An Interview of
Pat Lindamood and Nanci Bell: From Phonemic Awareness to Comprehensional Imagery
Pat Lindamood, MS. CCC-SLP, and Nanci Bell, MA, bring first-person learning, heart-felt compassion, and scientific rigor to the aid of struggling learners. They are the authors of a number of books and programs (see: Gander Publishing) and the co-founders of Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes, a widely respected organization that includes over forty learning centers in the U.S..
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The following transcript has not been edited for journal or magazine publication (see 'Interview Notes' for more details). Bold is used to emphasize our [Children of the Code] sense of the importance of what is being said and does not necessarily reflect gestures or tones of emphasis that occurred during the interview.
David Boulton: I’d like to start with a little background on both of you, and the formation of the Lindamood-Bell organization, and then have a conversation where we discuss, in general terms, learning, reading, and learning to read, and then after that, follow with a conversation that goes into the specific distinctions of your work. Okay?
Personal Background: Pat Lindamood :
David Boulton: Alright. So, Pat, maybe you could start by giving us a little biographical sketch on yourself, how you come to this work.
Pat Lindamood: Yes. I’m a speech language pathologist. And at the time I was taking my basic work, I took some work in reading too, because I thought, there’s got to be a connection. And at that time, the reading field was just beginning to expand. This was right after World War II. So, I took work at the University of Minnesota with two people who were supposed to be experts in the reading field. My husband, whose field was linguistics, also took work at Columbia in New York with another expert in the reading field. And we both were very dissatisfied with what we were being taught, because it seemed as if it was just a shotgun approach — try a little of this, a little of this; if that doesn’t work, try a little of this. And there didn’t seem to be any hierarchy to what you did first and why you did that first, and what the steps then needed to be in a sequence. So, I continued, more active, then, in my field of speech language pathology.
But when we moved to San Luis Obispo right at the beginning of the 1960’s, I decided to substitute in the schools to get a sense — since we were going to have four children in the schools — to get a sense for which ones were better and where we might like to have a permanent home. And it was such a shocking experience to me that I began to raise a lot of fuss about it.
I found, as I substituted, in every class from first grade classes to twelve grade classes, found children sitting there who absolutely could neither read nor spell. And so I was knocking on principals’ doors at the end of the day saying, “Who’s helping so and so, and so and so, and so and so down in room such and such?” And the answer was always the same, “We don’t have anyone to give them the help they need.”
So, finally I had raised enough concern about it they said, “Well, if you’re so concerned about this, why don’t you do something about it?” And I thought, well, somebody has to. And so I began to try to learn everything I could about what teachers were being taught to do, and then I began to try to examine how was it that reading and spelling had always been so easy for me? What did I have in my remembrances about when it was a mystery and when it changed? And I found I had some very specific memories, which I won’t go into here, because maybe that would be in more detail than you want.
Pat Lindamood: So, principals began referring students to me and I had two girls brought in one week that had very severe problems. One was twelve years old, and she should have been in sixth grade, but she had been failed twice, and she was in fourth grade. She could neither read nor write. She could not do arithmetic. She also had visual spatial problems. When she drew a figure of a man, the arms could come out underneath the ears. And the school psychologist had just tested her and told her parents that the reason she wasn’t learning, he believed, was that she was retarded. And this surprised them.
So, they brought her and asked me if I thought she was retarded. I asked to see his report, and I found what I had seen in my studies and testing, that the prevailing wisdom was that you averaged the subtest scores on the Wexler Intelligence Test, for example, and that that was then what the student’s potential was thought to be. I had never felt that that was appropriate, because if there were some subtests where they scored within the average or even above average range, but then others that were so low that it pulled their score down…
David Boulton: It failed to make the kind of distinctions about where their real intelligence was functioning that could guide any help, too, yes?
Pat Lindamood: Right. So, it seemed to me that the challenge was to figure out why were some of those processes so low in comparison to others rather than just averaging and saying that’s where the potential is. I told this family that I didn’t think that she was retarded, but that if I could have a week of exploratory teaching with her, then I could give a better opinion.
Then I was also brought another girl that same week who was twelve, and she had had eight years of speech therapy. She was diagnosed as retarded, and that diagnosis was correct, but her speech was completely unintelligible after eight years of speech therapy. Her grandmother brought her and said, “She’s beginning to be violent at home, and she’s big enough now that she can hurt her mother and her younger brothers and sisters when they can’t understand the needs that she’s trying to express. If we can’t do something for her speech, we may have to put her in an institution and not have her in our home anymore and we don’t want to do that. So again, I thought, well, I didn’t see how I could have anything to offer when she’d already had eight years of speech therapy. But the grandmother was so distraught I said, “Well, may I have a week of exploratory teaching with her, and I’ll see if I think I have anything to offer?”
So, as a result of the week of experience with those two girls, where neither of them were initially going to have anything to do with me — you know, why would they? They’d had so much failure already. But by Friday of that week, they were beginning to attend with me and interact with me a little bit, and so I asked for another week. I was really worried because I felt as if they were beginning to trust me, and I was concerned that if I weren’t adequate now, that then they might never trust anyone again.
David Boulton: Yes. Confirm their hopelessness.
Pat Lindamood: Right.
David Boulton: How many hours a day did you work with them?
Pat Lindamood: I just worked with them for an hour a day.
David Boulton: Okay. Just wanted to check that. Please continue.
Lindamood Auditory Conceptualization Test:
Pat Lindamood: So, I got on my knees and told the Lord I needed some help, that I didn’t want to produce another failure for them. So, as I continued to have that kind of approach to the problem, I began to have some leadings as to what was making a difference for them. And it had to do with their ability to be consciously aware of individual sounds, the phonemes of the language, and whether two were the same or different, and when they were put together into syllables and words, that they could not judge the identity or the number or order of them.
David Boulton: So, you had a first-person experience in your work with them about the importance of the whole phonemic awareness distinction that’s become so much a part of the conversation today?
Pat Lindamood: Yes. And at that time, the only test of that type was Wepman’s Auditory Discrimination Test. It was a good test for what it was asking, but the question it was asking, I felt, was too gross. It was just asking when two syllables were presented, the person being tested had to tell if they were the same or different. It seemed to me that what was needed was that the mind would be able to say how they were different and whether they were different, if you were going to want to connect into the alphabet system.
David Boulton: Right. At the level of granularity of the kind of sound distinctions that have to map to the letters.
Pat Lindamood: Right, and particularly the sequence in which they had to be. So, as a result of the need to determine where to put my effort with them, why, my husband — whose field was linguistics — and I developed a system for having them show us. Because I couldn’t understand what the retarded girl said, I had to have a way for her to show me her judgment of sameness or difference in number and order. So, we developed a way to use colored blocks for them to do that. That ultimately became a published test, the Lindamood Auditory Conceptualization Test.
It showed me where I had to put some effort with those girls, because the retarded girl could judge some isolated sounds as same or different, and others that were different, she judged as the same. So, when we put them into a syllable, she couldn’t make judgments at all. The other girl, who was not retarded — and the retardation doesn’t have anything to do with this phoneme awareness…
David Boulton: This aspect of it, yes, right.
Pat Lindamood: It’s not related to intelligence. But the other girl could do just the isolated sounds perfectly accurately when they were in patterns. But when those same phonemes were placed in syllables, and then when I added or omitted or substituted or shifted a phoneme, or repeated one within the pattern, she could not judge that at all. So, I saw I had to start at a common level, but that I could expect to move more rapidly with one girl than the other.
Facilitating First-Person Learning:
Pat Lindamood: Well, to make a long story short, with the goal that they would be able to know that they knew, and that they knew how they knew each thing that we were going to need to work on, I began to interact with them in a questioning process which was particularly based at the sensory level, where I wanted them to be able to prove every bit of information processing to themselves, and not have to take my word for anything.
David Boulton: Right.
Pat Lindamood: And so by using what I called “a respond to the response technique,” for when I ask a question, whatever answer they gave, I would connect to that answer with them, meeting their brain where it was meeting the task, and then I could question and help them to move further from that to where we needed to go.
David Boulton: So, you established a basis for syncing up with them at the level of their processing of phonemic distinctions.
Pat Lindamood: Right. And within nine months, the girl whose speech had been completely unintelligible, you could not understand even one word that she said, her speech became completely intelligible. I was the most surprised person.
David Boulton: Wow.
Using Feedback To Guide and Stimulate Learning:
Pat Lindamood: I had not even imagined that we would find that kind of a change for her. But I think, as I’ve pondered on that since then, that the brain comes wired to respond to phonemes. That’s why no matter what language you’re born into, you become able to speak it. I think that because I was putting so much attention to phonemes, particularly at the sensory level, of how the mouth articulated them, whether the tongue worked or the lips worked, and whether it was the tip of the tongue or the back of the tongue, and so forth, that we had just a very intense exploration of sounds and how they are formed and how they are sequenced in words. I think that then her brain was perhaps activated to come into what it wanted to do in the first place but had never quite been able to be stimulated enough.
David Boulton: So, you provided an environment for her to coherently differentiate how she was processing language.
Pat Lindamood: Right. Then the second girl did learn how to read and spell, and so I didn’t need to work with her longer than just that one nine-month period. Then the retarded girl, when we saw her speech and language had come in so completely intelligible now, that we decided that during the second year I would try to teach her how to read. And so we did that. She went on to graduate from high school and became a childcare worker in day care places. She became a contributing member of society instead of not being able to have a place in it.
David Boulton: That’s a great story. It reminded me of a variation on the Helen Keller story, of somebody trapped inside an inability to articulate and communicate with the people around them, and going off into all kinds of emotional strategies or adaptations or spill outs because they couldn’t make that kind of connection with the people around them.
Pat Lindamood: Right. When I saw that I had only had them an hour a day and this had been able to be accomplished, I thought, well, if classroom teachers have students for six hours a day and they’re a captive audience there, then perhaps if I showed them how to do this, these steps that had emerged in working with these girls, then maybe something could happen in classrooms.
Auditory Conceptual Judgment:
Pat Lindamood: So, I began to try to make those kinds of contacts and share what I felt I had some beginning understandings of. I called this problem “auditory conceptual judgment,” because the term “phoneme” was not in the vocabulary of educators at that time, and they wouldn’t have known what I was trying to talk about.
David Boulton: You could only talk to your husband about that one.
Pat Lindamood: Right. But I wanted it to be more than just the auditory discrimination that Wepman had called to attention, and so that’s why I called it “auditory conceptual” function.
David Boulton: And that was the terminology that could get through and get heard that would translate today into phonemic awareness?
Pat Lindamood: Right. Now, of course, phonemic awareness has become a buzzword.
David Boulton: Right.
Pat Lindamood: However, the concern that I have is that many people who are using the term do not really understand the factor itself, and how much you have to do to bring that in. Just for example, kindergarten teachers now are told to start the development of phoneme awareness by working on rhyming with children. And rhyming requires some awareness of phonemes.
David Boulton: Yeah. They’ve got it backwards there, but…
Pat Lindamood: That is not the place to start.
David Boulton: Yes. In my conversations I realize that there’s also a great confusion between the kind of phoneme awareness which is a natural development of oral language, and the more ‘packetized’ or unitized and abstractly determined granularity that has to go with mapping over to print.
Pat Lindamood: Yes. And that’s another issue.
David Boulton: That’s another part of the part of the conversation. But right now, just in terms of building up the phonemic processing frequency and granularity of distinction, what I’m hearing you describe is your own first-person experience of learning about that and helping children learn that as the basis for their takeoff into language proficiency.
Pat Lindamood: Yes. Because I wanted them to, as I say, know that they knew and know how they knew, so they could become self-correcting. But I felt it was their ability to hold and compare one syllable or word with another and be able to tell how they were different from each other and where they were different that would enable them to be self-correcting. Because when people had errors in reading, spelling or speech, there were five things that could cause that: they could add a sound that shouldn’t be there; they could omit one that had to be there; they could substitute one in place an another one and get letter instead of litter; and they could reverse the order so that they were trying to spell claps and they would spell clasp because they couldn’t tell the order of the last two sounds. Then another thing was repetition. I had college professors who would talk about ‘stastistics’ and my brain was saying, ‘Hey, you put an extra S in there, and theirs didn’t tell them that.’
Pat Lindamood: So, the thing that’s important to know is that the problem is a genetic difference. Some of us don’t come wired with the same kind of connections for this specific function of phoneme awareness.
David Boulton: You said, “genetic difference.” It seems to me that some of the processing infrastructure that’s forming in children from infants on, relative to how well they can do this, is forming in response to the environment they’re in and how language is being used, how distinctly or complexly it’s being used, and the speed at which it’s being used. Aren’t they growing into a learning environment that’s also affecting how well the formation of their ability to do this is developing?
Pat Lindamood: Yes, it can have some effect. But when you have within the same family some children who can respond to that environment without any difficulty and another child who doesn’t… Now that we have fMRI measures and MSI measures, now what we used to try to analyze on the basis of performance of the student, or behavior, now we can actually use brain function measures that will show an area of the brain that is active when people are making these good judgments about the identity, number and order of sounds and words, and that area of the brain is not active when they’re unable to do that.
David Boulton: Right. But that’s still at a snapshot in time. I mean, unless we did that across the number of children from the time they were born until the time they were six or seven so we could see the effect of their environment on developing that — I mean, I hear what you’re saying about the different kids from the same family ending up with different capacities here, and that that certainly reveals a genetic propensity that’s at work, but that at some degree, it’s both.
Pat Lindamood: Yeah.
David Boulton: I mean I don’t know how we could say otherwise, right? We couldn’t say that it was just genetic.
Pat Lindamood: No, no.
David Boulton: Okay.
Pat Lindamood: No, because if it were just genetics, then you couldn’t do anything about it.
David Boulton: Yes.
Pat Lindamood: But it is — it’s genetically based. Then depending on what’s done, the situation can be changed or not changed.
The Origin of Lindamood-Bell:
Pat Lindamood: Then if you wanted to know how Lindamood-Bell emerged out of that, it was that I was involved in a study in a school district north of us [San Louis Obispo, California] and I was trying to show them what could happen if they did these kinds of procedures in their regular school situation. I needed someone to teach, to do the individual sessions with the children and so I asked the superintendent principal of the school to give me his substitute list so that I could call one or two of the substitutes and see whether they would be interested in participating in this if I gave them the training for it and so forth.
My attention was particularly drawn to Nanci’s name, so I called her, and she was interested. Then I also called another woman and she was interested. When I began instructing them, there was a very big difference. Nanci was immediately able to tune into what I was wanting done and how to do it, and the other woman was trying very hard to do what I asked her to do but she didn’t have the same sense for how to bring that about.
At the end of the study, meanwhile I had been asked by my children’s pediatrician to have an office with the medical clinic where he was so that there could be more direct referrals made. So, when that practice was getting heavier, I was getting a long waiting list because I was the only one providing the services. I asked Nanci if she was interested in joining in my practice and she was. We started a relationship that she has contributed further understandings to of a very important nature. How long has it been now, Nanci? About twenty-eight years?
Nanci Bell: I was just writing it down. It’s been too long to mention, actually. I think, I was 19 when I first met you, either the program or the test wasn’t published.
Pat Lindamood: The program was published, but…
Nanci Bell: But the test wasn’t. So, it was like 1970. What she was describing, David, happened a long time ago, when she and I met. It’s been a wild ride, believe me.
David Boulton: And a great learning adventure, I take it.
Personal Background: Nanci Bell:
Nanci Bell: It’s been an unbelievable learning experience we have had. We’ve shared great opportunities to work with students one-on-one. And my story starts long before I met Pat.
When I met Pat, my husband had just returned from Vietnam and I had been just about to start a master’s degree in reading. Then because of Vietnam, I didn’t. When he came back, I got a job as a substitute teacher because he couldn’t find a job, just sort of kismet, and responded to Pat’s phone call and went on to work with her. Then finally I was able to get the master’s degree in reading. Pat’s master’s is in speech and mine is in reading. I think that the interaction between her knowledge of phoneme awareness and what I learned as I worked with students and what I learned in the field of reading about the importance of applying phoneme awareness to the alphabetic principle.
So, from working with all those students that we shared over the years, first in the medical clinic where I joined Pat in this little tiny office, and the two of us took turns being in the office because it was so small we couldn’t be in there at the same time. We began to teach parents how to work with their children and I would work with a parent once a week and put them through a series of steps that Pat had developed that she then called the AD Program, Auditory Discrimination. She added “in-depth” because she wanted it to be more than just how many sounds were in a word, she wanted it to be the sequence of them.
David Boulton: The whole — all that’s implicated in getting that part right.
Applying PA to Reading and Spelling:
Nanci Bell: Yes. So, as we have had the tremendous opportunity to work one-on-one with, now, thousands of students — and I think that that’s a key thing in sort of uncovering sensory processes necessary for reading — as Pat said, we’ve gone on to look at: What does it take to apply phoneme awareness to reading and spelling? Because as we worked with articulatory feedback and helping students perceive the sounds of the language, one of the things that would particularly frustrate both of us was that we would get very good gains in the ability to sound out an unfamiliar word, so our word attack games were consistently extremely high. We could take an adult who would come to us reading at a second grade level in word attack, and move him to a tenth grade level in a relatively short period of time. But that same adult would have trouble remembering sight words and reading fluently on the page.
I don’t know how much you’re into what’s happening in the field now. Clearly, phoneme awareness is finally a buzz word.
David Boulton: Yes, it’s part of the landscape, for sure.
Nanci Bell: David, the whole field was talking about whole language at that time, I mean, every class that I went into. Of course, by that time I had three children and I was working full time. I had been doing individual reading therapy for a long time, so I knew a lot at a practical level about what was really happening for students. They kept trying to tell us that there was no such thing as a sound, that there are only words. I would stand up and raise my hand and say, “Are you kidding me? Are you telling me that there are no sounds in those words?” They said that what I was talking about was just archaic, that it was something that happened a long time ago — or had been discussed a long time ago, and that was phonics. So, no matter what I did in trying to explain it, I could never get through.
David Boulton: You bumped up against the religion of the day.
Nanci Bell: It was the religion of the day. It was called “psycho-linguistic knowledge.” I don’t think it’s an accident that it was called psycho, by the way. To think that the only thing you have to do to read is to use context cues and guess is insanity.
David Boulton: Yes. It’s insanity making.
Nanci Bell: Yes, it is. I think it’s been proven, with what’s happened in California when we adopted it — this was in the 1980’s when I was getting a master’s degree when we adopted that — our scores plummeted. We were fifth in the nation. But I was put into a situation that helped me develop a better knowledge of reading because of that. I read all the people that were writing at that time, Frank Smith and Ken Goodman. I had to study them, and I had to debate that premise with my instructors. That was all fine, but my worst experience was working with a child in the reading clinic at the university who had been there five years and was still reading at a first-grade level. When I applied our principles of developing articulatory feedback, lip-poppers and tip-tappers and he began to make some progress at least in sounding out words — I mean, that was the first step he had to do anyhow — and I only had five weeks with him, I think twice a week — I said to my instructor, “I am going to show progress with this student,” and I see that all these other people are getting the same gains — getting no gains at all. These kids are coming back with the same scores year after year to this university reading clinic. These parents are putting their hopes with what we’re supposed to be doing, and you are preparing teachers. I was very disturbed, and very emotional and passionate about it. I came back and literally wept at my desk. There wasn’t anyone there. I wept at my desk thinking that they are teaching all these teachers to go out and blank out every fifth word, David, and teach those children to guess.
That was all they, truthfully, what they believed. They had at that time a paradigm of a triangle. That triangle was broken into three parts, and basically it was that the most important thing to do was to use context cues, and then maybe there was some syntax and semantics involved in reading, and then a little tiny piece might be phoneme awareness. I was very frustrated and I started my own paradigm, which we’ve used ever since, and makes a great deal of sense to me. At the time I didn’t realize it was called a Venn Diagram, the man V-e-n-n, where the circles integrate, and then there’s a larger circle on the outside. So, I began to say, okay, one of the circles is auditory and one of those circles is visual, and that’s sight words, and the auditory is word attack, and then one of them is what I’ve been learning —at the university, which is context cues.
Nanci Bell: Then I finally realized that being able to sound out a word, being able to remember it, and then being able to read it in context, that clearly is what you have to do, to do what we call decode. But those are only part of it, because what Pat and I were also frustrated with, was that not only were we wanting to get more gains than word attack skills, we wanted to improve it across the board. We were also extremely frustrated with the students that came to us, and there weren’t very many, David. But the students that came to us, we could develop their ability to read, but then they still couldn’t comprehend.
David Boulton: Yes. When you said they developed the ability to read…
Nanci Bell: Words. They could read words, but it didn’t do them any good because they couldn’t comprehend. There’s a term for that, as you probably know, if it’s really severe it’s called hyperlexia instead of dyslexia.
But the students that we were seeing may not have been severe enough to be called hyperlexic, it’s just that they could get a little bit of what they read, but they couldn’t get all of it. So, I began to think, as Pat did, about what did she do when she was reading a word, when she realized she could hear the sound and feel the sounds in her mouth, if she checked her mouth to verify a sound. I realized that when I read I was making images, that every book that I’d ever read — I was a girl that lived out in the country, I didn’t have any brothers and sisters, and I spent a lot of time with horses, and I read a lot of horse books — that I visualized every bit of them.
Nanci Bell: So, one day I was sitting with a college student who couldn’t spell and he couldn’t read very well, but he could read better than he could spell because he used context cues, of course. I took a break and I said, “Alan, just tell me — read this story to me. Read this paragraph to me and tell me what it’s about.” He could tell me everything, just an incredible ability to comprehend. I can remember exactly what the room looked like. I remember what he looked like. This was, oh, probably, I think, Pat, early 1980’s?
Pat Lindamood: Uh-huh.
Nanci Bell: Yeah. And I said to him, “How are you able to do that?” And he said, “I make movies when I read.” And I said, “What do you mean, you make movies?” And he said, “I don’t know.” And he sort of backed up, and he was shy. He said, “I just see things when I read. Doesn’t everybody do that?” And I said, “You know, I don’t know, but I certainly intend to find out. I know I do.”
And so I called Pat. I remember this little tiny office. This was before we were as big as we are now. I called her and I said, “Have you ever heard about anything to do with imagery and comprehension?” And she said, “Yes.” There was an article that she’d read by Dr. Joseph Wepman, who had actually written the Wepman Auditory Discrimination Test. I looked him up and out of that came the whole concept that just as there are abilities in perceiving sounds or phoneme awareness and inabilities; it’s the same problem with being able to image what you read.
David Boulton: So, there’s a processing infrastructure associated with being able to make these virtual reality movies in our mind, that also can get skewed, or not develop rightly. In a way that’s an analog to what we were talking about with Pat and sound.
Pat Lindamood: Yes.
Nanci Bell: Exactly. The thing I think is really interesting about that — and whenever I’m presenting at a conference — if you think about being able to image language for comprehending it, that’s being able to image concepts; in other words, gestalt, the big picture. That’s when I noticed that the people that had trouble comprehending could always give me the date of what they read or the name or a fact, but they couldn’t get the whole picture, and so therefore they couldn’t answer a main idea because they didn’t have it. They had a bunch of parts.
David Boulton: It never cohered for them.
Nanci Bell: And they couldn’t draw a conclusion or make a prediction. And that’s an interesting parallel…
David Boulton: Yes.
From Parts to Wholes:
Nanci Bell: Because if you have comprehension weakness because you can’t visualize concepts, that is the other side of the coin from someone who can’t process the parts of a word. So, it’s a parts to whole issue. In other words, when Pat was using colored blocks to measure the individual’s ability to perceive sounds, she was asking him to take the whole, the word, like “pip” and show its sounds in blocks.
David Boulton: Right. Make a subdistinction… to signal that they’ve got a distinction. Yes?
Nanci Bell: Right. So, this is the exact opposite problem, that they can get all the parts, all the words, and when the words come in, they could not process the whole. What was really interesting to us, was that we would see individuals who could easily read and spell words, but couldn’t comprehend. We could see that the students flip-flop — the students that were dyslexic could often comprehend really well, but that one did not seem to follow the other. You could have one problem or the other problem. You could have both, it’s a two-sided coin, in other words.
David Boulton: Yes. I mean, this is really great and I appreciate the two universal fields that you’re bringing together in your work, and how it’s evolved as I come into understanding it better. It’s really beautiful.
Pat Lindamood: It’s been very exciting, David, because we keep seeing that the situation can change every time.
David Boulton: Yes.
Using Imagery to Help Spelling:
Nanci Bell: Well, the only other thing that I want to say — and I don’t know what other questions you wanted to ask us, and I don’t want this to go too long, because I know that you probably want to do more of this with a video — but the other thing is, I want to take you back to Alan, this college student that couldn’t spell and read. When I said to him, “How come you can comprehend so well?” And he said, “I make movies when I read, and doesn’t everybody?” — then I went down that path of trying to figure that out. At the time, and I have never forgotten this, I said to him, “Okay, well, let’s use that imagery to help you spell.” What was happening to him when he would spell is he would spell phonetically and he couldn’t seem to get that opportunity might have two P‘s.
David Boulton: Right.
Nanci Bell: That answer had a W even though he couldn’t perceive it. It just didn’t make sense to us that no matter how much we did with the phoneme awareness development, we still couldn’t get that to carry over to the orthographic aspect of reading and spelling.
David Boulton: The difference between this unconscious, faster-than-thought processing involved in reading, and this volitional, intentional, structured thinking to produce a word by spelling it.
Pat Lindamood: Yes.
Nanci Bell: I think that we’ve uncovered another stone here. I suspect there might be more, if we can live long enough, Patricia.
Pat Lindamood: Right.
Nanci Bell: There might be more.
David Boulton: Hear, hear. Let’s do that.
Nanci Bell: One of the other ones is: I said to him, “Listen, let’s just spell that word,” — like a long word that we were working on like opportunity — “and just try to picture it.” And I said, “Well, what do you see?” — because we’d been studying it. He looked at me and he said — and this is a true story — he said, “I don’t see anything.”
David Boulton: Ah!
Nanci Bell: Wait a minute.” I said to myself, Okay, I’ve given him too long of a word. Now mind you, he could do blocks in our program upside and down. I mean, he could do it any way I asked him, as long as the words were playing fair. But when he got to real words and he had to remember the orthographic pattern, he just couldn’t do it. So, I said, “Okay, I’m going to give him a shorter word. What about the word enough? Can you see that?” Because he’d been able to spell that. He looked at me and said, “Nope. I don’t see anything.” I said, “Well, what if I say cat?” — thinking for sure he could see the word cat, C-A-T. He looked at me and he said, “Nanci, the only thing I can see is a cat. I can make it a red cat or a white cat, I can put the cat in a chair, but I can’t see the letters.”
So, now what we know is that being able to visualize letters is connected to phoneme awareness and orthographic processing. That’s kind of the third thing that we’re sort of uncovering here, and realizing that phoneme awareness alone won’t solve all of our reading problems. It’s certainly going to solve the word attack problem, but it won’t solve…
David Boulton: It’s a necessary but insufficient building block, internal component.
Nanci Bell: Yes. It won’t solve mapping to the alphabet, because we don’t read and spell with grunts and groans, we read and spell with letters and sounds.
David Boulton: Which, by the way, have some pretty confusing conventions.
Nanci Bell: Yes.
David Boulton: Yes, okay. Well, I’m really getting a tingle out of listening to the two of you, the passion, the honest, clean, clear-hearted work that you’re doing, and the intelligence you’ve brought; first-person learning your way into seeing aspects of this process at work in the minds of children, in a way that has brought forth this great work that you’re doing. I’m really honored to talk to you both about this.
Pat Lindamood: Thank you very much.
Sound-Image Code Processing:
David Boulton: When you’re talking about this, it seems that the whole lesson of whole language was that though an experienced good reader may in fact be visually pattern- recognizing words as a whole, that in order to be able to work out a word that hasn’t been previously experienced, they have to be able to process the code at the sound image level interface.
Pat Lindamood: How anybody could think that isn’t necessary is just unbelievable.
David Boulton: Well, it’s for the reasons that you point out, Pat, when we talked about the experience that you had of watching children. I mean, it seems that the human organism’s naturally evolved modalities of learning are very, very feedback dependent, somatically. I mean, we learn to walk by learning to sense ourselves falling. We differentiate our experiences in relation to a somatic field within ourselves that’s creating feedback for us.
Pat Lindamood: Right.
David Boulton: And in the absence of that, you are able to create a kind of bubble around these children that would allow them to get the kind of feedback about their articulations that they could tune in with. Yes?
Pat Lindamood: Yes. That’s a very good way to put it.
David Boulton: Thank you.
Pat Lindamood: I like to have words used so very succinctly like that. That’s good.
Children of the Code:
David Boulton: Thank you. So, let me give you a little sketch of where we’re coming from, so it percolates within you as we approach our video interview in the spring.
Pat Lindamood: Good.
David Boulton: I’m tracking completely with you, both of you, and in the area where the two intersect in this space, where you, Nanci, used the term the “alphabetic principle.”
First of all, we think it’s important for the adults of our country and world to understand the nature of this challenge, that this challenge is unlike any other challenge or any other environment that the human organism evolved in. This is a challenge that’s come about in relation to a technology.
Pat Lindamood: Right.
David Boulton: What we’re talking about is a virtual reality system that can take instructions and information from a code and end up generating inside, whether it’s by image, or simulated sound stream, or the actual articulation of speech, an experience of language and meaning. There’s this projector that’s projecting this articulation, virtually heard or actually spoken, from this code system. It’s got to weave through however it is we’ve learned to think, and it’s got to weave through and animate this internal auditory processing that’s the ground reference for it taking off.
Pat Lindamood: Yeah.
Nanci Bell: David, help me understand: What you’re doing is a documentary?
David Boulton: Yes. It’s a documentary. It starts off with a review of the implications of reading today via various people that are on the edges of those implications: the director of ProLiteracy, Reading is Fundamental, we’ve interviewed Russ Whitehurst and Reid Lyon, and Paula Tallal, as I mentioned, and Chris Doherty at Reading First. We’ve gathered people that represent different dimensions of experience, research, thought and science about what reading is and its effects on our world today. Having framed it, what we’re basically wanting to help people understand is that this processing that’s happening in this fraction of a second; between the time our eyes scan across letters, and words stream into our mind or out of our mouth, is responsible for hundreds of billions of dollars in economic waste, and more importantly, millions and millions of lives that have suffered harm in the process of trying to learn to do this.
Pat Lindamood: Indeed. That’s what keeps Nanci and me passionate about this.
David Boulton: Yes. I’m so glad. And I can feel that. And that’s part of where I feel a great resonance and connection with you both. So having established that, now we’re going to rewind in time, and we’re going to go back to the beginnings of writing, and up through the emergence of the alphabet, its initial use and distribution by the Phoenicians and Hebrews, how it’s picked up in Greece; how at that time, as Plato said, reading was a case of: “Once we knew the letters, we could read.”
David Boulton: There’s no internal assembly required. It was phonetic.
Pat Lindamood: Amazing.
David Boulton: So then through the story of that to the Romans, the spread of Romans. The kind of worldwide web #1 of information infrastructure to control an empire with, that even as the empire died, was the power language that would later be the basis for transcribing the oral languages of Europe, in particular, English; which we then go through Dick Venezky and a woman by the name of Johanna Drucker. I don’t know if you read her book The Alphabetic Labyrinth.
Pat Lindamood: No.
David Boulton: John Fisher’s, The Emergence of Standard English, which pins the beginnings of written English to Henry V and the Chancery scribes in the 1400s, and basically a couple of hundred people who are trained in Latin, speak French, and bringing a Latin and French bias to try to map what was twenty-four letters on forty-something sounds…
Pat Lindamood: Uh-huh.
Nanci Bell: Uh-huh.
David Boulton: As the root of what would become this great confusion. Through that, through the history of attempts to reform the code, the great 1906 accident at the hands of Theodore Roosevelt; the divergence of phonics in the 1600s; the emergence of whole language as an argument against it (code reform) by Horace Mann and the inventors of kindergarten; to the reading wars of today; to the distinction between an understandable whole language bias which says, “Human beings learn best when what they’re doing is consciously meaningful”; and the failure of that logic to deal with the unnaturally confusing aspects of an artificial code.
Pat Lindamood: Yes, because when you have a code involved it’s completely different.
Nanci Bell: It’s going to be great.
David Boulton: Right. So that people have a frame of reference for understanding where this code came from, how this reading challenge originates, that it’s connected to a kind of neglected technology — not that I’m going down the road of advocating changing the code.
Pat Lindamood: No. That would be too big a job.
Nanci Bell: We can’t live that long, David.
David Boulton: But I do have some ideas about thinking about the code differently.
Nanci Bell: Really?
David Boulton: Yes.
Nanci Bell: And you know about the Pitman’s work, then?
David Boulton: Yes.
Nanci Bell: It’s very interesting, huh?
David Boulton: Yes, and Alexander Bell’s father…
Nanci Bell: Really?
David Boulton: Right? He was the first one to develop visual speech.
Nanci Bell: Is that right?
David Boulton: Yeah. You’d really appreciate his story.
Nanci Bell: That’s for sure.
David Boulton: There’s a movie about him, I forget who did it,called The Sound of Silence, I think. It’s the story of Alexander Graham Bell, who grew up doing, Pat, what you were doing. He was concerned with sound distinctions. He was trying to make a telegraph that would take little quanta of sound and send it around, and stumbled into the telephone later.
Nanci Bell: Very interesting.
David Boulton: He was the one that taught the teacher that taught Helen Keller.
Pat Lindamood: Oh, I didn’t know that.
David Boulton: Yes, he was very connected to the speech field. And he came out of this because his mother was deaf and his father was trying to invent a new alphabet. So, the telephone we’re talking on is connected to our conversation in that way.
Nanci Bell: Very interesting.
Ashamed of their Minds:
David Boulton: Anyway, so the Children of the Code is an attempt to reframe how we think about reading, where it came from, what the challenge is. Because on top of everything we’ve been talking about so far, one of the other really significant components here is the affective component, and what happens when children learn to feel ashamed of their minds because the environment is telling them there’s something wrong with them because they can’t do this.
Pat Lindamood: Absolutely, that needs to be brought in strongly.
David Boulton: Yes. Because it’s not just a wouldn’t-it-be-nice emotional thing, it’s a fundamental processing thing. I don’t know if you’re familiar with affect science, but the moment that affects trigger, they destabilize cognition. They disentrain cognition.
Pat Lindamood: Right.
David Boulton: So our story is going to run the specturm of the history of reading, the history of the code, how the code came to be the way it is today and the kinds of confusions in it. We’re also going to be bringing in some of the world’s greatest code technologists and scientists and looking at this code as if we might look at any other kind of code, and showing…
Pat Lindamood: Really?
David Boulton: What a negligence-precipitated mess it is.
Pat Lindamood: No, it’s not as bad as it looks, though, David. There are ways that you can organize the patterns within it.
Understanding the Learner's Challenge:
David Boulton: Absolutely. I’m not saying that there isn’t. In my conversation with Venezky, who is the orthographist that Reid Lyon and group looks to as being the expert on the structure of the code, having written the book, The Structure of English Orthography…
Pat Lindamood: Uh-huh.
Nanci Bell: Right.
David Boulton: There’s no question that we as adults can be on the other side of the code and look at it, and with our terminology and thought process, map over the difference between morphological and phonological units, and how they relate to one another and so forth…
Pat Lindamood: Right.
David Boulton: But that’s entirely different than being four or five years old and not knowing anything about that, and bumping into the confusions of it.
Pat Lindamood: Yes, that’s true.
David Boulton: And that’s the perspective when I say that…
Nanci Bell: I think that’s really interesting, David..
David Boulton: From the point of view of the child, I’m interested in: What are the kinds and classes of confusions that they’re experiencing on the ramp up to learning to read?
Pat Lindamood: Right. Also, are you aware that we have teachers out there who’ve been sent out to teach language and reading, who do not have adequate phoneme awareness themselves?
David Boulton: Yes.
Nanci Bell: David, are you aware that they also don’t have good comprehension?
Pat Lindamood: Right.
David Boulton: Yes. And I’m very interested in the relationship between the two.
Nanci Bell: It’s so interesting.
Pat Lindamood: We’ve begun to collect some research on that.
David Boulton: I’d be very interested in that.
David Boulton: It’s very clear to me that we have a — for example in talking to Robert Wedgeworth, the president of ProLiteracy, one thing they’re focusing on is identifying the consumer behavior of adult illiterates. People that have struggled historically with trying to read, have radically different consumer behaviors. You say, “Well, what has that got do with anything?” But it’s very important in how it reveals something deeper. Based on studies that they, the American Medical Association, and other organizations have done, what they’re realizing is that people that cannot read, read well enough; when they go into a store, the primary thing that’s motivating them, their attention, is how to avoid being embarrassed about it.
Pat Lindamood: Sure.
Nanci Bell: Uh-huh.
David Boulton: Right? I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met that once they started to understand what I was doing, let down their guard and described how they have this shame aversion because they don’t read that well, and they’re constantly trying to hide it.
Pat Lindamood: They get very good at it, too.
Pat Lindamood: We’ve had clinical experience with neurosurgeons and other physicians who are not reading and spelling accurately enough to really function well in their medical field.
David Boulton: That’s kind of scary.
Pat Lindamood: It’s kind of scary when you think about that.
David Boulton: Don’t tell me about the airline pilots, though. I don’t want to know.
Nanci Bell: One person that we worked with that was a doctor down the hall from us told me that he — the reason that doctors scribble prescriptions is because they can’t spell the word.
Then on the other side, we were talking about the two-sided coin, then we have seen people trying to be physicians who cannot pass their boards. And they don’t have trouble reading and spelling words, they can’t comprehend. Their comprehension is like the second percentile. (see: shame stories)
Missing the Gestalt:
Nanci Bell: So, David, if they’re only processing parts, but not the gestalt, then they’re not going to be able to diagnosis.
David Boulton: Right, because their verbal intelligence isn’t getting exercised in making those kind of conceptually dexterous movements.
Nanci Bell: Right. A good diagnostician takes the parts and brings them to a whole, and makes a decision. But if the only thing your sensory system can do is process parts — if you go to a physician like that, you are in trouble.
David Boulton: Yeah, yeah. It’s pretty scary. I mean, we’re talking about 100 million people affected here, depending on which statistics you use and how much you put weight in them.
Nanci Bell: Especially if you start looking beyond whether or not they can read and spell a word accurately. If you start adding comprehension, that’s what has Pat and me, and the people that we’ve worked with over in our organization for so many years, that’s what keeps us so passionate about this work. I really think the problem is way bigger than we realize, if we add in the amount of people who can read and spell the words accurately but can’t comprehend.
David Boulton: Yes. And both are still connected to this underlying processing.
Nanci Bell: That’s right.
David Boulton: So we’re still talking about a problem in learning this artificial processing — this collection of artificial processing requirements necessary to interface with this code — that is having hundreds of billions of dollars a year of effect on our economy, and seriously diminishing the life opportunities for a third or more of our population.
Pat Lindamood: That’s true.
Nanci Bell: I suspect it’s more.
The Greatest Risk:
David Boulton: I think so, too. I’m trying to be conservative, because that’s one of the things that we come under — I made a statement in the last article which was, “If you add them all together, the statistical incidents of child abuse and all known mental and physical developmental disorders, they still don’t come near the amount of life harm that children are at risk for, statistically, in learning to read.”
Pat Lindamood: Yes, and child abuse also comes out of that.
David Boulton: Yes. Clearly there are so many things that are attendant to the psychological consequences of reading difficulties that then connect to all kinds of social pathologies, like in the conversation with Wendorf.
Pat Lindamood: David, can you send us some of your work?
David Boulton: I will. And I’ll also send you a couple places on my learning site, things about feedback that connects with our conversation earlier about somatic feedback, it’s relationship to our natural organic learning, and the absence of sufficiently coherent feedback to allow us to unfold in this virtual space.
Pat Lindamood: Uh-huh. It sounds as if we’ve been really considering a basically important thing very much from the same point of view.
David Boulton: Yes, yes, which is a heart-centered concern for the well being of children, that we have an empathic, compassionate connection with, first-person.
Nanci Bell: That’s right.
David Boulton: Yes.
David Boulton: You were talking about spelling shame. We’ll close on this point, I think, for now. I so appreciate our conversation. It may interest you to know that Charles Darwin got behind the attempt to change the spelling in England probably in some part because of his own shame about spelling.
Pat Lindamood: Oh, really?
David Boulton: And between the 1880s and 1906, about 250 of the English language’s most elite thinkers gathered in a distributed conversation by mail across the Atlantic, throughout the United States, the presidents of Stanford and Harvard and Yale, the Commissioner of Education in the United States, Supreme Court justices, members of Congress, some of the world’s first class scientists like William James and wordsmiths like Twain and Lord Tennyson — and you wouldn’t believe the who’s who that were part of this team. And they came to the conclusion based on what they’d inherited from Franklin and Noah Webster’s work that the problems of the confusion in the orthography of English was a retardant to the advance of the English language at an economic imperialistic level, and also that it was costing our children an extra two or three years of learning time than it needed to.
So Franklin, who had first proposed a new alphabet, and Webster, (who were now long dead at this point), were not able to get anything off the ground because they tried to do an over-the-top. They tried to get the powers that were at the time, to understand what they were doing, and they got dismissed. So this new group, headed by Melvil Dewey, the person who made the library system, Dewey Decimals that we use today, designed a multigenerational approach to slowly shift the spelling, so that the sound and the spelling would line up in the future. And their approach was to get all of the major writers, the guy that was the head of Funk & Wagnall’s, Henry Holt of Henry Holt Textbooks — all these people were part of this “open conspiracy,” as H. G. Wells called it, to shift the language.
In 1906, Brander Matthews, the head of the English Department at Columbia University, who happened to be a friend of Theodore Roosevelt, leaked what they were doing to him He told Roosevelt what they were doing. Roosevelt was ashamed of his spelling his whole life. And it hit him so hard that he said, “We’ve got do this.” And he made an order to the Office of Government Printing to have the Office of Government Printing conform to the new spelling systems that these people had worked out. Congress came in and said, “Presidents don’t have the right to change the spelling.” And a war ensued that ultimately included the Supreme Court, the United States Congress and the presidency.
Now, the interesting thing is that the money that had been put up to fund this international gathering came from Andrew Carnegie. He put up a quarter of a million dollars. And because of Carnegie and Roosevelt‘s advocacy of this change, the press, in its attack on Roosevelt, basically put a stink on the whole thing and said, “This whole idea of reforming the language is nothing more than a pretense so that Andrew Carnegie, the world’s richest guy, can make more billions of dollars by selling all the new books that would be required.” And the whole thing crashed.
Nanci Bell: Oh, my. Oh, my word.
Pat Lindamood: It’s amazing.
David Boulton: The history of this problem is one of the most remarkable stories never told, and that’s also part of what we’re doing. And it connects to where we were, which is: This mistake that was made by Theodore Roosevelt was made out of the passionate impulse of a person who was ashamed of his spelling.
Pat Lindamood: But even if the spelling were changed, you still have people who can’t judge the phonemes, and so…
David Boulton: Absolutely.
Pat Lindamood: That’s not going to solve it for them.
David Boulton: No, no, no, that’s not. But if we were to do a distribution of where are the struggles between the point at which we’ve got good phonemic awareness distinction happening, at the frequency level that’s necessary for the projector to work, so to speak, and we’ve got the comprehension parts that Nanci was talking about, ultimately, somewhere in the middle there, we come smack into the code. And the more the ambiguity in the code, the more brain processing time to process the ambiguity that can stutter up the articulation flow of reading.
Pat Lindamood: Yes. It’s all interrelated. I have had people tell me, “Well, there aren’t any students in Japan who learn Spanish that have any difficulty learning how to read.” And that’s just absolutely not true.
David Boulton: Oh, yeah. No, no, no. There’s no question that every language has its own difficulties of learning to read.
Pat Lindamood: And they’re all related to connecting the phonemes and the code at that first decoding level.
David Boulton: There’s no question that there’s not going to be any reading if they don’t get that right. I’m in total alignment with you.
Pat Lindamood: Well, there was for a while — when the whole language people were trying to make such a big push, they were saying that good readers do not actually process each sound and letter within a word as they read. And I saw some research on that, and I have not been able to find it since then. If you run across this, I’d appreciate it. There was a research study that showed that even very, very rapid, very accurate readers, when they come to an unfamiliar word that they do absolutely look at every single letter. And even in the words that they know, there was evidence that the brain was attending to all of the letters in the word.
David Boulton: Right. In the conversation with Venezky we talk about this a lot, and the difference between whether or not they’re working out the sounds on a per-letter basis, or how many eye-fixations per word are they locking on. So there are many different ways to interpret this space. But I think fundamentally, what you’re saying is right. I mean, if they don’t have the sound system working in the right way, they can’t proceed to this mapping.
Pat Lindamood: Whether it’s individual letters and sounds or syllables…
David Boulton: Yes. It’s still the same problem.
Pat Lindamood: Or bigger things, it’s based on the base.
David Boulton: And even though they may get the sound system right, then they can bump into one or the other problems down the road, right?
Pat Lindamood: Right.
David Boulton: So, each one of these things is necessary, but insufficient to make the whole thing work.
Pat Lindamood: Yes.
A Good Reader Needs Them All:
Nanci Bell: And I think that that’s the key. That’s what I was trying to say with the Venn Diagram which is a way to show that reading is an integration of skills. It is phoneme awareness, and word attack, and symbol imagery, and word recognition, and reading in context and comprehension; that if you don’t have all of those, truly, you will not be a good reader. Because if the only thing you can do is sound out a word, or the only thing you can do is read a word accurately but can’t sound out an unfamiliar one, or if the only thing that you can do is guess from context, or if the only thing that you can do is all of that put together, and you still can’t comprehend, you have nothing.
David Boulton: Right.
Nanci Bell: So, reading is an integration of sensory processes, which is what we’ve been working on for a long time.We’re trying to uncover what are the sensory mechanisms that the brain, that the child needs to have in order to break that code all the way.
David Boulton: Yes. Excellent. The one other thing that occurred to me and that occurs to me when I think in this space with you, is that these things are concurring processes.
Nanci Bell: That’s right. Absolutely.
Pat Lindamood: Yes.
David Boulton: So, we’re talking about how to integrate, or in my language, co-implicate the flow of all-at-once-ness in these multiple, concurring processes.
Pat Lindamood: Yes..
Nanci Bell: That’s right. David, I was at Harvard one summer in the 1970s, and I attended a long summer course on reading. I had some of the best people talking to us. And at the end of that it was Jean Chall, Helen Pope, and a man named Shep White — at the end of all of that, they summarized it by saying, “Reading is so complicated,” this, this, this, this, this — that the people that were sitting around me just put their heads down and went, “We have to go back and try to make sense of this and teach children.” And I was so disturbed because they made it seem as if reading was just all kinds of things. And really, it’s not. It is an integration of processes, but it’s not an integration of a hundred processes.
David Boulton: No. Right. That’s for sure.
Pat Lindamood: Right.
David Boulton: And all of the complexity and how we adult’s think about it is entirely different than: “What is it a child needs from the inside out as they are experiencing this on ramp into learning to read?”
Nanci Bell: Well, Patricia, you probably need to go. Don’t you have a student there?
Pat Lindamood: I have already put her to doing the critical thinking test.
David Boulton: Well, I think this is a great start. I will be sending you some information. Please open the door and share with me anything that you’re comfortable with about what you think would be important to make sure it’s part of the thinking in all of this. I look forward to scheduling our time and meeting you in person, and doing this and more on the camera.
Nanci Bell: Thanks, David.
David Boulton: Thank you both, so much.