Saturday, November 15, 2008

Along Came Bob Rose

In my education reading I include a visit to the Courant's Education section and I browse and sometimes contribute to the readers comments.

Recently I came across an interesting entry and received permission to reproduce it here. Here is our correspondence in full.
Would you mind if I blogged about your recent Hartford Courant response about the Montessori results?


I would be delighted! I've been trying to get someone interested in this for years. On my listserv we are in the process of proving the idea once again.

FYI, I will append a three-page description of our original study below, and I'll also attach the same document as an MS Word attachment. (In case the number columns in the Table don't print out straight in the email version.

It's almost unbelievable that no one has ever checked out this simple idea!



In 2002-2003 I did on on-line survey of “Teachers Applying Whole Language” to test my belief that teaching children to write the alphabet to a definable level of fluency (incorporating both rate and legibility), and to my pleasure, I found an overwhelmingly positive correlation. The following school year (2003-2004) I started my own Internet listserv, and recruited five kindergarten teachers who wanted to help me reproduce the findings. The results were just as positive.

I wrote to the editors of about a dozen education and educational psychology journals, describing our controlled study and the only positive request for a manuscript submission was from the manuscript editor of the Harvard Educational Review. (The assistant editor of one well known journal simply emailed me, “That couldn’t possibly be true!”)

I immediately submitted a slightly different draft from the one that follows, but it was summarily rejected by the referees of the H.E.R.

As far as I know, this is (surprisingly) the only study of a possible relationship between early practice printing alphabet letters and subsequent reading success. The five kindergarten teachers involved are trying to spread word of this method privately, but so far with no success. Between the five, they have over a century of classroom experience, and I could share their email addresses with you, if you like.

Most K-1 teachers are aware that their students who are best at reading are also best at printing. However, they are not aware of the causal relationship between early printing practice and the avoidance of subsequent reading problems.

I believe the general public believes that school curricula already have fluency criteria for printing letters in K-1, and would be surprised to learn the fact that they do not.

I hope you will post the following study in the hopes someone will attempt to reproduce it. If there is truly a massive positive correlation between early printing fluency and subsequent reading success (as long as “dyslexia” has not already supervened), I believe it will be one of the most important social science discoveries in history.


By Robert V. Rose, MD (retired)

Submitted March 15, 2004


The possible relationship between practice printing alphabet letters and learning to read in the earliest grades has not been adequately explored. The present article describes preliminary evidence that this relationship may be important, and that reading difficulties may relate directly to inadequate printing practice in kindergarten and first-grade

Historically, many authorities on the subject of literacy instruction have stressed the importance of adequate practice in printing alphabet letters. The first-century Roman writer and rhetorician, Marcus Fabius Quintilianus (ca A.D. 35-98?) wrote that with regard to becoming literate, “Too slow a hand impedes the mind.”

In 1912, Maria Montessori wrote, in effect, that teaching young children to print letters is easy, that it is easy to teach children to read after they have practiced printing alphabet letters, but that it is difficult to teach children to read if they have not practiced writing them. 1

Marilyn Jager Adams noted that prior to the onset of the twentieth century the “spelling drill” was the principal means of inducing literacy for several millennia. 2

More recently, several published authors have called attention to the dearth of research on the possible link between printing practice and the acquisition of literacy in young children, but objective studies of the relationship are still lacking.3, 4

This author has made the assumption that emphasis on practicing printing alphabet letters increases the fluency with which children can print them. It was therefore decided to examine the relationship between fluency at printing the alphabet in preliterate children, and their subsequent success in learning to read well.

This method suffers the disadvantage of requiring children to be able to recite the alphabet in order to print the different letters both legibly and at a rate sufficient to demonstrate that they have practiced enough to have become “printing fluent.” However, it was considered superior to other methods of assessing fluency in printing alphabet letters in young children.

Such children have limited attention spans. It was therefore decided to measure the number of alphabet letters children write during a timed twenty-second interval, and multiply that number by three in order to obtain a “letters-per-minute,” or “LPM,” value for each child.

During the early months of 2002, five first-grade (second year of school) teachers were enlisted from teacher-related internet listservs, to do a cooperative study of the relationship between fluency in writing the alphabet, and concomitant reading skill.

The printing rate of each child was listed by teachers submitting classroom data, and each was matched by the subjective teacher assessment of the child’s relative reading skill. The assessments were A, B, C, D and E, to designate “excellent”, “above average”, “average”, “below average” and “possible reading problem”, respectively.

A total of 94 children in five first-grade classrooms were studied. When the letter grades were converted to numbers (4, 3, 2, 1, 0), “average relative reading ability” could be determined for subgroups of students, defined as printing at different rates.

Among the sixteen children who printed faster than 40 LPM, the average reading score was 3.6. Among the 33 children who printed from 30 to 39 LPM, the average was 2.9. For the 26 children writing at 20-29 LPM, it was 2.3. For the 21 children who wrote more slowly than 20 LPM, it was 1.6.

During this current school year, a number of kindergarten (first year of school) teachers have submitted series of similar studies on their classrooms to the k1writing listserv, accessible at By the end of February, 2004, a total of five teachers had submitted serial data on a total of 106 kindergarten students, including data for the month of February.

The relative reading skills of the kindergartners were ranked according to a three-level system: “reading better than grade level”, “doing well at grade level” and “lagging behind expectations”. In the opinions of their teachers, six children were already reading at second-grade level or above.

Statistical analysis of the correlation again yielded similar results. Among the eighteen children who printed the alphabet faster than 40 LPM, 72% were “above grade level,” and only one was “lagging.” Among the eighteen children who wrote more slowly than 20 LPM, none was above grade level in reading skill, and half of them were “lagging” in this regard.

A tabulation of these findings is revealing. It is informative to look down the column of LPM figures for these 106 children, and observe the correlations. These data are presented in Table One.

The correlation between reading skill and fluency at printing alphabet letters in kindergarten and first-grade is readily apparent. This correlation was known to each of the experienced [kindergarten] teachers participating in this study even before the study was done. The experiment, then, was designed to answer the question as to whether this correlation is one of causation, or merely coincident with some other unidentified factor.

The kindergarten teachers involved have each been able to achieve a level of printing fluency that is considerably above what is generally achieved by American kindergarten students. The printing rates of their kindergarten children are comparable to the rates of the first-grade students in the original study, whose teachers had NOT been previously monitoring printing rate. If the cause of the correlation were in the opposite direction, and it is having learned to read which drives printing fluency, then one would expect the correlation to weaken in classrooms where printing fluency has been intentionally contrived. However, we here see the correlation has persisted intact.

This year, each of the kindergarten teachers has been making a dedicated effort to induce objectively measurable printing fluency in the students as the school year progresses. Each of the five kindergarten teachers has emphatically proclaimed that this practice is found to be immensely helpful in turning young children into readers.

A number of the classrooms have high percentages of poverty and minority children, and none of the children could read at the beginning of the kindergarten school year. It was found that printing fluency, which we arbitrarily defined as 40 LPM or faster, is achieved at different times by different children, and that such fluency is an excellent indicator of when children will learn to read, as well as indicating which children have become successful at reading at any particular point in time.

It was also observed that printing fluency gradually improves in almost all cases with continued practice writing the alphabet letters. Failure to cooperate during the time allocated by teachers for dedicated printing practice seems to be the main limiting factor in the development of printing skill.

None-the-less, our data suggest that fluency in writing the letters of the alphabet is a reasonable goal for all normal children by the end of first-grade.

But it appears that printing fluency does not at all correlate with reading ability much beyond the first-grade level. One teacher submitted data on 54 fourth-graders (fifth year of school), demonstrating no difference at all in the median alphabet-printing rates between children who had been formally identified as reading below grade level, and the other students.5

It is also apparent that printing skill is by no means a necessary prerequisite for literacy. Many children learn to read before they are fluent at printing alphabet letters. On the other hand, virtually all children who lag in reading skill in K-1 are dysfluent printers. That this lack of skill is remediable through continued dedicated practice, extended over time, appears to be of fundamental importance.

If the attainment of fluent ability to print alphabet letters in the earliest grades generally assures early success in reading, this fact challenges some current theoretical conceptions regarding the nature of reading disabilities.

Our evidence suggests both that printing fluency confers the ability to name random letters more rapidly than 40 per minute6, and that the ability to phonetically write words fluently, possible only after the attainment of fluency in printing letters, confers phonemic awareness.

Adams wrote, “It has been shown that the act of writing newly learned words results in a significant strengthening of their perceptual integrity in recognition. This is surely a factor underlying the documented advantages of programs that emphasize writing and spelling activities.”7

Montessori also considered practice writing alphabet letters to be crucial, and wrote, “We shall soon see that the child, on hearing the word, or on thinking of a word he already knows, will see, in his mind’s eye, all the letters, necessary to compose the word, arrange themselves. He will reproduce this vision with a facility most surprising to us.”8

While such rhetorical explanations of the value of writing practice have been seen as nebulous in the past, converging advances in the fields of pattern recognition by artificial intelligence and of the cerebral physiology involved in visual pattern recognition and categorization may render them more plausible.

It is emphasized that these studies are limited and preliminary, but their results underscore the pressing need to either confirm or disaffirm their apparent implications.

The author wishes to acknowledge the participation of the classroom teachers who did and submitted these comparison studies on their students. They are Libby Rhoden, Pasadena, Texas; Sue Fisher, Kailua Kona, Hawaii; Ann Vasconcellos, Homewood, Illinois; Helen Wilder, Middlesboro, Kentucky; Nancy Creech, Eastpointe, Michigan; Ruby Clayton, Indianapolis, Indiana; Alice A. Pickel, Phoenix, Arizona; Lori Jackson, Mission, South Dakota; Lalia Kerr, Nova Scotia; Jennifer Runkle, Ohio.


Kindergarten Students Printing Level in Letters Per Minute (LPM)

LPM rate:

> 40 LPM 30-39 LPM 20-29 LPM < 20 LPM

78** 39** 33** 27** 24* 18*

72** 39** 33** 27** 24* 18*

66** 39** 33** 27** 24* 18*

60** 39** 33* 27** 24o 18*

60* 39** 33* 27** 24o 18*

57** 39** 33* 27** 24* 18*

54** 39* 33* 27* 21* 18 o

54** 39 o 33 o 27* 21* 15*

51** 36** 30** 27* 21* 15*

51** 36** 30** 27* 21* 15 o

48** 36** 30** 27* 21* 15 o

48** 36** 30** 27o 21* 15 o

48** 36** 30** 27o 21* 12*

48* 36* 30* 24** 21* 12 o

48* 36* 30* 24* 21* 12 o

42** 36* 30* 24* 21 o 6 o

42* 36 o 30* 24* 21 o 3 o

42 o 30* 3 o


In the opinion of respective classroom teachers:

KEY: o lagging in reading skill

* on level

** above level in reading


1. Montessori, Maria. The Montessori Method, Dover Publications, 2002, pp.266-7

2. Adams, Marilyn Jager. Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print, MIT Press, 1990, p.388

3. Sofia Vernon and Emilia Ferreiro. "Writing Development: A Neglected Variable in the Consideration of Phonological Awareness." Harvard Educational Review 69:4 (1999): pp.395-415.

4. Groff, Patrick. "Teaching Phonics: Letter-to-phoneme, Phoneme-to-letter, or Both?” Reading and Writing Quarterly 17 (fall, 2001): pp.291-306.

5. Data provided by Marianne Morin, Watkins Glen, New York.

6. Data on kindergarten classroom correlation between letter-naming and printing fluency provided by Sue Fisher, Hawaii.

7. Adams, Op. cit., pp.230-231


Bob Rose

151 Sharp View Lane

Jasper, Georgia, USA 30143

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