When Renée Fuller was a twelve year old girl, her teachers complained that she had "a reading problem" and that she must do something about it. Her teachers, however, were never quite certain just what should or could be done to improve her reading skills. Over the course of a summer, she taught herself to read by immersing herself in the fanciful OZ stories.
With the reading problem resolved, at least for herself, she went on to earn degrees in experimental and physiological psychology. She maintained an interest in and a commitment to those learning to read.
During the 60s Dr. Fuller was in charge of a New York State study of psychological implications of phenylketonuria (an inborn error of metabolism frequently associated with mental retardation). At the same time, she created Ball-Stick-Bird, a method of teaching reading to high IQ dropouts. These seemingly unrelated activities were to converge with surprising results.
She may be reached through Ball-Stick-Bird Publications, PO Box 592, Stony Brook, NY 11790.
– Linda MacRae-Campbell
"Why can’t we try it? Maybe it’ll work."
"You’d just be wasting your time. There’s no way you can teach reading to someone with an IQ below 60 – at least not so they’ll understand what they’re reading. And you know that’s what the Ball-Stick-Bird system requires – understanding. It’s a genuine high IQ system." The Chief of Psychological Services smiled as she said this. She knew that the repeated requests from her junior staff reflected their hope and youth. And she knew they would continue their plea.
"What have we got to lose? Maybe it’ll work."
"How could it? The best you can expect from the retarded is parrot reading. Comprehension, the understanding of what is read is an abstract process. Which is why it is so IQ-bound."
"But maybe, just maybe we can get past the parroting and the word calling." But their Service Chief shook her head.
"How? IQ tests are amazingly accurate instruments. They were designed to predict school performance. And they do just that. In the 15 years that I’ve done research with IQ tests their correlation with school performance has been amazingly high. When administered by a pro, Binet IQs tell you exactly what to expect. They predicted which of our subjects would learn to read; and they also predicted which would fail, and which would be the parrots. There are good reasons why IQ tests are called one of psychology’s great achievements."
I remember these often repeated conversations well, even though they took place in 1970, because, contrary to all expectation, youth and inexperience turned out to have been correct.
Repeated pleas to be allowed to use the Ball-Stick-Bird reading system to teach reading to retarded patients had brought a capitulation from the Service Chief. The young psychologists were allowed three patients as reading students. Several weeks later they triumphantly announced budding success. It was met with disbelief from their chief.
"Come, see for yourself." The youngsters urged, wanting all to watch what was happening through the one-way mirror.
And that was when I saw for the first time an extraordinary tableau. Huddled over the Ball-Stick-Bird books, eagerly trying to decipher the words that would tell them the story, were severely retarded patients. All the patients had had years of academic intervention with superior teaching personnel, yet in spite of this nothing had happened. Not one had mastered even the alphabet. But now they were so engrossed in story reading that in their eagerness they anticipated the next word – sometimes incorrectly. This was real reading – not parroting or word calling.
As I looked through the one-way mirror and the extraordinary success of the retarded patients, I knew that 15 years of research with psychology’s great achievement, the IQ tests, was seriously threatened. My "expert" opinion was in shreds – I was confused, threatened, delighted, appalled and embarrassed – for I was the Chief of Psychological Services who had been so sure that there was no way you could teach reading with comprehension to the severely retarded. But even more ironic, I was the author of the Ball-Stick-Bird reading system, and therefore the creator of these changes. I was dumbfounded. What had happened? It made no sense. What had reversed my 15 years of experience as well as the expertise of so many of my colleagues? This had to be explored in greater depth. Maybe there was an easy explanation.
But there wasn’t. We expanded the initial study. The three reading patients became ten, then twenty, then twenty-six. We administered a host of tests to determine what had happened to our patients. Why were our students reading and understanding what they were reading when their IQ scores implied that this should be impossible? What was going on? Our patients were changing in front of our eyes. It wasn’t just that they had learned to read. Much more was happening. My training as a physiological psychologist demanded that we quantify what had happened, and why.
The "what" question was easier to answer than the "why." To answer "what" we brought in lower and lower IQ students into the study. Each time I assumed we had reached the floor of reading capability. We stopped at an IQ of 30, but not because we had failed. Our 30 IQ was a sparkling success. However, below an IQ of 30 people are all but devoid of language. Nevertheless, other learning centers, with "experts" not so sure, used the Ball-Stick-Bird all the way down to 20 IQ with astonishing success. Since an adult with a 20 IQ has a vocabulary of only a handful of words, literacy produced a spectacular vocabulary explosion.
However, spectacular as these results were, they were only partially reflected in IQ scores in retesting. Although highly significant statistically, the rise in IQ scores did not change retardation categories. The student with an IQ of 20 rose to an IQ of 30 which is highly significant from a statistical viewpoint. However, no one would have expected an IQ of 30 to be able to read with comprehension. The IQ scores were not reflecting what was going on. They had failed not only in not predicting the success of our patients, but once the success had occurred, retesting scores failed to describe what had happened. And yet there were other tests, such as reading comprehension, that did describe our students. For the first time psychology’s prize instrument, the IQ test, failed me in its correlation with academic performance. I thought that if we increased our sample, if we added more tests, varied our sample, we would finally get a positive IQ correlation with academic performance. But we never did.
Instead our data showed that although the IQ tests had failed in describing our students (i.e., answering the "what" question) this was not true for the achievement tests. The reading comprehension tests, vocabulary tests, the following written directions tests, did describe our students and correlated highly with their own written productions and their sky-rocketing social maturity scores. The social maturity scores in turn were a reflection of improved speech, communication skills, and a sudden involvement with life, especially the caring for others. Since our population had been the dregs of society, not only with respect to their IQ but also with respect to acting out behavior, these astonishing changes demanded a "why" answer.
Stage one in answering the "why" question led me to an analysis of IQ tests and how they had come into being. Perhaps this would help explain what Ball-Stick-Bird had tapped into that was not being measured by IQ tests.
From the start, IQ tests had been designed to measure the subskills necessary for classroom success. That is what psychologists Binet and Simon had set out to do when they developed their classical test in turn-of-the-century France. Binet had actually sat in a classroom and taken notes, designing his test to predict who would fulfill the demands of the teacher. Only gradually did his test, and that of others, evolve into the construct "intelligence."
The construct "intelligence," the idea that you can quantify how bright or stupid someone is, is new to this century. Before our age of mass education people perceived each other as much more complex. Someone could be shrewd in business, but poor at writing letters; clever enough with words; but incompetent with numbers. It is only after the advent of Binet and Simon’s test and what they, and especially the statistician Spearman, did with it that the construct became a part of how people perceive one another.
Spearman found that Binet and Simon’s test, and other tests that had begun to appear, had high intercorrelations with each other. He reasoned that therefore they must be measuring the same thing. Further, this high intercorrelation could be explained by a construct which he called "g", for general intelligence. Almost immediately there were those who questioned the construct. Thorndike and subsequently Guilford maintained that there are multiple abilities, or factors, of intelligence. But Spearman rebutted by showing that even these multiple factors have high intercorrelations with each other.
In spite of the questions periodically raised in the psychological literature, the IQ construct rapidly became a part of our every day world. Mass education had made the IQ tests a very useful tool. And researchers, like myself, found them valuable and reliable measuring instruments. School administrators found that the tests allowed prediction and channeling of students according to their ability.
As the tests became a major tool in education they became a part of how people perceive one another. It became a mark of success to have a high IQ. The tests had become reified. Rather than measuring potential for achievement, they now were achievement.
It followed inevitably that the success of educational intervention techniques would now be evaluated by their effect on IQ scores. And so we see Head Start programs and Sesame Street carefully include items from standard IQ tests in their curriculum. After all, that is how their effectiveness will be measured. The large publishing houses have followed suit, selling their "consumables" to elementary schools with drill units that carry a remarkable resemblance to IQ subtests. Initially the tests had been designed to sample education; now they were determining what has being taught. Having evolved into a self-feeding circular relationship, school performance and IQ tests became self fulfilling prophecies. However, when I devised Ball-Stick-Bird I was designing a reading system for older high IQ students. Consequently there was no need to train anyone to do well on IQ subtests.
We presented this analysis and our findings at a lengthy symposium on Ball-Stick-Bird at the Annual Meeting of the American Psychological Association. An expanded book version of the symposium entitled In Search Of The IQ Correlation, reflecting my attempts to exonerate IQ tests, appeared several years later. There were more symposia, more articles, in which I tried to understand the second stage of the "why" question. This led further into the philosophical underpinnings of IQ tests and how Ball-Stick-Bird had diverged from these underpinnings.
When Binet sampled the skills of the turn-of-the-century French classroom, his test reflected three fundamental educational assumptions of that classroom. These were: (1) Simple skills, those requiring little understanding, are the easiest to learn and therefore the easiest to teach the very young or the retarded. (2) There is a hierarchy of skills from simple to complex, a hierarchy of performance requiring little understanding to that requiring abstract knowledge. To move up this ladder, the preceding rung has to be mastered. This hierarchical ladder appears in the design of IQ tests with their progressive difficulty of subtests. Translated into the classroom this means that lesson one has to be mastered before the student can successfully move on to lesson two. (3) The capability to combine simple skills and understandings requires a progression toward maturity. The very young or the retarded cannot learn via abstract understandings and therefore must be taught by the route of simple skills and bits of information which they will eventually combine into large units.
The history of these assumptions goes back to Socrates and subsequently Descartes. That these assumptions have continued to be so popular in both psychology and education is in part a function of the success IQ tests have had in predicting performance. I had also found the data the tests generated had criterion validity. Did not these tests demonstrate numerically the correctness of hierarchical analyses of learning? Did they not demonstrate that abstract understandings are acquired late in development? That there is a fudging element here, in that the schools are more and more gearing their teaching to the tests, took a while to register.
However, when I developed Ball-Stick-Bird I was not following the Socratic-Cartesian tradition. There was no need to, for my aim was to reach turned-off learning disabled teenagers of superior intelligence, capable of mature understandings. To appeal and reach these youngsters, the boredom of the usual classroom techniques had to be avoided.
So I did not begin with the teaching of numerous bits of information (the simple skills that require little understanding), like the alphabet with its multitude of sounds. There was no need to wait for the eventual combining of these skills in Socratic-Cartesian tradition into bigger comprehensible wholes. Instead, story reading could begin immediately. To achieve this I rearranged the presentation of the alphabet sequence, allowing for word formation with the second letter, and the start of stories (space odysseys) with the fourth letter.
To reduce initial memory load, and therefore speed up story reading, (1) only capital letters are used at first; (2) the letters are called by their most usual sound; (3) the student is shown how s/he can build the letters with just three forms. The forms are a circle (called a ball), a line (called a stick), and an angle (called a bird). They are so basic to the human brain that even newborn babies recognize them.
Also to speed up contextual reading, the layout of the books is in thought packages, or easy to read phrases. Developmental linguistics is used to facilitate understanding. The beginning books try to tell their space adventures primarily with nouns and verbs. Gradually adjectives and adverbs are added. Difficult connectives and prepositions wait until later books.
But the aspect that was presumably most geared to the older, high IQ student was the innovation of "code approximation." To learn code approximation the student is told "the letters are a very sloppy code. The only way you can be sure of the exact sound of a particular letter is to see if it makes a word that makes sense in the story." This type of intellectual feedback is further emphasized with, "You are a detective. The letters are your clues. But like all clues you cannot be sure of what they are until they make sense in the story."
This brief summary of the teaching system makes it clear why I was so sure that it was pointless for our staff to use it to teach reading to severely retarded students. Success would be contrary to everything I knew about intelligence and IQ. So when I saw severely retarded students, and later four-year olds, easily learn to read and code approximate, it made no sense. How could immature minds carry out such a sophisticated function? How could they have the intelligence to play around with sounds until they found one with which they could build a word that made sense in the story? When we saw the letters and stories that our retarded, and later our four-year olds, wrote, the effectiveness of these techniques became incontrovertible. On their own our students mimicked the layout of the books, especially when the ideas they were trying to get across were difficult. And we could see them build their ideas, first with noun-verb combinations, then adding adjectives and adverbs. However, the prepositions remained difficult.
What we had seen was the human brain functioning quite differently from the expectations demanded by IQ tests. Code approximation had evidently tapped into a part of intellectual functioning that is not measured by IQ tests. And we had seen that the thinking through of stories and ideas with grammatical building blocks can be taught. How powerful these techniques are was further demonstrated by the transfer of training to other areas of cognition shown by our students. But this spectacular transfer of cognitive skills did not include the IQ tests, which had shown only a minimal rise. And so, in spite of the fact that our students showed cognitive transfer to mathematics, writing, telling of stories, arguing, and above all thinking, they still had difficulty with the disconnected skills required by the IQ tests.
What we had seen did make sense from an evolutionary standpoint. A brain that is organized to learn as rapidly as possible a simple story to communicate to others of its species increases its chances for survival. The rapid learning of disconnected skills, up to now, has not had an evolutionary advantage. Never mind how important one considers disconnected skills; the demands of even our modern industrial world are very different from the Socratic-Cartesian classroom. As a species we were designed for survival in the real world, not survival in the classroom.
Quite by accident, my altering the teaching of reading had made me stumble on teaching techniques that make sense to the human brain. By doing so, it allowed the extraordinary potential of what we can become to be tapped. It also showed that by locking ourselves into IQ predictions we have restricted the possibilities, the potential, of real people. It is not only the retarded, or the learning disabled, it is all children, all of us, who can reach heights none of us had dreamed possible.
The Inside World
Bill Knake, now 31, spent his childhood and early adult years in a state institution for the mentally retarded. During that time he was considered "ineducable" with a low IQ score of under 50, and never learned to read or write. With the help of Linda MacRae Campbell and the Ball-Stick-Bird program as a start, however, he began reading and then went on to write his own book, The Inside World, which recounts his institutional life. The following are excerpts:
"Being in the institution people wind up hating themselves. There have been times I hate myself. I don’t remember for what."
"I told everybody to stand on their own two feet. If you want something done for yourself, you have to do it instead of waiting for someone else."
"I told my mom and step dad I don’t care if they are white, black, orange or red, green or pink polka dots. It doesn’t make a difference what color you are or what you are or what you wear or which kind of problem you have. I just figure we’re all the same. A lot of times we all need help. You don’t think so but you do know you need a lot of help. So does everybody else plus myself. I think it’s the same with all the peoples in the world."
"I’d like to take all the institutions, change the laws and make them better places. If I had an institution, I would go in, talk about how it was and change a few things. I would have the staff go to school about how the human mind works. Then I would have the staff go to the people. The patients should explain their problems or if they don’t know, then the staff could try to explain. I want the staff to love the patients. That would change almost everything."
For more information, write to him c/o The Inside World, PO Box 1001, Mt. Vernon, WA 98273. For a copy of his book, send $6 (postpaid).