Education: Reading by Touch

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In five years of school, a ten-year-old boy had learned to write one word: her. He thought it spelled chicken.

When his fifth-grade teacher despaired of ever teaching him to read or write, the boy was sent to the clinic school of Dr. Grace M. Fernald at the University of California at Los Angeles. His first day there he learned to write and recognized 14 words. In ten months he was back in school, able to read and write as well as his classmates.

In her 27 years at the clinic school, kindly, frowzy Grace Fernald has treated hundreds of thousands of such cases of "word blindness." Her only requirements: that pupils be of normal intelligence and that their parents leave them at the clinic until the cure is complete. In two months to two years, she has usually been able to bring their reading ability up to their mental age level.

One especially bright youngster passed seven school grades in ten months. Under her direction, a Boy Scout took a young buddy through three grades in three months. A 17-year-old "total reading disability" case was learning 73 new words a day within three months. She has also helped Phi Beta Kappa students who think they can't read fast enough (usual diagnosis: they are reading word by word, instead of by groups of words).

Touch & Go. Grace Fernald is one of the pioneers of a latter-day science called remedial reading. Her "kinesthetic method" works on the theory that reading difficulties occur most frequently in people who lack the ability to summon up a mental picture of the way a word looks. She finds that women have more visual ability than men, and that word blindness is 60 times more common among men.

To compensate for a lack of "visual cues," the kinesthetic method supplies tactile ones: her students begin by tracing a word with their fingers until it can be written without a model. They learn only the words they need for the "stories" she has them write. After these stories are written, she has them typed so that the proud author learns to recognize his words in print. Once a word is learned, the tracing model of it is stowed away in a "dictionary box" for future reference. The word must never be copied from the model; that would involve distracting eye movements. Before long, tracing becomes unnecessary and is forgotten.

Some rival practitioners in remedial reading believe that Dr. Fernald puts too much emphasis on the sense of touch, though admitting that her method has its advantages for many children. Her rivals are inclined to attribute her successes not so much to her method as to her gifts as a teacher.

Healing Touch. Dr. Fernald uses every standard psychological trick in the book to gain the confidence of her "patients." But more important, she really likes children. Young students, warped by years of being called "dumb," are greeted by a warm and sympathetic smile, a gentle, unhurried approach and the flattery of being talked to as equals. She has the same easy way with animals. There is always at least one dog and one cat in her Beverly Hills home, and she frequently tries to persuade students in her undergraduate psychology classes to find homes for the strays she picks up.

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