Learning to open a door

learning to open a door

A dog learning to open a door

On the 8th of June I watched Tyson Seburn’s video of his dog learning to open a door to get a toy.

A number of things struck me.

1) at first the dog, Lou, tries to squeeze through the gap but it’s not wide enough
2) however the door does open just a tiny bit more
3) at 0:31 the dog puts its forepaw on the outside of the door but doesn’t really pull the door towards itself. However, the door moves a little
4) then the man watching and encouraging the dog (?Tyson) moves the toy closer to the gap – 1:12
5) this stimulates the dog to greater activity and it puts its head through the gap, grabs the ball and retreats into the other room – 1:22
6) the man continues to call the dog which finally pushes its whole body through the gap – 1:42

How I interpret the dog story

Lou seems to be a young dog – possibly trying to get through a door left ajar for the first time. If it has had experience of other “gaps” they will not have moved in response to its trying to push through. Doors on well-oiled hinges are different – which we know from experience but a young dog doesn’t.

Lou works on the principle of “trial and error”: alternately patting the the wall and the door with its forepaws, jumping up at the wall near the door (in the inside room), pushing its nose under the door and maybe other things we can’t see from our side of the door.

By moving the toy closer the man both makes the dog more eager to get the toy and makes the task a little easier. Lou puts more energy into trying to get the toy than before and moves the door enough to get its head and shoulders through the gap.

Having got the toy, the dog loses interest in it – it drops it inside the room and returns to the door to try to get its whole self through. It does this quickly and easily – I would say, demonstrating a transfer from the first learning experience.

A cat learning to open a door

(Read more…)

A Dance Lesson

The following is a transcript of a moment during a weekend workshop for teachers, which took place on December 14, 1991 in Besançon, France.

N. B.
– Christiane Rozet (CR) attended dance lessons with François Malkovsky for about 20 years
– Glenys Hanson (GH) has no experience with this or any kind of dance.
– X, CA, RY and SB are other participants.


Can we teach a skill we don’t possess ourselves?

After a long silence and in connection with the subject of study (which was “Can we be a teacher in an area if we are not ourselves experts in the field”), Glenys said ” For example, could I give Christiane a dance lesson? ”


GH: Because when I was thinking about what I would do, what came to me was not “What do I know about dancing?” but “If I look at  Christiane dancing, how can I know where her problems are? What should I do to help her progress? ” I think she can show me the way.
X: Mutual trust is very important.
GH: Yes, and I felt ……

– After a break –

The problems

GH: So you said you know where your problems are.
CR: Yes, I know a number of problems, yes.
GH: So what are they? (Silence)
CR: I have to choose one. Something a bit general …. (long pause) Well, let’s work on the use of body weight and the shifting of the centre of gravity.

The right time

GH: And where is the problem?
CR: The problem is that in some exercises especially, but everywhere … I can’t or I do not know how, I don’t manage to… I know I have to do two things … to correctly displace my centre of gravity: either I don’t do it at the right time, or I don’t do it enough.
GH: And how do you know it’s not the right time?
CR: Because I get to the end of my gesture after the music.
GH: And you feel the gesture is not with the music.
CR: Because I have to make an effort I shouldn’t need to… (inaudible)
GH: And are there times when you do it well?
CR: Yes, I feel that it’s almost that.
GH: And when you see someone else do it, do you recognize it?
CR: Not always.
GH: But when it’s you yourself who do it, do you recognize it?
CR: Mmmm.
GH: How do you … (inaudible)
CR: If it’s in a turning movement, because I get dizzy.
GH: If it is not done properly?
CR: If it is not done properly.
GH: So your sense of balance tells you.
CR: Yes, because, as I said, I’m behind the music.
GH: I don’t understand.
CR: I have to make an effort to catch up.
GH: Ah! In another movement!
CR: I have to cheat, you see.
GH: Is it something that often occurs when you dance, or is it all the time,
or is it ….?
CR: Oh, it’s quite often.

Ways of walking

GH: And the other times? Your centre of gravity is it where it should be?
CR: In dance, you mean?
GH: Yes.
CR: Yes, that can happen, yes.


GH: And when you walk normally, without dancing, where is your centre of gravity?
CR: Hmmmmm. I use it a badly.
GH: And how do you know that?
CR: I know that because I know I’m not in the ideal position, if you like, for the type of dance I do.
GH: What makes you say that?
CR: Well … I know because I’ve been told, I know because when I see myself walking, if I look at myself in the mirror, it’s awful. If I see myself filmed I know it’s not right, Three quarters of the time I walk without thinking about what’s going on, so I’m not aware of it. If I have an image myself walking.
GH: But what is it….. I’ve seen you walk and there was nothing specially shocking to me.
CR: But when Malko saw me walk, he would tear out his hair!.
GH: Let me see.
CR: Yes, but if I walk in front of you, knowing you’re all looking at me, I’ll change what I do.
GH: No, but what is there to see in your way of walking that you see and I don’t?
CR: My legs do too much work. (Silence) There’s not enough fluidity in my spine.
CA: But if you pay attention, is it the same?
CR: I can fix some things, yes. I know that if I walk into a dance class, I don’t walk as I walk in the street.
GH: (silence) How many ways of walking do you have?
CR: (silence) How many…, I don’t know … I have a way of walking empty handed, a way of walking if I carry things, a way of walking on days when things are going well, I have no discomfort, There’s a way of walking in a dance class, a way of walking because I have to move fast to tell a colleague about something … I don’t know, there are an infinite number of ways.

Movements of the centre of gravity

GH: Is your centre of gravity the same in all these cases? Can you describe how it changes?
CR: If I carry heavy things, shopping bags, there’s a blockage in my shoulders, in the movement of the spine. I move a lot less well. In that situation, I really walk with my legs, only with my legs. If I walk and I’m in a hurry, well, I use … (inaudible word) my centre of gravity, Otherwise I wouldn’t get there. If I’m in a dance class, I’ll be careful ……….. If I walk down the street thinking about something else … spontaneously, it’s not great.
GH: When you say “not great”, that means …
CR: That I won’t use my centre of gravity enough. I’ll let myself get blocked.
GH: Do you know people who walk less well than you?
CR: Yes.
GH: And what do they do?
CR: They’re even stiffer than me.
GH: Can show us how someone who walks less well than you does it?
CR: Than me? (Laughs) Like soldiers marching. (She demonstrates.)
RY: You do it very well, all the same.
(Inaudible: laughter and comments of the other participants).
SB: Do you see anything else in the process, other than your legs and your spine?
CR: Yes. The whole body is involved …….
SB: And in particular?
CR: In particular,  the situating of my centre of gravity, and then the fluidity of movement, ….. the functioning of all the joints.
SB: What are you present to …… where is your attention when you try to walk well?
CR: There at the level of the solar plexus (she points).
GH: And when you walk well, where your is attention
CR: When I walk well? I don’t know if I can walk well, let’s say when I walk less badly. I want to say it is centred there (she points to her solar plexus), but it’s …… everywhere.
GH: When you try, it’s more centred there, but when you succeed it is more diffuse.
CR:. …… (Inaudible) it’s  spread out. It resonates everywhere.

Visualising yourself

GH: (silence) Can you see that when you make a move correctly?
CR: Mmmm! Yes, more or less, not for all the movements, but for some.
GH: If you take a given movement, when you are visualizing yourself, are you visualizing yourself from the inside or the outside?
CR: (silence) I can do both ……. I’m pretty much on the outside.
GH: I used the word “see”, but can you evoke yourself in non-visual ways – such as sensations, the warmth of your body… Is it is the same everywhere in your body at that moment?
CR: Wait a minute. I’ll choose a particular movement and see what happens. (She does a movement.) Mmmm! It’s not the same. I get the impression that if the movement is successful there is more heat in the extremities, in the hands.
GH: Can you evoke the muscle tension in different parts of your body? In that same movement?

Cut in two

CR: (silence) It’s easy in the lower part of my body, from the pelvis to the legs ….. (inaudible).
GH: What do you do with your tongue? At that moment is it tense or relaxed?
CR: If the movement is successful, it’s relaxed.
GH: And what parts are tense?
CR: (silence) I’m really aware, in evocation, of the lower part of my body. It’s odd, because I have a problem in the lower back, as if I was cut in half, you see! The problem is there, I really feel cut cut in two there..
GH: You feel what? Is it tension, is it, …
CR: I’m aware of my legs, I’m aware of my leg muscles, I’m aware of the position of my pelvis, I’m not so aware of my trunk, a little of the arms, but I’m much less aware of the upper part of my torso.
GH: And if you visualize yourself from the outside, is it the same? Can you visualize better …..
CR: Mmm! It’s complex …… a while ago it was a bit more complex and much more … global. From the outside I can be everywhere at once.
GH: Would you like to do this movement now?
CR: Of course. This is the one. (She does a dance movement.)
GH: Is what you did exactly as your …….? (end of the recording)


Editor’s note:

Seven months later, we asked Christiane what was left of this lesson:

CR: I was very surprised to have made discoveries with Glenys which I never managed with Malko. In particular, I had lots of insights about my centre of gravity. Now I know the way to go if I want, for example, to succeed in the movement worked on during the lesson with Glenys.

Transcription of the French recording: Lois Rose
Translation into English: Glenys Hanson

© Glenys Hanson, Lois Rose, Christiane Rozet. The Science of Education in Questions, N° 7, June, 1992, Besançon, France.

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“A dance lesson”  is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Agnes and the Temporal Hierarchies


At that time my neighbour, Agnes, was eleven years old and was in a special class at school for children with mild learning difficulties. One day when she was visiting us, I called to her from the sitting room to tell me the time from the kitchen clock. She said, “I can’t. I can’t read the numbers on your clock”. I came into the kitchen and looked at the clock which has Roman numerals and realised that when I tell the time I don’t read the numbers, I look at the pattern made by the two hands. As long as I can identify the top of the clock, I don’t need any numbers to be marked at all. I concluded that Agnes, in fact, was unable to tell the time and asked her if she would like to learn. She said she would, so I got out my Cuisenaire rods and we sat down at the kitchen table.

First Lesson

I made a clock with a red rod at each hour position and two red rods at the 12 position. I put white cubes to represent the minutes between the red rods. I took a long orange rod to make the minute hand and a shorter black rod to make the hour hand and I centred the whole clock on a small flower on the oilcloth which covered the kitchen table.

I put the minute hand at the 12 position and moved the hour hand to the 3 position and said, “Three o’clock”. I moved it to the 6 position and said, “Six o’clock”. Then I moved the hour hand back to the 3 position and invited Agnes to speak. She said “Three o’clock”. I moved it to the 6 position and she said, “Three o’clock”. I said, “Listen again” and repeated what I had said and done the first time but beginning with the six o’clock position. Then I placed the hand at 6 and this time she said “Six o’clock”. I placed the hand at 3 and she said, “Three o’clock”.

I went on in the same way with the 9 and 12 positions. She quickly learned to recognise the 6 and 12 o’clock positions but tended to confuse 3 and 9 o’clock. Tending to confuse left and right myself, I have developed techniques to eliminate the “sameness” of left/right symmetry by focusing on an object on my right and saying to myself, for example, “Right is doorside”. As I was sitting on Agnes’s right, I asked her each time she made a mistake, which was near me, the 3 or the 9, until she could identify the 3 as “Glenys’s number” and 9 as the other one.

Then I picked up the two “hands” and gave them to her and said “Six o’clock”. She was able to put one end of the black rod near the 6 position but the other end of the rod was nowhere near the centre of the clock and she didn’t know where to put the orange minute hand. Her actions gave me the feedback that though she had been giving correct answers, she had not paid attention to certain essential elements in the situation. So I took the hands and put them in the 3 o’clock position. Agnes told me the time correctly. Then I asked her,

“Where is the orange hand?”
“On the twelve.”
“Where is the other end of the orange hand?”
“On the flower.”
“Where is the black hand?”
“On the three.”
“And the other end?”
“On the flower.”

Of course, she didn’t answer neatly like this the first time and I had to ask her other questions to make her pay attention to the flower and the fact that one end of each hand was always on the flower.

We went through the other times she already knew how to say in the same way. Then I gave her the hands again and said, “Nine o’clock”. This time she was able to put both hands in their correct position on the edge of the clock but their other ends did not meet in the centre on the flower, but when I asked her, “And what about the flower?” she moved the other ends of the hands so that they were no longer in the correct position on the edge. It took her some time and several attempts to position the hands correctly. She enjoyed being the one to position the hands even though it was, to me, surprisingly difficult for her to do so. I was also surprised that though she had already noticed, before the lesson began, that the hands moved in relation to the numbers on the edge, she had never noticed that the two hands met in the centre.

Remembering that children are in the absolute of action and that I had started off with what was an exercise in perception but not action for her, I tried some simpler action exercises, “Touch the 3”, “Touch the flower”,” Touch the orange hand”, “Touch the flower end of the orange hand”, and so on.

I picked up the hands again and said, “Six o’clock”. This time, she inverted the minute and hour hands. I picked up the hands and, appealing to her power of evocation, I asked her to touch the hand that moved and she touch the black one. “So which one didn’t move?” She touched the orange one. “Where did it stay all the time on the clock?” She placed it with one end on the 12 but the other end was not in the centre. I reminded her of the flower and she repositioned it correctly. I said, “Make the two hands make a straight line” and she was able to adjust them correctly.

Then I said, “Nine o’clock. Put the hand that doesn’t move first”. Though she had problems centring the hands, she didn’t confuse them.

When we did 12 o’clock, she wanted to put the two hands side by side, though that wasn’t of course the way I’d done it when I’d showed her that time initially. Instead of doing it myself again, I took my kitchen clock off the wall and said, “Look what my clock does” and turned the hands to show 12 o’clock on the kitchen clock.

“Oh! It goes underneath!”
“Do the same with your clock. Which one goes underneath on the kitchen clock, the long hand or the short one?”
“The short one.”
“Do the same on your clock.”

We continued for a little while alternating between me placing the hands and her saying the time, and me saying the time and her placing the hands for these four times.

This first lesson took about an hour. What I have not brought out in the above description is the fun we both had. Every time Agnes realised something new she bounced up and down in her chair and laughed with pleasure. She remained attentive and interested the whole time, making me realise that it is possible to be a good student though extremely slow. She also made me realise how many different awarenesses are involved in learning to tell the time because I had to do something specific to force each one for her.

As Agnes was getting up to leave, Christian, who had passed through the room a few times during the lesson, asked Agnes, “One o’clock”. Of course she didn’t know how to place the hands for this and I was slightly annoyed with Christian for asking her.

Second Lesson

Agnes came again the next day and showed that she had spent some of her night integrating the previous day’s work because she was able to do everything she had done before but faster and with more confidence. Her only problem was remembering to make the two hands meet in the middle. So we went on showing and saying the other “hour” times, i.e. “one o’clock”, “two o’clock” and so on. I continued to “place” the hand and not to “turn” to avoid the distraction of having to turn the minute hand at the same time and to focus on the position of the hands rather than on their movement. Agnes, anyway, already knew that the hands turned and in which direction. When she needed to find the name of an “hour position” she knew where she had to begin counting the red rods and in which direction to turn. These were awarenesses she had already had and which I did not need to force. On the other hand, she did not at first realise that for the positions of, for example, “ten o’clock” she did not need to start counting from the beginning but could start from “nine o’clock” which she already knew. When I saw this, I started asking her to show me “one hour before six o’clock”, “two hours after nine o’clock”, etc. It was a surprise to her to see that, for example, “one hour after six o’clock” was the same as “two hours before nine o’clock”. I could see she did not understand why this was so, it was just a happy coincidence, but I did not choose to work on that problem as it was not essential to learning to tell the time.

I did work a lot on “opposite” pairs such as “two o’clock” and “ten o’clock” as she continued to make left/right confusions. I got her to sit slightly to the left of the clock so that the “big” numbers could become “Agnes’s numbers” and, as I was sitting on the right, “small” numbers became “Glenys’s numbers”.

I also asked her questions such as:

“How many red positions are there?”

She counted them and said, “Twelve”. (I had wondered whether the two red rods on the “12” position would cause a confusion, but she accepted them as a convention to know where to begin counting.)

“How many hours does this clock show?”

As the lesson took place in French, this transfer was easy for her because in French “twelve o’clock” is “douze heures”, literally “twelve hours”.

However, when I asked her how many hours there are in a day, she was unable to answer. So I asked her what time she had lunch – at about eight o’clock or about twelve o’clock? She knew she had lunch at about twelve o’clock. I asked her more questions about what time she did various things. She was unable to give times for many things but she did know whether she did them in the morning, the afternoon, the evening or at night. So I drew a vertical line on a piece of paper to represent her day and first marked on it large intervals representing morning, afternoon, evening and night. Then we wrote in some of the things she did in a day: got up, had breakfast, went to bed, slept, etc. Then I wrote in the numbers of the hours from one o’clock in the morning to twelve midday. With this she was able to say that she got up at about eight o’clock in holiday time and had breakfast at about nine, that at four o’clock in the morning she was asleep. I pointed at the kitchen clock and asked her what time it was now. She was able to say, correctly:

“Four o’clock.”
“In the morning or the afternoon?”
“In the afternoon.”

So I showed her on the line of her day how after lunchtime we start counting the hours again from one to twelve to finish in the middle of the next night. I asked her about times she did things in the afternoon and evening and she situated them on the line. I asked her how many hours there were before lunchtime and after lunch. She was able to answer 12 in each case but when I asked her how many hours there were altogether in a day, she was unable to answer because she was unable to add 12 and 12. So I put a red rod next to each hour on the line and she was able to count them and say there were 24 hours in the day.

I asked her if she knew another way to say “twelve o’clock” when it was lunchtime; she did, it was “midday”. She also knew that “twelve o’clock” in the middle of the night was called “midnight”. But when I asked her how she knew when she looked at the clock and it showed 12 o’clock if it was midday or midnight, she couldn’t answer. So I said: “If you look out of the window and it’s dark, is it midday or midnight?“Oh! Midnight!” she answered, emphasising the part “-night” and with a look of triumph on her face and I realised she was hearing the “night” in midnight” for the first time. (In French, the word for midday “midi” is not transparent in the same way so we couldn’t have fun with it.)

This second lesson took about an hour and a half and at the end Christian again teased me by asking Agnes to show the time “half past four”. I say teased me and not Agnes because she was not in the least bothered by the question, she didn’t know, she knew she didn’t know and was not at all upset by her ignorance.

Third Lesson

On the third day, I set up the clock without hands and with a sheet of A4 paper covering the left half of the clock along the 12-6 line.

“Agnes, can you see all the clock?”
“How much can you see?”

I took away the paper.

“How much can you see now?”
“All of it.”

I covered the right half of the clock and asked her the same questions. She had no hesitation in answering any of them.

Then I gave her the paper and asked her to cover half the clock. This was more difficult for her to do physically and it took some time before she could place the paper exactly on the 12-6 line.

For the next step, I used two sheets of A4 paper and placed one as in the first exercise and the second covering the bottom half on the 9/3 line so that only a quarter of the clock was visible. The word “quarter” did not come spontaneously from Agnes as “half” had, but when I asked her “Can you see all, half or a quarter of the clock?”, she had no hesitation in choosing “A quarter”.

I continued by showing her the other 3 quarters and then by alternating between showing halves, quarters and the whole clock. She made no mistakes. When I gave her the pieces of paper and asked her to show me “a quarter”, “A different quarter”, “A half”, etc., she found it more difficult but the problem seemed to be one of lack of physical dexterity rather than not understanding what was needed. I say this because whenever I asked her to say if the way she had put the papers was correct, she never said it was so when it was not.

Then I gave Agnes the “hands” and asked her to put them in the twelve o’clock positions, which she did. Then I slowly turned the minute hand and stopped it on the 6 position and asked her now much of the clock it had travelled over. She was unable to reply. So I covered the left half of the clock with a sheet of paper and did the exercise again. This time she was able to say “Half” or to be exact, she said in French, “La moitié”, the word she had used in the previous exercises. I asked her if she knew the word “demi” and whether it was the same or different in meaning from “moitié”. She knew they had the same meaning and she even knew that “demi” was the word used for telling the time. So when I put the hands to the twelve o’clock position and then to the half past twelve position, she was able to say the time correctly in each case. I gave her the hands and asked her to show me successively “Twelve o’clock” and “Half past twelve”, which she was able to do after reminders to “Centre on the flower!”

We went on with “half past” the other hours in the same way and then with “quarter past”, which posed no special problem. “Quarter to” naturally took more time as it involves a different way of looking at the clock – counting backwards and not forwards from the 12 position. As she had started off already knowing the direction the hands turned, she had a solid criterion for “backwards” and “forwards” and by using these words, she was able to distinguish between a “quarter before” and a “quarter after” a given hour. Again she already knew the conventional way of saying these times and had no trouble switching from the words which more clearly express the mental operation to those conventionally used.

At the end of this lesson, Christian yet again asked her something she could not do, “Ten past eight”. I snapped at him angrily, “But that’s for tomorrow!” and then I suddenly saw the method in his teasing questions. They were not just any question that Agnes was unable to answer about telling the time; they always concerned the very next step. For someone reading this account, this was probably obvious long ago but it was not to me at the time. I had never taught anyone to tell the time before and had never even thought about it much so when I started, I had no idea what the steps would be, of what the “right way” to go about it was. Up to the end of the third lesson, I felt I was just being guided by what Agnes could and couldn’t do. Christian’s intervention made me realise that I (and he too, of course) did have, on the intuitive level, criteria for ordering the different exercises I suggest to Agnes. Up until then, though I had seen that for other teachers (Maurice Laurent in particular in maths seminars) it could be obvious which awarenesses had to be forced and in which order to master a given skill, Gattegno’s description of the “temporal hierarchies” in learning had remained an intellectual notion for me. I was as pleased and excited at being capable of recognising an example of the temporal hierarchies actually functioning in a learning situation as Agnes was at learning to tell the time.

It is perhaps not necessary to describe the following lessons in detail – Agnes learned to tell the time in about 6 hours spread over a week. From then on, every time she came to the house, I would ask her the time and though at first it took her a minute or two to find the answer, she seldom made a mistake. The mistakes she did make were to confuse the left and right sides of the clock or the minute and hour hands. There was one further important awareness about telling the time. This was that to be able to tell the time, a single position on the edge of the clock has to be able to trigger up to five different numbers, for example: nine (o’clock), quarter (to), forty-five (minutes past), fifteen (minutes to), twenty-one (o’clock). Each different number is part of a specific numbering system which implies a different way of perceiving and interpreting the clock.

On a different level is an awareness I didn’t have and haven’t had yet: which awareness I had to force for Agnes to realise that the two hands were joined at the centre of the clock. Each time she set up the clock, she had to be reminded to “centre the hands on the flower”, which showed that it never became obvious for her.

Maths Lessons

Encouraged by our success with the clock, I continued working with Agnes two or three hours a week all that summer, using the Cuisenaire rods to work on basic arithmetic. This was a quite different experience from working with the clock. I could quite easily find individual exercises involving addition, subtraction, multiplication or division for Agnes to resolve using the rods but I had little idea of what order to do them in or, having finished one exercise, what to do next. The temporal hierarchies in this area were not (and are still not) evident to me.

This was no surprise to me. I think I may say that telling the time is a skill I fully master – it is something I do quickly, correctly and effortlessly on every occasion. This is not true for the basic operations of arithmetic. I get by in every day life but with a lot of effort and many mistakes in anything to do with calculation and numbers.

What did surprise me was that this made no difference to Agnes. She was just as happy to come to these disjointed arithmetic lessons as she had been to learn to tell the time. It made me realise the difference between children and adult students. Agnes had no expectations that I should be a quick or efficient maths teacher, that the lesson should have any particular objective or that as a teacher I should not make mistakes. Several times I would have to stop in the middle of an exercise and say to Agnes, “I don’t know how to go on from here. Can we try something different?” and she’d happily gather up all the rods, put them away and wait for a new challenge. This lack of social pressure meant that I could devote all, or nearly all, my energy to the pedagogical work in hand. It is an experience which has helped me since then to identify when I am putting my energy into social consideration in the classroom when I’m working with adults, and through being able to identify it, to control and reduce a use of energy which is extraneous to the essential teaching/learning situation.

I realised that if I compared myself to an experienced primary school teacher with a thorough grasp of the temporal hierarchies involved in learning arithmetic, I was very inefficient in helping Agnes gain arithmetical know-how in exchange for her time. This consideration was, however, outside Agnes’s realm of concerns. As long as I was present to her learning needs on the microsecond by microsecond level, she was motivated to continue.

At the time, Agnes made me realise that a slow learner can nevertheless be a good learner in the sense of being effortlessly present to the challenges of a situation for a considerable period of time. As long as I did my job right, Agnes was never fidgety, naughty or distracted during our lessons. Writing this article has made me see that in one way I was a better maths teacher (that was my one and only attempt) than I am an English teacher (my usual occupation): having little knowledge in the field and no experience, I was forced to be continually and totally present to my student and her needs.

© Glenys HansonThe Science of Education in Questions, N° 13, September 1995, Besançon, France.

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“Agnes and the Temporal Hierarchies” by Glenys Hanson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Learning to Read with Words in Color…

 … in an Inner City Neighborhood

As in every town, there’s an area where nobody would choose to live – high crime rate, high unemployment, mainly immigrants living in high-rise public housing, low expectations of what the children will achieve in school. On a cold, sunny morning in February I went to one of these neighborhoods to watch a class of six-year-olds (also some seven-year-olds who had failed to learn to read the previous year with a different method and were repeating the year) learning to read, write and do arithmetic. The teacher, Françoise Lazare, had told me that only two of the children are French in origin, the others are African, Yugoslav, Arab, Turk, Vietnamese and Portuguese, so for most of them French was their second language. Many of them suffer from gross neglect, physical and/or sexual abuse while others have already embarked on a life of crime.

The reason I had chosen to visit this class was that the teacher was using la Lecture en couleurs (the French version of Words in Color), so I was not surprised to see the Fidel charts (which group by color all the spellings of a given sound) on a board at the front of the room and the word charts

© 1998 Une Ecole Pour Demain. Lecture en couleurs - 4 des tableaux de mots

© 1998 Une Ecole Pour Demain. Lecture en couleurs – 4 des tableaux de mots

on the wall on either side of the blackboard. In every other way it was a standard French primary school classroom.

A song

After settling at their desks, the children started the morning by singing a song of several verses without accompaniment or help from the teacher until the very last verse. The song seemed to me to have a lot of words not normally within a six-year-old’s vocabulary range, but otherwise it was an unexceptional start to the school day.

Pointing sentences on the the Fidel

© 1998 Une Ecole Pour Demain. Lecture en couleurs - Fidel.

© 1998 Une Ecole Pour Demain. Lecture en couleurs – Fidel.

The reading lesson began when the teacher said, “Who’s got a sentence?” About half the children put up their hands. The teacher waited a few seconds for some more children to take their time to think of a sentence, and then named one of the children (In fact, I don’t remember her name – as nearly all the children had unfamiliar names I’ve only retained a few). The little girl said, “Daddy is at home.” The teacher gave the girl a pointer and she came to the front of the class and pointed to the graphemes (letters or combinations of letters) which spelled her sentence on the Fidel. The teacher watched and then turned to the class and asked, “Do you agree?” Several voices said, “Yes.” The teacher gave no indication that it was correct but asked for another sentence. A second child proposed, “Granny went shopping.” and was about to go and point it when another child said, “Teacher, you said we’d play a different game. We choose someone else to point our sentence.” The teacher said, “You’re right. Who do you want to point your sentence, Zara ?” The girl named another child who came and pointed and the teacher again asked the class if they agreed. This time several did not, so the teacher asked one of these to come and point something different. This second pointing still did not satisfy the class and other children came to try until everyone was satisfied with the result.

Though remaining very attentive to the children’s work, the teacher gave no indication as to whether or not the successive pointings were correct and the children did not turn towards her for answers. At this moment, her main role was to decide who should come to work on the charts. When they had finished, she asked one of the children to write the word that had caused the problem on the blackboard. It was written correctly. The class continued working in the same way for about an hour, sometimes pointing their own sentences, sometimes suggesting sentences for another child to point as they wanted.

Very occasionally, when the class saw nothing wrong with a pointing, the teacher said, “I don’t agree,” to make them realize there was an error. Two or three sentences that took the children some time to point correctly, the teacher herself afterwards wrote on the board. I write the “children” because, though only one child was allowed to point at a time, all the others were actively monitoring what was being shown and frequently proposing alternatives.

The teacher also intervened after all the first six or seven sentences had started with Mummy, Daddy (“Daddy killed a burglar.”) or Granny to suggest they try something different. This led to more varied sentences of which perhaps the most ambitious was, “The hunters killed a wild boar and cut it up so that they each had a piece.”

Learning to spell “kiwi”

One of the things that bothered me at first was the fact the teacher accepted pointings that though in the correct column of the Fidel, were not the correct spelling. I gradually came to see that she had criteria for demanding correct spelling from certain children but not others, and for certain words but not others.

One of the sentences proposed by the children that provided an interesting problem was “There are thirteen pips in the kiwi.” “Kiwi” is a foreign word that does not follow conventional French spelling rules for the consonants. The child’s first proposition was to point the first spelling, the most frequent one in French, in the /k/ column which is “c”. Another child volunteered another possibility, pointing “qu” in the same column. The teacher indicated that they could go on looking and a third child found “k” in the same column.

The teacher asked the first child to point the whole word. He pointed -k-i- very confidently and then hesitated and looked at the teacher. This was one of the rare times that the teacher pointed herself saying, “Do you remember the other day we had the word “clown” and we took the “w” from here…” and she circled the “w” in the “ow” in the /u/ column. It was clear that her reason for intervening was that the children did not have enough experience of this particular spelling to find it on their own. The child who had suggested the sentence was now able to point the whole sentence correctly. The teacher then said, “I’m going to write the first spelling on the board,” and she wrote “ciwi” and asked the class to pronounce it. Many voices provided /siwi/ which showed they had correctly internalized the French spelling convention that “c” followed by “i” is pronounced /s/, without of course ever having heard such an explicit rule. She then said, “Alex proposed this…” and wrote “quioui” and the children pronounced it /kiwi/. She said, “The spelling’s not right for this word but it is for others. For example…” and the children provided examples. Then she asked a child to come and write “kiwi” correctly, which he did without hesitation.


During this hour all the children but one followed each others’ pointings of words very attentively, competing for the privilege of being allowed to come and point suggestions when a problem arose by excitedly raising and waving their hands and even standing up in their places. Only one child, Aziz, and he only occasionally, called answers out of turn when another child was working. These were the only times when I saw the teacher take any kind of disciplinary action – she spoke to him very sharply. Most of the time he managed to control his obviously burning desire to participate actively all the time. Several times after being forced to wait in silence while a slower child looked for, and found, a solution to a problem, he would engagingly admit, “I would have made a mistake. I thought it was different.” It was obvious that the control the teacher exercised over his behavior gave him the opportunity of realizing that in spite of his intelligence, over hasty answers could lead to mistakes. It was clear too that he did not resent her remarks as he maintained a good humored attention to the work of the others.

A child with special needs

During this time Catherine was the only child who did not appear to be working. She wandered around the class, played with some toys at the back of the room and sometimes came and leaned against the teacher. She was quiet and appeared happy and relaxed. The teacher told me afterwards that this was enormous progress from when she had arrived in September and had spent the days crouching in a corner of the classroom with her hands over her mouth and eyes.

At the end of this session the teacher asked the class to propose a sentence for Catherine to point. The girl refused, “Catherine can read” and “Catherine goes to the Center” (the psychiatric unit where she goes several times a week for treatment) but she accepted, “Catherine takes a taxi.” (which she does to go to the Center). Catherine then took the pointer and walked slowly towards the Fidel. The teacher said, “Do you want me to come with you?” Catherine nodded and the teacher took a chair and sat about three feet from the Fidel. Catherine then pointed her sentence, her own name spelled correctly and the sounds of the other words in the correct columns of the Fidel.

The transformations game

The teacher then suggested a new “game”. She asked the children to close their eyes and look at the word “mouche” (fly) in their heads. It was obviously not a new game because, though her instructions were very brief, it was clear that the children were visualizing the written word. I could see that some of the children were “cheating”, some of them opened their eyes to take a quick look at the Fidel, one boy “wrote” the word with his finger on his desk. The teacher paid no overt attention to this, just waiting until all the children indicated they could “see” the word. “Now,” she said, “remove the first one with three legs and put the lazy one blowing a bubble in its place. Can you see another word?” The children knew that the rule of the game was not to shout out the word but just to say that they could “see” it. The teacher again waited for all the children to take the time to do the work and then asked one of the slower children to say what the new word was. He said, “bouche” (mouth). She asked him to come and write it on the board, which he did correctly.

I knew that when she used expressions like “letter with three legs” that this was not baby talk but a way of avoiding the confusion that using the name of a letter can cause with the sound or sounds associated with it in a given word. French, like English, is not written phonetically – most letters are used to represent several different sounds, and all sounds can be written in a number of different ways. In this example the name of the letter “m” is pronounced “em” which has two sounds: /e/ and /m/, while in the word “mouche” it represents only one sound: /m/.

(On reading over this article F. L. told me that an even more important reason is to say something that makes the children create a visual image of the letter.)

The teacher proposed several more words to be transformed by substitution in the same way. The children appeared to be confident in their powers of mental imagery and evocation. It was very impressive to see a whole classroom full of little children sitting with their eyes shut and such an air of concentration on their faces. When the teacher proposed a substitution not of a letter but of a sound, one which happens to be written with two letters, the /u/ in “coucher” to /a/. One boy said he was unable to do this. So she asked him to come to the board where, without further help, he was able to write “coucher”, rub out the “ou” and substitute “a” thus demonstrating that the powers of perception and action can be relied on when there has not been sufficient practice of a particular skill to make virtual manipulation of mental images possible.

Individual writing exercise

After ten or fifteen minutes of this “game”, the teacher said they were going to write sentences and asked the children to get out their slates. The first sentence she proposed was, “Elle a mis son pantalon rouge” (She put on her red pants). She said the sentence aloud but did not allow the children to write it down until they had counted the number of words in the sentence on their fingers. She held up her own fingers one by one as the children said the words of the sentence. She did this several times until all the children were able to raise a finger for each word of the sentence. She had to help one child of foreign origin to pronounce the first vowel sound of “pantalon” correctly. Then she let them write the sentence.

I walked around the classroom to see what the children did. About half the children wrote quickly and neatly on a (virtual) line “elle a mi son pantalon rouge” and most of the others wrote the same words but had problems with the lay out – the letters were not well proportioned and/or having started the sentence too low or too much to the right they had difficulty getting in all the words.

When I saw that nearly all the children had only one spelling mistake and that it was the same one, “mi” for “mis”, I realized that it was not a slip, but something that had not yet been worked on in this class. Two or three children had more serious problems – the breaks between the words were not right and words other than “mis” were misspelled.

One boy, after being made to recount the words in the sentence on his fingers – which was far from easy for him – and then the “words” on his slate – which he could do easily (which indicated that his problem was not with counting but with picking out the words), was then able to correct his work.

While the teacher was taking the time to help the weaker children in this way, the faster ones, of their own accord, turned over their slates and quietly made drawings on the back until the teacher judged that everyone had had time to write the sentence as well as they could. The teacher did not choose to make this the moment to work on developing the necessary criteria for the children to understand why it should be “mis” and not “mi” so, at the end, she simply wrote the correct sentence on the board. For some of the children – I heard their intake of breath or saw them nod – this was probably enough, others would need more work on the problem. Three or four sentences were treated in the same way.

Correcting drawings on the board

While the children were working on the last sentence the teacher made four drawings on the board and wrote a sentence next to each one. The drawings however lacked something that was in the corresponding sentence. For example, next to the sentence “There is smoke coming from the chimney of the house” there was a picture of a house but no smoke coming from the chimney. When the teacher drew the children’s attention to what was on the board, she stated the rules of the game, “When you know what’s missing in this picture (she pointed to the house), put up your hands.” As usual, half the children immediately put up their hands but the teacher waited until all had done so. The quicker children, though they waved their hands and cried excitedly “I know! I know!” kept to the rules of the game and did not shout out the answer. Finally the teacher chose one of the slower children to come to the front and gave him a piece of chalk. The boy stood uncertainly in front of the board looking at the chimney of the house which was too high for him to reach. The teacher said to him, “You need something else.” and the boy pulled up a chair, stood on it and drew in the smoke on the chimney. I realized that by not telling the boy directly to go get a chair but just directing his attention sufficiently so that he could find his own solution, the teacher was applying the same educative principles to this practical problem as she was to the academic subject matter. With another drawing one of the children made an interesting mistake. The sentence was “My car is in the garage” and there was a picture of the car but no garage. The little girl drew a garage next to the car. The teacher asked the child to say the sentence aloud which she was able to do easily and immediately the expression on her face changed indicating that she had understood the sentence and she erased her garage and redrew it around the car. I realize, writing this, that I was witness to a clear demonstration of comprehension coming from the spoken language, not the written as Caleb Gattegno had realized. None of the other sentences on the board were said aloud, proving that in those cases the children were able to create virtual spoken sentences in their minds from what they read.

Respecting conventions

The exercise was to be continued individually with sentences accompanied by drawings on a sheet of paper. The teacher was about to hand out the papers herself, when the children reminded her that it was Lionel’s turn to do this kind of job. When he gave out the papers each child politely thanked him without any prompting. This little incident brought home to me children’s sensitivity to conventions of all kinds, from the rules of football to those of spelling, and their pleasure in respecting them.

The meaning is in the oral language

The teacher again went round the class responding for requests for help. They asked me too. One little girl had a problem reading the sentence, “Cinq pommes pendent de l’arbre” (Five apples are hanging on the tree). There were only three apples in the drawing. Her first difficulty was that she was pronouncing the “c” of “cinq” as /k/ instead of /s/. By telling her it was green (the color on the Fidel) she was immediately able to say the word but I realized, too late, that I had not helped her to develop criteria for another time. I could, for example, have referred back to the earlier misspelling of kiwi as “ciwi” which might have acted as a trigger because the combination “ci” (which is always pronounced /si/ in French) had obviously been worked on before in the class. I had noticed that the teacher frequently used well known words as triggers for certain spellings “It’s the /e/ of maison”. Her second problem was that she was pronouncing the word “pendent” as two syllables /pɑ̃dɑ̃/ (which is actually another word written “pendant” meaning “while”) instead of as one syllable /pɑ̃d/. Her mistake showed that she knew that “ent” can be pronounced /ɑ̃/ (as in “dent” for example) but that she had not realized that here it is a verb ending which is never pronounced. I asked her to say the sentence very quickly which she did, “Cinq pommes /pɑ̃dɑ̃/ … ah! /pɑ̃d/ de l’arbre,” and took up her pencil to draw in the additional apples.

Catherine writes my name

At one point I happened to be standing near the Fidel charts when Catherine came up to me and asked me my name. I told her and asked her if she would like to point it on the Fidel. She nodded and pointed: g – e – and hesitated. I asked her if she would like me to point it, she nodded again so I quickly pointed it. She went to the other side of the room and started to write on the board. I went to look a few minutes later and saw she had written “glenis” demonstrating that, if she had not paid exact attention to my pointing of the fifth letter, she had criteria for knowing how the sound /i/ is usually written in French. I was surprised because until then I had not realized she could write so much. Needless to say, on the social level, I also felt extremely flattered that she had taken so much trouble with my name.

Then it was time for the break, after which they worked on arithmetic in the same way. That is with F. L. making sure, step-by-step, that each child, through having the succession of necessary awarenesses, created the appropriate mental structures for the permanent acquisition of each micro skill. Watching these children working happily and eagerly I found it difficult to see them as the victims of social deprivation and abuse (the details concerning some of them are quite horrific). For thirty hours a week at least, they were in a privileged environment, functioning as human beings in the highest sense, discovering themselves and their capacities through learning.

Note: All of the children in this class learned to read and write by the end of the school year; none of them had to repeat the year.

© Glenys HansonThe Science of Education in Questions, N° 13, September 1997, Besançon, France.

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“Learning to read with Words in Color in an Inner City Neighborhood” by Glenys Hanson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.