Return to Grace

26th May 2000 at 01:00
Mike Torbe pays tribute to Grace Fernald, an early specialist in what we now call dyslexia.

Today, we are looking for the magic secret that will solve the problem of teaching children to read and spell. Someone apparently solved that problem more than 80 years ago, but she seems to have been forgotten. Grace Fernald established the Clinic School at the University of California in Los Angeles in 1921, after several years of treating "special cases" - children who could not read, and were considered impossible to educate. The original work was supervised by a certain Helen Keller. Fernald specialised in treating children with alexia or word-blindness - what we now call dyslexia. She performed seemingly miraculous cures and her methods were described as "successful ... not sometimes but always".

Her teaching intentions were simplicity itself. "The essentials of our technique consist in (1) the discovery of some means by which the child can learn to write words correctly (2) the motivating of such writing (3) the reading by the child of the printed copy of what he has written (4) extensive reading of materials other than own compositions." Her methods involved techniques which have become familiar, including, among other things, tracing words with the finger, not a pencil. They also involved a sensible, brisk, humane recognition of the realities of being a child who could not read or spell. She disliked any approach that "subjected children to conditions which cause them to feel embarrassed or conspicuous" or "directed children's attention to what they are unable to do rather than to their progress". Her passion comes through despite the formal and conventional academic language of her book. "Many children," shecommented, "fail to learn to spell because the methods used by the schools actually prevent them from doing so."

She was precise about what thosemethods are: "formal spelling periods, monotonous and uninteresting repetition of meaningless words, lack of adequate attention to spelling, and the use of methods by which certain children cannot learn." Her pioneering work on the teaching of spelling was published in 1918 and still reads like the newest research.

But she kept her humility. "We have included (in the book) only such techniques as have proved effective over a period of years," she wrote. "This does not mean that these are the only ones that will produce results. There may be many ways of accomplishing a given result. To suppose there is just one way of doing anything shows a failure to understand the psychology of learning."

For Grace Fernald, the enemy of learning was this supposition. She pointed out that when one specific technique is imposed on children "if the method used works with a certain proportion of the children in the school system, it is considered satisfactory even if many children of good intelligence fail". That seemed to her a failure indeed.

Her book is full of case studies, all of them celebrating the success of learners who escaped from what one of them calls "the most poisonous thought there is - thinking yourself inferior and dumb". Her book Remedial Techniques in Basic School Subjects (McGraw-Hill) was published in 1943. In the introduction, the editor is certain of her influence and survival: "Of all the revolutionary broths that were cooking educationally in 1900, it is probable that only one will be remembered in 1999 as having had a truly revolutionary effect".

A sad irony. There is a building at UCLA named after her, but that is all that appears to survive. Is it only education that forgets the successful practice of the past and is doomed to reinvent it constantly? Come back, Grace, we need you.

Mike Torbe is an educational consultant

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