that paper, and I left the sheet with ten pictographs drawn on it.  I arranged to return the following week to complete the testing.

A week later, that dear little girl performed as poorly on the required measures of knowledge of letters and numbers as she had done with all my previous tests. She knew none of them. But, inexplicably, she suddenly pointed to the word "see" on my achievement test form, smiled, and said, "See!"

A few minutes later, the testing completed, I gave her mother the results, and described my surprise at Jessie's recognition of "see." She smiled enigmatically and replied, "Let me show you what we have been doing." She went to get a handful of small cards. The ten pictographs I had left the week before had been extended by six more that she had later made up, and all were drawn on the backs of her husband's business cards. "Watch," she said, flipping through the sixteen cards, as Jessie read each pictograph word aloud instantly and flawlessly.

"Now, watch this," she went on, and she laid several cards on the table at a time and asked Jessie to read them:

See big Mom.
I can see big Mom.
I see big Mom go up.  Etc...

I was astonished.  I had not heard Jessie utter a single phrase longer than three words in nearly four hours of testing time, and any utterances at all had been very rare, yet in just a week she had learned to read effortlessly pictograph sentences of five words or more. Somehow, I concluded, intelligence of a sort that was not even touched, much less accurately measured by any of my tests, lay behind those expressive dark eyes! I told my husband that evening what I had observed. "I can't explain it, because it should have been impossible for Jessie to do that.  I have a feeling I am going to have to write a book someday about what I saw today!" Little did I know that Jacob and Jessie had started me down the path not to writing a book, but instead to the adventure of developing a unique method to teach reading!

I tried to tell this story to the teacher into whose special education class Jessie was later placed. Her response was less than warmly receptive, and seeing her blank look, I was quite sure nothing like the pictograph words would be written into Jessie's IEP.  I comforted myself with the thought that her mom would carry on and use Jacob's success to help her own child become more successful, even if the teacher didn't.

Now, I couldn't get Jessie and Jacob out of my mind. And then I thought of Heather!

Heather was the 11-year-old Down Syndrome daughter of a friend who lived across town from us. Far from being home-schooled, Heather had been receiving special education services since before the age of two. After nearly ten years of special education, she could read only her own name and that of one or two classmates. Her IEP addressed primarily self-help and language goals. One important objective was the ability to formulate a five-word sentence, such as, "May I have a drink?"

I told Heather's mom about Jacob and Jessie, and asked her if she would like to try the technique with Heather. She was excited about doing so, explaining that Heather seemed quite alert to visual details in her environment. A date was set to get together, and soon the three of us were seated at my dining room table. As Heather watched, I made words into pictures on 3 x 5 index cards. Her attention captured for nearly an hour (an incredible attention span for such a child!), Heather was soon reading aloud pictograph sentences twice as long as those her teachers hoped she would learn to speak! Pointing to each card in left to right order, she flawlessly recognized and named nouns and action words. Acting out abstract words such as "the" and "and" with her mother's help and mine (using pointing gestures for "the" and joining hands for "and"), she read words with and without context. When I counted the cards at the end of that session, I found Heather had been reading sentences with about twenty picture words in all!

We set another date for three weeks later. When Heather arrived, I had a book for her, entitled "I Can Read." I told her I would make a pictograph card for each word in the book and send them home with her.  If she could learn those words, she would be able to read the book! We did more of the same ad hoc reading games that we had done during the first lesson, then adjourned until the passage of another three week period.  I asked Heather's mom to bring her video camera to the next session. A video record would tell Heather's story far more vividly than I could!

That videoed session captured Heather, sluggish with a heavy cold, still able to respond correctly to all of the pictograph words we had introduced up until that time (by now, about fifty!) and to about fifteen of the same words without pictographs. Then, we took out the book, and with camera rolling, listened to Heather read the book. Pointing at each word as she read it, haltingly and hesitantly, much like a struggling first grader, and requiring help on about a fourth of the words in the text, Heather read the book! There was no question that she was reading each word, rather than simply parroting memorized text, as many children do, an act which many adults mistakenly call "reading." After just three lessons, and some practice at home with the handmade pictograph cards, the child who could read only a couple of names after more than nine years of formal schooling had proved beyond any doubt that it was possible to teach her to read. That was the experience that, with her Speech/Language therapist advocating for her, resulted in an amendment to Heather's IEP at school.  In following years, a reading goal was included in each.

By then, Jacob, Jessie, and Heather had provided enough anecdotal evidence to convince me to try this method with some of the other children referred to me for psychological evaluation because of their reading failures.  I was not surprised to find that most of them responded very favorably and with excellent success. Convincing their teachers that something other than phonics and/or the whole language lessons then in vogue needed to be used with these youngsters in the early stages of their reading instruction proved to be difficult, however. Who, aside from the Chinese and Japanese, ever heard of teaching people to read word wholes consisting of letters and conceptual pictures?

I met Jared not long afterwards. Like Jacob, Jared had repeated kindergarten, and for the same reason. After the second year, his parents had tried a series of developmental optometry exercises, believing his reading delay might be due to visual difficulties, but no improvement in reading followed. Now half way through first grade, and still a non-reader, Jared, an extremely bright boy with an IQ at the 98th percentile, was frustrated and angry at what he considered a betrayal of the promise that he would learn to read and write when he went to school, and he took out his frustration on everyone at school. He was being given extra time in phonics instruction, but that brought only more and more resistant behavior.

I wondered aloud to the reading specialist if he might be a visual learner, rather than an auditory learner, and then she watched as I tried a visual learning task from a popular cognitive test used by school psychologists. Jared was told the words for which conceptual symbols stood, just ONCE, and then he read them in sentences.  Each new set of four symbols given added to the complexity of the sentences he was asked to read. By the end of the test, he had mastered all of the symbols presented, by hearing each of them named ONCE, and was able to read a thirty word paragraph consisting of those symbols. He scored at the ending high school level on this test! (Meanwhile, the reading specialist, whose learning preference was the exact opposite of Jared's, shook her head, exclaiming at the demands of the task, "Oh, that makes me crazy!" In that moment, she must have experienced feelings much like those Jared felt every single day he went to school.)

Continuing with our experiment, with the reading specialist continuing to look on, I tried making pictograph words on 3 x 5 cards for Jared, with plain words on the backs. He happily learned the words and made many sentences, played games with them, and exhibited the first cooperative behavior in a reading or testing context that anyone had seen in a very long time. He read the pictograph story written for him without error, and then went on to master about 20 words from the story (without pictures) in about a 30 minute period. He took his story with him when he left.

When Jared's mother came to school to hear the testing results and discuss ways to help her son, she leaned over and quietly asked, "Where can I get some materials like the ones on that paper that Jared brought home? He came running into the house waving it, and it was the first time I have seen my son come home from school happy in 2 1/2 years."

I had to admit I did not know, but I promised I would try to find out for her if any existed.  Until I could do so, I gave her a pad with about 50 or 60 pictograph sketches on it, and gave her the same advice I had given to Jacob's mom: get the reading words, and encourage him to make his own.

As for the modification and remediation plans for Jared - an IEP was written for him by those at school, who wanted very much to see him successful.  It included an extra half hour a day of phonics! "Why would you do that," I asked, in astonishment, "when you have seen that phonics does not help him?" The answer I received was, "Well, "because he hasn't gotten his phonics!!"

I once read someone's definition of a happy coincidence as an instance of "God getting involved in our lives while wishing to remain anonymous." I can't say for certain that God intended these apparently coincidental experiences to lead to a way to help thousands of children like Jacob, Jared, Heather, and Jessie to become readers. But that is what happened.

Before long, I was making decks of pictograph words by hand for the children I evaluated who seemed able to profit from them. A few open-minded teachers looked at these homely materials and saw the possibilities they offered, as children previously failing in their classes began to make solid progress. Soon I was hearing of other "special needs" children actually learning to read, using my flash cards. Julie, a creative young special education teacher, began using them with her class of Down Syndrome and other "special needs" first- and second-graders. She called me and excitedly invited me to come and observe her class. Children in her class whose parents had been told they would never learn to read were reading after a few months of using pictographs. Not only were they recognizing sight words, they were beginning to decode new words, using "word families" and beginning phonics, as well! Not long afterwards, a few curious regular education teachers concluded that if children with handicaps could learn with them, regular kids should do so even faster. And that, of course, is true, as those forward-looking educators, and many more since then, also have discovered.

Searching ERIC (Educational Research Information Center) at our local university fulfilled my promise to Jared's mom, but it turned up NO examples of educational studies within the prior thirty years using pictures embedded in words to teach reading vocabulary. Many picture dictionaries existed then as now, of course, and many graphic flash card systems for teaching nouns (but NOT the abstract Dolch Words!) can be found with pictures accompanying the words (above, below, or beside them). None is nearly as effective as embedding the pictures in the words, because with regular flash cards with pictures, there is a double memory task involved for the student: he must associate the word (which has no cues within it) with the picture that accompanies it, and then, when encountering the word at a later point, (assuming he recalls that he has seen the word with a picture), he must try to dredge up from his memory what specific picture he has seen associated with it.

Attempts at an early stage to interest educational publishers in materials using this innovative visual-conceptual approach yielded only negative replies. With literally thousands of children like Jared and Jacob languishing in educational failure due to reading delays that were unlikely ever to be reversed (children failing in reading at the end of grade one are virtually certain to remain failing at the end of grade four, according to research!), there seemed to be just one thing to do - become the "Little Red Hen" of early literacy and say, "Then I will do it myself!"

Jacob, Jessie, Jared, and Heather are now young adults. The remarkable coincidences of the events involving them during the short period of time which I have described led to a long developmental process, as I continued to work with the children in our school system, and as specific needs to be met became clear to me. My retired naval officer husband later joined me as a "reading missionary," taking on the task of learning the nitty gritty of publishing, printing, packaging and marketing the visual-conceptual method he dubbed "Picture Me Reading!" as well as keeping the books.

Our work during the intervening dozen years has resulted in many heartwarming stories of success, as individual children and even whole classes learn to read by using a method that costs not much more than the price of a pizza dinner out on the town. You can read about some of them on the page that includes a few of the comments and testimonials we have received from relieved and happy parents and teachers. And now retired except for our ongoing effort to see that children everywhere escape the frustration of reading delays, we recall this was all put in motion by the utterance of a single phrase by one little boy who refused to place blame for his reading failure on another person, ...

...and we never underestimate the power of a serendipitous event to change lives forever!

You can click here, to visit a page that shows how pictograph words look, see some examples of Dolch Word Pictographs (which make up the great majority of the text children read), and download a free ten word sample, with detailed instructions on how to teach YOUR Jacob, Jessie, Jared, or Heather to read!

Thanks to Marlys for sharing her heartwarming story!