These talking programs are the product of a very personal and rewarding
experience we have shared with our children. On of the greatest gifts
parents can give their children is reading. And it is a surprisingly easy
gift to give.
Our daughter, Andrea, was two and a half when she took her first steps toward
reading, and she was reading simple books shortly after her third birthday.
Her little brother, Eddy, started even earlier. By age two he knew his
upper and lower case alphabets, and his numbers. He could even spell his
name. He learned to read before his third birthday. He skipped first
grade in school, but otherwise progressed "normally" through his
Aside from his exceptional reading and above average arithmetic skills, he was a
normal kid, and enjoyed school.
How did we do this? Did I spend hours each day standing over them with a
scowl on my face and a switch in my hand?
No, just the opposite. Both Andrea and Eddy learned in a joyous, playful,
kid-directed way on our computers. Other kids in our local public school
system, including six kindergarten classes and several children with learning
disabilities, have also used earlier versions of these programs to learn to
read. But let me start at the beginning.
In about 1976, I became interested in gifted children. I read books on
some of the fantastically talented kids in this world, and marveled. At
that time, though, my interest was a dead end - I couldn't really do anything
about it. How do you translate an enthusiasm into a reality for your kids?
Is it possible to make a child gifted? If not, what is the next best
thing? And if so, how do you go about it? No answers.
But I never stopped looking, and several years later I had enough background in
early reading to make a start. I also had a two-year-old little girl who
watched her big brother and sister read, and wanted to "… do it
myself!" Over the years I had found several books that mentioned a
problem babies and young children have with seeing small print. The size
you are reading now just looks like specks on the paper to them - they don't
notice the details at all. Several books suggested that if I used very
large letters and words, and spent an enormous amount of time at it, I could
teach my baby to read. And I found a reference to a fascinating set of
experiments that were done in the fifties and sixties with a "talking
In the talking typewriter experiments, from what I could gather with second-hand
reports (I tried, but couldn't find any published first-hand results), a
kindergartener would first sit down to a typewriter and type at random; a
poker-faced person called a "monitor" would say the names of the
After the child knew the letters and where they were on the keyboard, he would
begin learning words. A screen would display a word, the child would
find the keys on the typewriter, and as he pressed them, the monitor would say
the sounds of the letters (cat would be "kuh" "aah" "tuh").
From activities based on these two methods, a child learned to read earlier,
better, and with much less stress than with conventional teaching. The
difference in reading ability between children in the program and other children
was large enough to cause a problem at the school where the method was tested
(over several years). The "test" children stayed so much more
advanced than the "control" children, they had to have separate
classes even in the higher grades.
At about the time I finished my readings, when Andrea was two and a half, we got
our first personal computer, an Apple II+. I had taken some computer
programming classes in college, years before, so I started reading through the
manuals, doing the practice programs, and getting to know the machine. I
also started learning just what a computer could do. I found out it could
Well, with $120 worth of extra hardware (1980 dollars), an Apple II+ could talk.
Money was very scarce at that time - my husband was in graduate school and I was
taking in typing to make ends meet. But we spent the $120 anyway, because
I had this wonderful idea. What if I could teach the Apple to be a
tireless, big-lettered reading machine? Could I create a "talking
typewriter" at home?
It turned out that I could, and better yet, it worked! By the time Andrea
was three years old, she could read simple, two- and three-letter words.
Two months later she read her first book, Are You my Mother. She continued
using the computer, with large letters, while she worked through a set of
first-grade readers we borrowed from her big sister's teacher.
When Andrea entered kindergarten at age four and a half, she was easily reading
at a third grade level.
Eddy was born when Andrea was five and a half years old, so he had the
advantages of Early Reader at a younger age. Sitting on my lap before he
could walk, he banged on the keyboard and listened to the speech synthesizer
respond. He watched the big, colored letters appear on the screen when HE
did something, and listened to their names.
When Eddy was 15 months old, we bought a Macintosh and Tony rewrote the talking
programs to use it. By Eddy's eighteenth month he had enough coordination
to use the mouse to put the little arrow exactly where he wanted it on the
screen. He could double-click to start his programs, press and drag for
menus or to use MacPaint, and knew to click on the go-away box when he wanted to
get rid of something. (He also became really skilled at throwing his
father's programming projects in the trash bin, which was automatically emptied
when the computer was turned off.)
Eddy's progression was nothing less than astounding! For him, computers
were in the world of big people, a world every child wants to be a part of.
And he can't remember a time when computers were off-limits. He can't even
remember a time when he could not read! So while I was writing this
manual, Eddy was busily working on his computer. Nobody told him to.
He used a computer because he wanted to. He did it because that's what Mom
and Dad did. And he did it because it fascinated him.
What did Eddy learn on the computer? First, he learned the purely physical
skills of keyboard and mouse use. By age two he had mastered mouse skills;
press-and-drag, menu selection, double-clicking, and all the rest.
To be honest, those are skills that can also be learned with other programs -
you don't need talking software for coordination building. But the other
things he learned were pure magic. At fifteen months, a baby is still in
the beginning phases of learning to talk. Beside the regular
"Mama", "Daddy" and "up!", Eddy also learned
"A", "B", "C" …. He learned his alphabet
while he was learning to talk! He also learned his numbers, and the
symbols on the keyboard. He knew what a "+" looked like, and a
"-". At fifteen months he knew a period and a comma, even a
What does this mean? Besides the fact that by two years old he was ready
to start learning to read, the practice he got in visual discrimination carried
over to all the rest of his world. Ever know a 2.0-year-old who could find
the right key to go in the car lock? Eddy could. He knew the
difference between the ignition key and the door key (and the dozen others on
the ring) and he could find the right one on either my key ring or Tony's.
(The keys were different colors on my ring than Tony's, too!)
At 2.0-years Eddy could spell his name, and could recognize it when someone else
spelled it. When Eddy was two, he was playing on our computer and I
watched him type "EDDY", then underneath it, "EDDY".
We didn't think anything of it. It was just his name twice, right?
Then he typed "EDDYQRTX" (no problem, just playing around). And
under that, he typed again, "EDDYQRTX". Obviously, he had copied
the nonsense letter-for-letter. Copying words at two years old!
Copying is precisely the ability needed to move on to the next phase of learning
to read, the WordTalk program.
And all of this without fuss, without bother, in the most natural and
kid-friendly way possible. Instead of being taught, Eddy learned. I
didn't teach him to use the computer, he did it on his own. I didn't teach
him t read, he learned to read. I know that's a fine distinction, but it's
one that needs to be made. It's the difference between a kid sitting,
bored, at a lecture on fishing, and actually getting his pole and doing it.
It's the difference between being told how to drive, and getting behind the
wheel. Being taught puts the emphasis on the teacher. For the kid,
it's a passive experience. In contrast, learning puts the emphasis on the
learner. He is the active one. And he'll enjoy it a lot more, and
remember it a lot longer, if he does it himself.
That's where a computer has a big advantage over a teacher. The computer
is under the child's control and never gets tired or impatient. It will
read the same story over and over, without complaint. And it will read the
nonsense a baby types in with just as much enthusiasm the fourteenth time as the
first. It doesn't get upset if he opens a story file only to quit the next
second, and then open it again. In short, it will do what he wants it to
do, as many times as he wants it to.
The other advantage these programs have is really unfair to teachers; the
computer is a one-on-one situation. No child should ever be bored on the
computer by hearing a lesson he already knows. That's because the computer
is under his control. If a kid has already learned a lesson, it won't be
interesting to him, and he will pick something else. No adult will say (at
least they'd better not!) "Let's go over that one more time."
The faster kids will never be slowed down by the others, and the slower or
younger kids will never be overwhelmed by going too fast. This also makes
the computer ideal as a tool to help disabled children learn to read. On
of our most satisfying successes was a little boy with cerebral palsy. He
couldn't walk, and he couldn't talk, but he did learn to read and write, thanks
in part to our talking software.
In watching our own kids, we found that many of our preconceived notions about
learning were entirely false. For one thing, we didn't even consider that
a baby should direct his own learning process. We now know that there's no
better way! Give a baby a choice, and he'll always pick the most
interesting pathway. And that path is automatically the one that allows
him to learn the most - babies and young children are built that way.
Perhaps the most amazing discovery we have made in observing our kids is that
children can learn to read at the same time they are learning to speak. We
know this seems to fly in the face of conventional educational doctrine.
We have all been told that children are not ready to begin reading until they
are almost six years old. And perhaps it is true that children are not
ready to learn to read from the medium called "book" by interaction
with a speaking device called "teacher" until they are six. We
do not claim they are. But with a speaking, exploring medium on a computer
and a loving interaction with their parents, children are ready to begin the
process at 15 months.
Why should this sound so farfetched? Children 15 months old can begin
learning to speak several languages all at the same time. Millions of
bilingual children accomplish this feat all over the world every year - even in
the most backward of countries. Can learning to read English at the same
time as learning to speak English be any more difficult? No. Not at
all. It's easier.
If your child is older than 15 months, don't fret. Three years old is not
too late. Five years old may be too long to have waited to use this
exploratory method. The older a person gets, the less he uses exploration
as a method of learning. Instead, he refers to authorities to tell him how
to do things. Five year olds have usually crossed the border between
learning how to read by exploring and expecting to be told how to read.
Which side of the border your child is on is an individual judgement for you.