I didn’t set out to be a software developer. I’m a research neuropsychologist, but my experiences as a founder and program developer for a Head-Start program for 5,000 children in Mississippi during the Civil Rights Movement, my ten years of brain research in dyslexia at UC San Francisco, and my discoveries from being a teacher and helping my own children to write, fueled my desire to develop practical tools to help children learn to read and write.
At first, my goal was to find the “cause” of dyslexia and a way to “cure” it. But my ten years of brain research did not put us any closer to helping children learn to read. So, in 1982, I started a non-profit research organization to investigate the effective use of technology in education. I saw the potential of computers as non-judgmental tools for mastering the basics of phoneme awareness and phonics in the sometimes-frustrating task of learning to read. I set out to find the best in educational software for early readers but found no writing-based software that was both engaging and educationally sound.
My thinking, at that time, went something like this: It is clear that writing is of critical importance to learning to read, learning to think clearly, learning to express a “personal voice”, developing self esteem and, ultimately, finding a job in an increasingly competitive workplace. Why can’t I find software devoted to teaching children how to sound-out and spell simple words as a way to teach them how words get on paper in the first place?
It is also clear that it is difficult to learn to write – probably the most difficult task K-3 students face. In fact, many children have such a painful time learning to write that they avoid writing at any cost. But computers are a tool that can make writing much easier because all you have to do is say the words you want to write and press the key for each sound you say. You don’t have to remember the shape of the letter and control a pencil to draw that shape. That can come later.
My mission began to take focus: What can I do to enable children to use computers to help them learn to write as a route to reading? My colleagues and I decided to start at the beginning.
For beginners, writing is essentially a matter of putting speech on paper. So what do you need in order to write?
You need to know how to speak (no problem for most first graders!).
You need to be able to identify the individual sounds in words (phonemic awareness).
You need to know the code that stands for speech sounds (the alphabet).
You need to know how to use that code to represent words (encoding).
You need a way to put that code on paper (handwriting or keyboarding).
That’s all! With these components, you can write anything you can say! As you read back what you have written, you use the phonics you have mastered to decode the words and grow your skills as a good reader.
We sat down beside a six year old, at an Apple computer, and said, “We talk to each other with our mouths. We talk to the computer with our fingers.” We showed her how to feel for the little raised dot and rest her “tall fingers” on the D and K keys. We touched her “pointer finger” on her left hand and said, “This finger says ‘fff’”. We touched her “pinkie finger” and told her it said ‘aaa’. “Now, can you can write fa?” we asked. No problem. She typed FA and asked for more.
All she had to do was learn a finger stroke for every speech sound. And there are only forty of them. Her brain was eagerly storing visual, auditory and motor memories. The computer remembered how to form the letters, how to space them evenly so they could be easily read, how to make them go from left to right, and it helped her fix mistakes without an eraser!) This physical assistance turns out to be especially important at first, when there’s so much to remember about sounds and letters. Yes, first graders can touch-type, and they love it.
And that, in a nutshell, is how I came to find myself developing Talking Fingers, for the Apple II computer, Read, Write & Type, for both Macintosh and Windows platforms, and a follow-up program, Wordy Qwerty, to teach children important spelling and word-building rules. Eventually, in 1994, we formed a company, Talking Fingers, Inc. in order to qualify for federal Small Business Research grants. We have spent the last 18 years enhancing and upgrading the programs, doing research with them, and teaching teachers the value of a writing approach to reading.