Readiness — Feedback and the Growth of Children

by Win Wenger, Ph.D.
Winsights No. 27 (March 1999)

For a very long time, it’s been very clear that the best time by far to learn to read is when one is already most strongly learning language — age six months to three years. (This is not a column about how to teach reading to young children, though it might seem so at first. It’s about something far more profoundly important than even that topic.) As the Finnish peoples have long demonstrated, the best time to learn to ski (and/or to skate) is when one is learning to walk.

Of course, the matter of reading concerns far more of us than do matters of skiing or skating.

Children who are taught reading at two years of age become very effective readers, almost always love to read, almost never have reading problems, and often turn into the kind of voracious reader who makes up the majority of those gifted few who make the leading contributions to our civilization and culture.

Children who wait until school age to learn to read nearly always have some sort of problem in reading, needing some sort of remediation. The fault is not necessarily with the schools — the kids just don’t have all the equipment running in high gear that they did in earlier years.

Children who learn to read early will experience much less “push” at home or at school than do those who don’t read until school age — not only for the obvious reason that they assimilate information up to the level of expectation or demand much more readily, but because you cannot “push” a 2-year-old into reading. It has to be an enjoyable game. That helps “set the style” for a lifetime as regards attitudes toward “higher” or information-related pursuits.

Further, the very young child learns by pattern recognition, therefore by a look-say whole-word meaningful sensory-based associative method such as the one set forth in Glenn Doman’s classic How To Teach Your Baby to Read ….

[now, now, all you phonics teachers, at least learn something about this and what makes it work before you roll your eyes up and reflexively jerk your unthinking attention away from this whole matter the way you’ve been conditioned to do in teacher’s college! Good GRIEF! you’ve been at that raging debate at least fifty years, the one between advocates of phonics and advocates of whole-word, without either side learning anything….but then I guess we can’t consider our teaching institutions to be learning institutions, much less institutions of higher learning and at best only marginally institutions of hire learning!] …

Where was I before I so interrupted myself? — Oh, yes, for the very young children:   because the 1- or 2-year-old’s pattern-recognition faculties, upon which depends his learning to hear and speak language, are further encouraged and developed by pre-school-age learning of reading by a look-say whole-word game process, the child thence grows up to have a much better, comprehensive, intuitive grasp of things and of what’s going on. Where phonics are needed is in patching up those parts of reading defined by the child’s inabilities to sort out by pattern. The longer before the child is taught reading, the more he will need phonics. By school age, nearly everyone who hasn’t learned reading beforehand will need to learn reading mainly by phonics.

But this column is not — surprise-surprise! — an article about reading.

The Core Concept:   Most schools and professionals, in dealing with young children in one field or skill or another, including that of reading, speak of “learning readiness.” Mostly they use that phrase as a reason (or excuse) to defer or to postpone teaching the skill in question to a child until he displays various signs of developments which make it more convenient for that particular school or program or professional to proceed based upon their traditional or ideologically dictated method.

When the issue of “readiness” is pressed from any other standpoint, such as reading well before school age to pick up language-learning-related skills at their best, those professional eyes truly and most remarkably do roll up and away by unthinking reflex. Look for it — it’s truly a phenomenon to behold!

But as I said, this column is not an article about how to teach children to read. There is some meaningful validity to the “readiness” concept, and I hereby offer a way — an invention — to enrich even more powerfully than with early reading the entire future lifespan of very, very young children. Here it is:

The Babble-Back Machine

Every parent — and infant day care provider who, alas, may be more relevant these days — knows, sometimes until their own ears ache, that the baby or very young toddler signals his entry into his prime state of language learning by echolaelia. He makes noise. Lots of noise. Babble-Babble-Babble-Clunk-Slam-Coo! Most learning, and most growth and development, comes not from stimulus input as such but from feedback input — what we get back from what we put out. The baby’s to-us-maddening experimentation with mouth noises is the beginnings of the long process wherein he gets on top of the noise patterns we use, learns how to associate them, and becomes able to express them in a way that has meaning to us — “Da-da! Ma-Mah!” — and so on toward Shakespeare and beyond.

The better that feedback — in this or in any other sector of activity — the better the learning and growth. Here is how to give your child not only a far better gift of articulateness for life, but a far better grasp for life of verbal meanings and intelligence:

Level One

Have any old tape recorders lying around the house? Especially the reel-to-reel kind which are easier to rig for this purpose? Here is how to jury-rig two old reel-to-reelers into a way to let your babblelaelic child grow into a wonderfully articulate and understanding human being.

Set the two machines side by side. Set one machine on record, the other on playback. Run the tape from the head of the machine that’s recording, through the head of the machine playing back, back onto the take-up reel of either machine. This will result in the ongoing playback of sounds with a few seconds’ delay.

Six to twenty seconds appears to be the best interval of delay, depending on what you observe, at different intervals of delay, of how involved your child gets with the fascinating process of getting back his own sounds so discretely.

The distance between the two tape machines controls the length of the tape feeding from record to playback, which determines the length of delay. (Once you’ve set up a Babble-Back Machine, you can also help the process along by playing sound games of various kinds with your child, with the loop-delay feedback of sounds coming back to both of you together.)

This Level-One setup could also provide a nice income for those who are handy at rehabilitating old tape recorders and cassettes and reconfiguring them for this purpose, to sell or give to parents who care about their own young kids but who don’t happen to have old reel-to-reelers lying around in the attic.

Level Two

Any reasonably competent engineer can design and produce a sleek, tidy, handy, conveniently compact audio device with variable electronic delay feedback, with controlled “decay” rates for the “echoing” sound, appropriate adjustments in pitch and sound level, and other such trimmings. I think the device could sell widely in this form and benefit a lot of parents and young children.

Anyone who cares to do this is welcome to do so for free — this, one of my inventions, is herewith cast into public domain by means of this article.

It joins various others of my given-away-free inventions posted here under Inventions and elsewhere, at Beyond Human, and with reference to other articles and offerings in this website’s Solutions section.

Somewhere in all of this, maybe someone somewhere will get curious about this question:  “If he’s giving away these inventions for free, what inventions is he keeping back to sell or to develop proprietarily???”

But most of you don’t need to worry about that one. Here is a very simple way, a very simple procedure or invention, if you please, which profoundly improves the life-long lot of very young children, for a good lifetime. Yours for free. When I get to see in action the very few who have had any benefit of this as very young children, it’s enough to bring tears to these old curmudgeonly eyes. Make of it what you will.