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Getting Children to Want to Learn to Read

the Beginning: Learning a Visual Alphabet

Learning the Alphabet

Do you remember learning to read? Do you remember where you started?

If you are like most people, you started by "memorizing" the alphabet.


Ugggh! This means right from the start, you were expected to conform to the conventional wisdom that says, some things just have to be learned by "committing" them to memory.

"Committing them to memory!" This process even sounds awful, doesn't it? And it is. Why? Because of what it means. It means that right from the start, teachers expect kids to intellectually force feed ideas into themselves. No wonder so many kids get distracted. And bored!

Is there another way to teach reading though? How else could teachers teach children to read?

By teaching children where the alphabet came from, by having them draw the pictures from which those characters evolved.

Pictures? The alphabet evolved from pictures?

Yes. And to see this for yourself, all you need do is open an unabridged dictionary to the beginning of the "A" section.

Now look up at the top of the page and read what's up there.

If your dictionary is at all like mine, a big green ten-pounder, then what you'll probably see at the very top of the page is a sequence of drawings something like the ones I've drawn below.

Leaning to Read the Letter A - per Emergence Personality Theory

How the Ox Became An "A"

What do these drawings represent? They represent a visual story of how the letter "A" came to be, starting with the first drawing, a picture of a little animal head.

A little animal head? The letter "A" came from a little animal head?

Yes. And if you look closely and let your mind imagine what this little picture was, you'll discover that the letter "A" started out in life as a little drawing of an ox's head and horns.

Who used this little picture?

The accountants and merchants who lived in the city of Ugarit, on the Eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea.

What did they use it for?

They used it to keep track of how many oxen people bought or sold. At least this is the theory most people quote.

So what happened?

Ugarit's Southern neighbors, the Phoenicians, fell in love with this little ox head. So they started using it too.

Later, some of the Phoenician scribes probably thought it would be easier to draw the ox tally's with only three brief lines instead of drawing the more complex ox's head every time. In the name of making the ox counting process quicker and easier, then, these scribes changed the ox head drawing into just three brief lines.

What did they call their three line ox head?

An "aleph." Why? Because in Phoenicia, "aleph" was the word for "ox."

In effect, then, the letter "A" started out as an Ugaritic accountant's drawing of an ox head, a character they called an "alphu." Later, their Southern neighbors, the Phoenician's, changed this ox head into a kind of short hand for an ox head, which they called an "aleph."

What happened next, though, was truly amazing, and no one quite knows how it happened. People began to use this little picture not only to count ox heads but also to represent the "ah" sound of the ox head word; "aleph."

Modern linguists call this process of association, "acrophony," and it means that the word the drawing represents, the "aleph" for instance, came to represent the sound of the beginning of this word.

This, then, is what happened to the Phoenician "aleph." It came to represent the "ah" sound.

What happened next?

Well, Phoenicia was a trading city, and they traded a lot with their Western neighbors, the Greeks. And some of these Greek traders also fell in love with the little ox's heads too. When they returned home, then, from their trading voyages to Phoenicia, some of them brought back with them this new way of representing sounds on paper. Or on clay tablets, to be more accurate.

Eventually, some of the older, wiser Greeks realized the value in this way of recording ideas. So they created their own system of characters. How? By appropriating the Phoenician "aleph" as the first letter of their own alphabet.

In the process, like the Phoenicians before them, they renamed this letter with a Greek word. This time, though, the word didn't mean "ox" but rather, they simply made up a word, one which began with the same "ah" sound.

What did they name this letter?


Many years later, Greeks began to settle in West Central Italy. Eventually, enough of them lived there long enough for people to refer to them by a new name; the "Etruscans." They kept a lot of their Greek heritage, though, and so it's no surprise that the Etruscan "alpha" looks pretty similar to the "alpha" of their earlier Greek relatives.

Finally, when the Romans conquered the Etruscans, like many conquering peoples, they decided to destroy any evidence that there ever were any Etruscans. Which is pretty much what they did. Except for the Etruscan alphabet, which the Romans appropriated for their own use, ironically on their monument inscriptions.

So there it is. The story of how the letter "A" was born. A nice, brief, visual story.

Now think for a moment about this story and about how children would probably react to it. Can you picture a group of little five year olds sitting in a circle in rapt attention listening to the story of how "A's" were born? I can. In fact, I've told a lot of adults this story and they almost always react the same way; the have a wonderful "aha."

Do you want to see if this "aha" has just happened to you? If you do, all you have to do is just ask yourself this question:

Do you think you'll ever forget where the letter "A" came from?

I would guess you won't forget. Not now, and not ever. And if teachers were to teach children to read this way; meaning, if teachers were to teach kids that three thousand years ago, the letter "A" represented the head and horns of an ox; how long do you think they'd remember?

More important, do you think these kids might feel their curiosity aroused, and want to know where the rest of the alphabet came from?

Here again, you can test this out on yourself.

Do you find yourself now wanting to know where the rest of the alphabet came from? For instance, would you like to know where the letter "B" came from?

If you do, I'm not surprised and in fact, awakening this "desire" is my whole point.

Thus, learning to read is supposed to be a wonderful and exciting time, a time when children want to discover and fall in love with words. They're also supposed to discover how words can connect them to other kids from the past.

Simply said, teachers are supposed to use this time to create a desire to learn to read in children.

So what makes kids connect to words in this way, in a way in which they want to learn more?

Learning visually with stories; in other words, being taught to see the pictures these letters represent.

More over, they are also supposed to be taught to draw these pictures on the screens of their own minds. And on paper. Why? Because by drawing these pictures on the screens of their own minds, these letters, and the words they form, come alive.

This, then, is what I'm suggesting. Making letters and words come alive in "living" kinds of pictures is what inspires children to want to learn to read. And write. And this is also how kids in the present can learn to connect to kids from the past. And to the lives people once lived. And to the world all children share.

OK. So kids would probably be better off learning the alphabet if they were taught where the letters came from, the visual origin of the letters. What about reading, though? Am I saying words have to have pictures too?

Yes, I am. Before I discuss this idea, though, indulge your curiosity for a moment. Take a look below at the pictures for the letter "B," which also started out in life as a little drawing.

This time, the little drawing represented a house floor plan of sorts, four walls and a doorway.

Leaning to Read the Letter B - per Emergence Personality Theory

So Can Picturing Really Be This Important?

So now, can picturing what you read really be as important as I'm saying it is? Here again, you can begin to test this theory for yourself, by asking yourself a question.

What is the letter "A" a picture of, a floor plan or an ox's head.