Popular Science Monthly/Volume 54/January 1899/Should Children Under Ten Learn to Read and Write?

1397491Popular Science Monthly Volume 54 January 1899 — Should Children Under Ten Learn to Read and Write?1899George Thomas White Patrick


By Prof. G. T. W. PATRICK.

THERE are certain propositions about education so evidently true that probably no parent or teacher would question them. For instance, the best school is one in which the course of study is progressively adapted to the mental development of the children. Again, certain subjects are adapted to children of certain ages or stages of development, and others are not. One would not recommend the study of logic or of the calculus to the average child of ten, nor would the teaching of English be wisely deferred until the age of fifteen. Finally, if the courses of study in our present school system shall be found to be arranged without regard to the order of mental development, they will sooner or later be modified in accordance with it. Now the educational system in practice in the two or three hundred thousand public schools in the United States is a somewhat definite one, with a somewhat fixed order of studies through the different years or grades. In a majority of the States children are admitted to the schools at the age of six; in more than one third of the States children of five are admitted. In a general way we may say that during the first four years of school life the principal subjects occupying the time of the children are reading, writing, and arithmetic. To be more exact, we may cite, for instance, the city schools of Chicago.[1] Exclusive of recesses and opening exercises, there are in these schools thirteen hundred and fifty minutes of school work per week. Of this time, in the first and second grades, six hundred and seventy-five minutes are devoted to reading, seventy-five minutes to writing, and two hundred and twenty-five minutes to mathematics. Seventy-two per cent of the total time is therefore consumed by these subjects. In the third grade the proportion is the same; in the fourth grade it is somewhat more than fifty per cent. I have mentioned the Chicago schools because this is one of those school systems where a liberal introduction of other subjects, such as Nature study, physical culture, singing, and oral English, has somewhat lessened the time given to reading, writing, and arithmetic. Other cities, with few exceptions, will be found to give more rather than less time to these subjects. In the country schools, and indeed in a vast number of town and city schools, practically all the time during these early years is given to reading, writing, and arithmetic.

We must conclude, therefore, if our educational system is a rational one, that reading, writing, and arithmetic are the subjects peculiarly adapted to the mind of the child between the ages of five and ten. It is worth while to inquire from the standpoint of child psychology whether this be true. It should be observed, in the first place, that the manner in which our educational system has grown up is no guarantee that it rests upon a psychological basis. Our schools are exceedingly conservative. Any innovations or radical changes are resisted by the parents of the children even more strenuously than by school boards, superintendents, and teachers. Notwithstanding numerous and important minor improvements, the school system as a whole remains unchanged. Our children of seven and eight years are learning to read and write because our grandfathers were so doing at that age.

We can not here discuss the origin of our present school curriculum, but, as explaining the prominence given to reading, writing, and arithmetic, it is worthy of notice that originally the elementary school existed to teach just these three subjects. The primitive schoolmaster was not superior to the parents of the child, usually not their equal, in anything except his knowledge of "letters." So the child was sent to school for a short time to learn letters. It was not at all the function of the school to educate the child in all that was necessary to fit him for the duties of life. Afterward, as the scope of the school was enlarged, other subjects were added, and these were put after the original ones, and the schoolmaster, furthermore, came rather to take the place of an educator than a mere teacher of letters. It is conceivable, therefore, that the present accepted order of studies in our elementary schools rests upon an accidental rather than upon a psychological basis. It is true that modern educators have expressly considered the subject of the order and correlation of studies, as, for instance, in the case of the Committee of Fifteen, and that, while recommending minor changes in the school curriculum, they have not usually thought of questioning the position so long held by reading, writing, and arithmetic. In the report of the committee just referred to we find this expression: "The conclusion is reached that learning to read and write should be the leading study of the pupil in his first four years of school." But, again, it was not the function of this committee to suggest sweeping changes, nor to raise the inquiry whether the system itself rests upon a psychological basis. Even if it did not rest upon such a basis, expressions like the above would not be unnatural on the part of committees appointed by bodies representing the system as a whole.

We may not, then, conclude a priori that our system of primary education is a sound one. There have indeed been other wholly different systems giving excellent results in their time, as, for instance, that of the ancient Greeks, where music and gymnastics, not reading, writing, and arithmetic, were the principal subjects occupying the time of the pupils.

Much attention has recently been given to the subjects of the physiology and psychology of children. These studies have been systematic, painstaking, and exact. It seems, indeed, to many people improbable that anything very new or very remarkable should just at this time be found out about children, and there have not been wanting either prominent educators or psychologists who have given public expression to warnings against the new "child study." But this, again, is not conclusive, for students of history may recall that every advance in science has met just such opposition—for instance, bacteriology, organic evolution, chemistry, and astronomy. Furthermore, when we reflect that scientific advance in this century has ever been, and inevitably, from the simple to the complex, and, further, that the brain of the child is the most complex thing in the whole range of natural history which science will ever have to attempt, it is not difficult to understand that scientific knowledge of it with its pedagogical implications has not belonged, at any rate, to the past. It will belong to the future, having, perhaps, its beginnings in the present. An educational system which has not reckoned with an accurate knowledge of the brain of the child may by accident be a correct one, but until such reckoning is made we can not be sure.

Our increasing knowledge of the child's mind, his muscular and nervous system, and his special senses, points indubitably to the conclusion that reading and writing are subjects which do not belong to the early years of school life, but to a later period, and that other subjects now studied later are better adapted to this early stage of development. What is thus indicated of reading and writing may be affirmed also of drawing and arithmetic. The reasons leading to this conclusion can be only very briefly summarized here.

As regards reading, writing, and drawing, they involve, in the first place, a high degree of motor specialization, which is not only unnatural but dangerous for young children. Studies in motor ability have shown that the order of muscular development is from the larger and coarser to the finer and more delicate muscles. The movements of the child are the large, free movements of the body, legs, and arms, such as he exhibits in spontaneous play. The movements requiring fine co-ordination, such as those of the fingers and the eyes, are the movements of maturer life. If we reverse this order and compel the child to hold his body, legs, and arms still, while he engages the delicate muscles of the eyes and fingers with minute written or printed symbols, we induce a nervous overtension, and incur the evils incident to all violation of natural order. The increasing frequency of nervous disorders among school children, particularly in the older countries, is probably due in part to these circumstances. If we consider the brain of the child of seven or eight years, our conclusions are strengthened that he should not be engaged in reading and writing. At this age the brain has attained almost its full weight, and is therefore large in proportion to the body. Its development is, however, very incomplete, particularly as regards its associative elements—that is, the so-called association fibers and apperception centers. Such a brain constantly produces and must expend a large amount of nervous energy, which can not be used centrally—that is, psychologically speaking—in comparison, analysis, thought, reflection. It must flow out through the motor channels, becoming muscular movement. The healthy child is therefore incessantly active in waking hours, the action being of the vigorous kind involving the larger members. Hence we can understand that, of all the ways in which a young child may receive instruction, the method through the printed book is pre-eminently the one ill fitted to him.

The evil of this method is aggravated by the fact that, before the child can receive instruction through the book, a long time—several years, in fact—is spent in the confining task of learning to read. It comes about, therefore, that the child, at the very age when he should be leading a free and expansive life, is obliged to fix his eyes upon the narrow page of a book and decipher small printed symbols, in themselves devoid of life and interest. With respect to writing and learning to write the case is worse. A considerable amount of motor specialization is involved in forming letters upon the blackboard, but when the pencil and pen are used it becomes of an extreme kind. In the whole life history of the man there are no movements requiring finer co-ordination than those of writing with pencil or pen, yet our school system requires these of the child of six or seven years, makes them, indeed, a prominent part of elementary school life. In addition to the motor specialization of reading and writing is the physical confinement in the narrow seat and desk which is necessarily connected with them. The child of six or seven has not reached the age when such confinement is natural or safe.

The injuries which I have mentioned relate to the nervous system as a whole. There are other injuries resulting from the reading habit in young children which concern the eyes directly. So much has been said and written lately about the increase of myopia and other defects of the eye among school children, that I shall merely refer to this subject here. Upon entering school, children are practically free from these defects. Upon leaving school, a strikingly large percentage are suffering from them, more, however, as yet, in European countries than in America. The causes are many, but it is scarcely doubted that the chief cause is found in bending over finely printed books and maps, and fine writing, pencil work, and drawing. If pencils, pens, paper, and books could be kept away from children until they are at least ten years of age, and their instruction come directly from objects and from the voice of the teacher, this evil could be greatly lessened.

If the above reasons for not teaching reading and writing to young children were the only ones, the objections could to a certain extent be overcome. Writing might, for instance, be practiced only on the blackboard with large free-hand movements, and letters could be taught from large forms upon charts. But we have to consider the questions whether reading and writing are in themselves branches of instruction which belong to the early years of school life, whether they may not be acquired at a great disadvantage at this period, and whether more time is not spent upon them than is necessary. It is a well-known fact that a child's powers, whether physical or mental, ripen in a certain rather definite order. There is, for instance, a certain time in the life of the infant when the motor mechanism of the legs ripens, before which the child can not be taught to walk, while after that time he can not be kept from walking. Again, at the age of seven, for instance, there is a mental readiness for some things and an unreadiness for others. The brain is then very impressionable and retentive, and a store of useful material, both motor and sensory, may be permanently acquired with great economy of effort. The imagination is active, and the child loves to listen to narration, whether historical or mythical, which plays without effort of his will upon his relatively small store of memory images. The powers of analysis, comparison, and abstraction are little developed, and the child has only a limited ability to detect mathematical or logical relations. The power of voluntary attention is slight, and can be exerted for only a short time. All this may be stated physiologically by saying that the brain activity is sensory and motor, but not central. The sensory and motor mechanism has ripened, but not the associative. The brain is hardly more than a receiving, recording, and reacting apparatus. It would be inaccurate, however, to express this psychologically by saying that perception, memory, and will are the mental powers that have ripened at the age of seven. This would be true only if by perception we mean not apperception, which involves a considerable development of associative readiness, but mere passive apprehension through the senses, and if by memory we mean not recollection, but mere retentiveness for that which interests, and if by will we mean not volition, but only spontaneous movement and readiness to form habits of action, including a large number of instinctive movement psychoses, such as imitation, play, and language in its spoken form.

Following out, then, somewhat as above, the psychology of the child, what kind of education would be particularly adapted to his stage of development? We ask not what can the child be taught, but what studies are for him most natural and therefore most economical. In the first place, from the development of the senses and the perceptive power above described, we infer that the child is ready to acquire a knowledge of the world of objects around him through the senses of sight, hearing, touch, temperature, taste, and smell. His education will have to do with real things and their qualities, rather than with symbols which stand for things. If we wish a general term for this branch of instruction, we may call it natural science, or, to distinguish it from science in its more mature form as the study of laws and causes, we may call it natural history, or, more briefly, Nature study. Although the appropriateness and economy of this study for young children has been known and proclaimed for more than a century, it is still in practice the study of later years, while young children study letters.

In the second place, from the development of the retentive powers of the child we infer that he is qualified to gain acquaintance not only with the real world around him, but with the real world of the past. We may call this history. History is now studied later by means of text-books. It may be studied with far greater economy during earlier years by means of direct narration by parent or teacher. It is wonderful how eagerly a child will listen to historical narration, and how easily he will retain it. This method of teaching history forms a striking contrast to the perfunctory manner in which it is often studied in the upper school grades, with the text-book "lesson,"

"recitation," and the "final examination." Upon the minds of many young people the study of history has a deadening effect when the history epoch is passed and the mathematical epoch has arrived. It has already been proposed, at a conference of educators lately held in Chicago, to extend the study of history downward into the lower grades, a proposition fully sanctioned by psychological pedagogy. In what I have here said about history for young people I refer not to the philosophy of history, which comes much later in the life of the student, but to history as a mere record of facts and events, the kind of history which is now studied in the grammar and high schools, the kind which many educators who would make all children philosophers are now saying should not be studied at all.

In the third place, what studies correspond to the development of the will in the child from five to ten? It is the habit-forming epoch. It is the time when a large and useful store of motor memory images may be acquired, and when permanent reflex tracts may be formed in the spinal cord and lower brain centers. This is the time to teach the child to do easily and habitually a large number of useful things. If we use the term in its broadest sense, we may call this branch of instruction morals, but it will also include, besides habits of conduct, various bodily activities, certain manual dexterities, and correct habits of speech, expression, and singing. But here some restrictions must be observed. The habit-forming period begins at birth and continues far beyond the age of ten, and the period from five to ten is not the time for the formation of all habits. The order of muscular development must be observed, and all dexterities involving finely co-ordinated movements of the fingers, or strain of the eyes, should be deferred beyond this period, or at most begun only in the latter part of it; such, for instance, as writing, drawing, modeling, sewing, knitting, playing upon musical instruments, and minute mechanical work, as well, of course, as the plaiting, pricking, stitching, weaving, and other finger work still practiced in some kindergartens and primary schools.

We have thus seen that there are certain branches of instruction for which the mind of the child from five to ten has ripened, and which may therefore be taught most economically and safely during this period. Concerning the teaching of language I shall speak presently, but thus far we have found that from the psychological standpoint there are at any rate three subjects which are strikingly adapted to this period, namely, natural science, history, and morals, using these terms with the latitude and restriction already explained. Certain branches of Nature study and one branch of what we have called morals—namely, manual training—have in recent years been introduced into our best elementary city schools, and in a few schools history is taught systematically in the lower grades by means of stories. They have not, however, crowded out reading, writing, and arithmetic so much as crowded into them. But if we consider the great mass of schools in city, town, and country throughout the land, the subjects which practically complete the elementary school curriculum—reading, writing, arithmetic, and geography—are, with the exception of the latter, found to be subjects which do not naturally belong to this period at all. Mathematics in every form is a subject conspicuously ill fitted to the child mind. It deals not with real things, but with abstractions. When referred to concrete objects, it concerns not the objects themselves, but their relations to each other. It involves comparison, analysis, abstraction. It calls for a fuller development of the association tracts and fibers of the cerebral hemispheres. The grotesque "number forms" which so many children have, and which originate in this period, are evidence of the necessity which the child feels of giving some kind of bodily shape to these abstractions which he is compelled to study. Under mathematics I do not of course include the mere mentioning or learning a number series, such as in the process called "counting," or the committing to memory of a multiplication table. Furthermore, in this and in all discussions of this kind it must be remembered that there are exceptional children in whom the mathematical faculty, or musical faculty, or literary faculty, develops much earlier than with the average child. If possible, they should have instruction suited to their peculiarities. But it is evident that, so long as children are educated in "schools," there must be a general plan of education, and that it can not be based upon exceptional children.

What we learn from physiology and psychology about the ripening of the child's mind is confirmed by the theory of the "culture epochs." I can not discuss here the doctrine of "recapitulation," with its great truths and its minor exceptions, but it is well known that in a general way the development of the child, both physical and mental, is an epitome of the development of the race. If we compare the physical and mental activities of the modern civilized man with those of the more primitive member of the race, we may learn what forms of physical and mental activity are natural in the different periods of child life. Some of the things which are characteristic of the modern as contrasted with the primitive man are sedentary habits, manual dexterities requiring finely co-ordinated movements both of the eyes and fingers, increasing devotion to written language and books as contrasted with spoken language, the lessened dependence upon the memory, the increasing subjectivity of mental life as contrasted with the purely objective life of the savage, and the increased importance of reflection, deliberation, and reasoning, with decrease of impulsive and habitual action. These things, then, we should expect to belong to the later period of child life, and studied which involve these activities will not be economically pursued in the elementary school grades. These laws are wholly overlooked in our traditional school curriculum. In practice we are saying to the young child: "Man is a sedentary, reading, writing, thinking, reasoning being, possessing the power of voluntary attention. I am to educate you to be a man. Therefore you must learn to sit still, to read, write, think, reason, and give attention to your work." The child of six or eight years is therefore given a book or pen, and put into a closely fitting seat and left to give attention to his work. This is precisely as if the mother should say to the infant at the beginning of the period of creeping: "You are a man, not a brute. Men go upright, not on all fours. You must walk, not creep."

I wish to call especial attention to the fact that it is only late in the history of the race that language has passed to its written form. Man is indeed now a reading and writing animal, but only recently has he become so. It is only since the invention of printing and the wide dissemination of books, magazines, and newspapers that reading has become a real determining factor in the life of the people. Even now the human organism is engaged in adapting itself to the new strain brought upon the eyes and fingers in reading and writing. We can understand, therefore, that it will demand a considerable maturity in the child before he is ready for that which has developed so late in the history of the race. The language of the child, like that of the primitive man, is the language of the ear and tongue. The child is a talking and hearing animal. He is ear-minded. There has been in the history of civilization a steady development toward the preponderating use of the higher senses, culminating with the eye. The average adult civilized man is now strongly eye-minded, but it is necessary to go back only to the time of the ancient Greeks to find a decided relative ear-mindedness. Few laboratory researches have been made upon the relative rapidity of development of the special senses in children, but such as have been made tend to confirm the indications of the "culture epochs" theory, and to show that the auditory centers develop earlier than the visual.

More and more attention is given in our elementary schools to the subject of language—more, as some think, than the relative importance of the subject warrants; but without discussing this question, it is indubitably shown by child psychology that it is the spoken language which belongs to the elementary school. The ear is the natural medium of instruction for young children, and all the secondhand knowledge which it is necessary that the child should receive should come to him in this way. It should come from the living words of the living teacher or parent, not through the cold medium of the printed book. In the elementary school, then, the child may be instructed in language as it relates to the ear and the tongue, and this is the real language. He may be taught to speak accurately and elegantly, and he may be taught to listen and remember. He may study in this way the best literature of his mother tongue, and get a living sympathetic knowledge of it, such as can never come through the indirect medium of the book. Indeed, this language study need not be limited to the mother tongue. There is no age when a child may with so great economy of effort gain a lasting knowledge of a foreign language as when he is from seven to eleven years old.

When the spoken language has been mastered in this way, and when the child has arrived at the reading and writing age, language in its written form may be acquired in a very short time, and that which now fills so many weary years of school life will sink into the position of comparative insignificance in which it rightfully belongs. Reading and writing have usurped altogether too much time. In the schools of to-day there is a worship of the reading book, spelling book, copy book, and dictionary not rightfully due them. By dropping the study of letters from the lower grades much needed time may be found for other timely and important subjects, such as Nature study, morals, history, oral language, singing, physical training, and play.

One of the greatest goods which would follow the banishing of the book from the primary and elementary schools would be the cultivation of better mental habits. Children suffer lasting injury by being left with a book in their seats and directed to "study" at an age when the power of voluntary attention has not developed. They then acquire habits of listlessness and mind-wandering afterward difficult to overcome. They read over many times that which does not hold their attention and is not remembered. Lax habits of study are thus acquired, with the serious incidental result of weakening the retentive power which depends so much upon interest and concentration. With the substitution of the oral for the book method, reliance upon the memory during the memory period will permanently strengthen the child's power of retention.

The period between the ages of five and ten years is an important one in the child's life. It is the time when the "let-alone" plan of education is of most value, for the reason that nearly all our educational devices beyond the kindergarten are more or less attempts to make men and women out of children. If the child at this age must be put into the harness of an educational system, his course of study will not be impoverished by the omission of reading and writing. To teach him to speak and to listen, to observe and to remember, to know something of the world around him, and instinctively to do the right thing, will furnish more than enough material for the most ambitious elementary school curriculum.

  1. See the article on Courses of Study in the Elementary Schools of the United States, by T. R. Crosswell, Pedagogical Seminary, April, 1897.