A-N-I-M-A-L-S Why This Game?

1. How children learn
2. How this game helps
3. Frequently Asked Questions

1. How children learn

The following is an overview based on the author's understanding. For more detail, you may refer to these excellent books, which provided the original information:

08/2008: John Holt's How Children Fail and Instead Of Education provide a different perspective on the subject, I cannot recommend them strongly enough! See the HoltGWS.com site for excerpts of Holt from past issues of Growing Without Schooling.

By the time they are three years old, most children talk. They learn without being formally taught, their babble gradually turning into intelligible speech through hours of listening to others and striving in turn to be understood. We forget how much effort that required of us, probably because although this was difficult, it was also immensely gratifying: Picture a child beaming with joy, having just achieved speaking one of his/her first words to Mom and Dad!

Decades of research in developmental psychology and education have established that young children themselves are the main driving force of their own education. Caretakers provide support and information, but the most active part is that of children, who explore their environment, make discoveries, who build mental models of their world, and who continually refine these models to make them fit the reality they are experiencing.

Step by step, through this process of trial and error and intelligent adjustement, children successfully conquer grabbing, sitting, standing, walking, speaking & understanding sentences, running, jumping, entering into relationships, etc., all within their first 3 or 4 years. Each child builds a subtly different set of abilities, with emphasis on some preferred areas, going forward at his/her own pace, but in general they all take these challenges in stride.

Children will also learn to read and write in this manner, if given the opportunity: when they see adults or older children use written language, they will want to do the same and as long as they are helped to do so in the same way they were helped when they were beginning to talk, they will succeed. Pr. Söderbergh's research shows that in an environment where the possibility is presented to them in a way that they find enjoyable, babies who have not yet started to talk can easily recognize names written in large letters and learn to match them to the people or animals or things they represent.

Just as they gradually master spoken language by speaking and being spoken to, children learn written language very naturally once they start to use it in their day-to-day activities, such as watching the words while a story is being read to them, or learning to recognize and draw their own name on paper.

Learning takes time because it is a process that involves changes in large numbers of cells. Even in young children, who learn so well that they are sometimes thought to possess special learning abilities, many months of daily practice are needed before complex skills are acquired. Learning to stand on two feet usually requires close to 12 months of muscle and balance building. Learning to speak takes much longer, at least 3 years. Adults often forget just how long it takes to learn anything! It seems that effective learning requires:

Adults should also know the critical influence of the growth mind-set (knowing one grows, improves and learns through practice and effort) versus the "fixed mind-set" of people who shun learning because they believe they were born with a fixed quantity of smarts that can never change.

2. How this game helps

This game lets children play with words and letters and their sounds in a uniquely interactive way. It provides the sort of feedback that helps children to understand how words are built from letters, and how word sounds are built from letter sounds. By playing the game, children easily learn most of the fundamental principles underlying written language.

Why a game to help children learn to read? Don't they learn this in school already?

Reading can start making a difference in a child's life only if s/he reads well and enjoys reading. To get there, a positive feedback loop is needed, where reading becomes increasingly easier and more enjoyable, and the sooner such a reinforcing loop is acquired the better. Children who start too late (at age 6 in many countries) risk never getting into this loop because unlike younger ones their curiosity is not attracted by unmoving type anymore. They'll prefer the moving images on TV, and who can blame them?

Please note that I am not saying school should start at an earlier age than it does now. Because learning is such a personal process, forcing a child to learn is counter-productive. This is the simple yet profound explanation for the catastrophic fall of literacy levels. Literacy rates were highest in the 1800's, when everybody still learned to read and write at home.

"...the incidence of complex literacy ... was between 93 and 100 percent... Last of the Mohicans, published in 1826, sold so well that a contemporary equivalent would have to move 10 million copies to match it. If you pick up an uncut version you find yourself in a dense thicket of philosopy, history, culture, manners, politics, geography, analysis of human motives and actions, all conveyed in data-rich periodic sentences so formidable only a determined and well-educated reader can handle it nowadays."--The Underground History of American Education, John Taylor Gatto
For a given child the right time to start learning to read--when it will be easiest and most enjoyable--is when that child starts noticing and asking about those squiggly marks on labels, signs and other written messages. For most children today this happens long before they are 6.

The notion that children ought to be sent to school is based on a number of assumptions, such as "schools promote learning". Two of the least examined assumptions appear to be:

  1. children are not capable of learning on their own.
  2. children cannot possibly know what they should learn, what will be good for them.

If these assumptions, regardless of their validity, are indeed held by most adults children come into contact with, such as school staff, is it any wonder that schools stifle learning in children? It's a self-fulfilling prophecy: when all the adults around you behave as if you were helpless and clearly expect you to not be able to think straight, when they don't respect your intelligence and they don't take you seriously ("haha, he/she's just a child"), day after day, is it any wonder that after only a few years of this you will, like most children, effectively come to see yourself as hopelessly ignorant and incapable of learning anything on your own?

As to whether there is any merit to the assumptions, it is enough to only begin examining the evidence to find that they are false:

  1. every child learns to make sense of his/her surroundings on his/her own, every child learns to crawl, stand up, and walk without being taught. Every child learns to understand speech in at least one language, and learns to speak at least one spoken language, without any formal schooling: contrast that with the results of learning a language at school.

    Children learn all the time, their very nature as human beings compels them to learn all the time. In fact adults learn all the time too, it's just that for most adults their destructive childhood has resulted in them actively avoiding learning anything not sanctionned by theirs peers, therefore they get stuck in either re-learning the same old things over and over again, or learning useless trivia that they forget almost immediately ("the news", "gossip"), instead of learning anything new and valuable.

  2. anything that a child wants to learn is good, for the simple reason that it is the child's own choice. How else is it possible to develop the capacity to tell apart what is good for you from what is bad for you, if you cannot find out by actually experimenting with reality? Taking someone else's word for that is only possible once you have accumulated enough experience, once you have built a reasonably good mental model of what may happen if you follow or don't follow their advice. Otherwise believing that person would be relying on blind faith, not actual experience. Preventing a child from choosing what to learn and how to learn it, is depriving that child of the most valuable experiences he/she can have, because it prevents the child from getting better at learning itself.

    As with other learning, learning how to learn is automatic and inborn in humans. We just need to let children develop this capability like they develop their other capabilities, without interfering with the process. Again, this does not mean you cannot help children to learn, only that the proper way to help them is to answer their questions and perhaps make suggestions, but never force them to do this or that.

Therefore the risk is that many children will not learn to read soon enough to develop the love and ease of reading that will let them apply this skill successfully. A large part of the knowledge and wisdom of humanity will remain beyond their reach, and because the practice of reading and writing helps to structure the mind, they might also miss the opportunity to develop an ability to tackle complex problems. How many teenagers today cannot read fluently, do not like to read? A large proportion, unfortunately, and that will likely make their lives more difficult.

And playing a game can help?

Not just any game, and not if it is too late (well, I hope it never is too late but it does get more difficult the more you wait). The game has to be one that children enjoy, and it needs to embody the principles of written language so children train themselves to read while they play. The requirements for such games have been defined by researchers, but to my knowledge there have been no implementations available to the general public.

Why not? Why weren't games such as this one widely available before?

Mainly because hard disks of personal computers weren't large enough to conveniently hold all the data required. This game (with both Picture Packs) comes with over 800 digital photographs, and each language pack holds about as many digitized spoken words. Only more expensive computers, such as those in research labs, used to have that capacity and that is why only children who participated in experimental programs ever got to play with this sort of game. But not anymore!

Why so many pictures?

Any fewer and there wouldn't be enough words starting with each letter of the alphabet for children to play with. It is important to convey the idea that there is a large domain to explore, otherwise they might not be interested long enough to get past the stage where they play to see pictures.

Past this stage to what else, then?

Once children start to understand how words are built from letters, and they realize they can build the words they choose and have the computer say them, they get a lot of pleasure from exercising this new ability. The joy of discovery is not as important anymore, it's the excitement of using their newfound power that takes over and fuels further progress. At this point, if adults are supportive, children are ready to read simple books.

Why not use drawings instead? Don't they take up less disk space?

True, and the download size would be smaller, but simpler drawings don't have the richness of detail of a photograph. Using photographs allows us to offer children more to explore, again to encourage them to dig deeper in the game and reach its core content, the primary letter-shape/letter-sound pairs and the rules for combining them to mean something.

Wouldn't having movie clips or animations instead of still pictures offer even more to explore?

It would, but then the connection to letters, reading, etc., might be stretched a bit too far. This game is about providing children with an environment that makes it easier to playfully experiment with the building blocks of written language, not about distracting them into passivity!

Why are adults not supposed to help?

Ideally, from the point of view of the children playing, this game is not supposed to be a game where you can win or lose. Rather, it is pure exploration without any stated goal, and therefore there is no need for any help. There is nothing to achieve, it is just having fun. If adults start to "help", they introduce the idea that there is a goal, some kind of "right way" and "wrong way", and this takes the focus off of the joy of discovery and puts it instead on social conformity and the fear of failure, thus ensuring that the child will not find the game enjoyable anymore.

Here is an example of how a well-meaning adult with a win-or-lose perspective can ruin the fun: Children in a kindergarten were given turns at the computer either alone or in groups of two to four after being told only that there was a new game for them to play. Typically they would be eager to try it, and they immediately started to probe the keyboard and look at the screen, quickly figuring out how to play. Even though they were hunting for keys, they all seemed to have fun. While two of the younger kids were playing, an adult stopped by and, noticing they were trying the wrong key to complete a word, pointed at the screen and asked "Look here, which key should you type now?" The children froze. He was only trying to help, but his words had effectively changed the flavor of the situation for them: it wasn't just free play anymore; it had become some kind of test and that had taken all the fun away, because no one likes to be tested.

That is why it is best for adults to wait until children are done. Simply staying around lets children know you care about them, and it is the best kind of help because it gives them the reassurance they need to take their own risks at making mistakes and learning by themselves.

You can also help by keeping play sessions short, leading children away before their attention starts to wander elsewhere. Anything can become boring if you do it for too long, and stopping the game just before they have had enough, while it is still fun, helps make children want to play again later.

So how long and how often should children play in order to progress?

I would say a few minutes a day is enough. Also it doesn't have to be every day. It is really specific to each child, and each one may go through a number of stages. Some children might not be interested in playing this game for days or weeks at a time. Then suddenly they'll remember it and they'll want to play again, and you will be amazed at how much progress they have made! Probably something they saw or heard while playing has stayed with them, and after taking some time to integrate it with their other experiences they are now ready to use their new knowledge to move on. Learning a complex skill such as reading requires that many component sub-skills fall into place, and an apparent lack of progress may not be a valid description of what is really happening in their mind.

It also depends on when children start to play (as well as what they have already learned) and what they are learning through other activities related to reading. One can notice very different ways of playing with the game: some children stroke the keys, tracing over letter shapes with their fingers. Others are more interested in the sounds they hear and keep hitting the same keys to play "music". Many will stare at the screen and press the keys at random, with occasional glances at the keyboard. Each child is exploring one aspect of the total situation, probably because at that moment in time s/he is building an understanding of that part of his/her interactions with the world. This is another reason to avoid interfering with what children do, because we can only guess at what they are trying to explore or understand, and offering them irrelevant advice will only hinder their progress.

Is there anything you want to add?

Yes. As a general principle regarding learning, I think a very important idea is that adults should set things up so that from the start children get a taste of what it feels like to actually do the thing they are learning to do. Accordingly, the game lets children practice "real" reading and writing from the start, even if this "reading" is only a much simpler version of what they will be able to do later. There is no "preparatory phase" where the implied message is that one cannot do the real thing. From the very first keystrokes children are actually using written language to communicate, even if only with a computer. This is very important for them, it is the nature of how they learn, by "doing the same" as adults, even if at first they are only reproducing the look of the activity. The important thing is that they can be proud of themselves, since they succeed in doing something that they want to do. This gives them the confidence to try more things, more difficult versions of the things they already know how to do. They are building a history of past successes that they will be able to rely on for taking on new challenges.

In the end, our best chance of helping children to progress is probably to offer them as many different opportunities for learning as possible. As good as this game may be, it will become boring if it is the only reading game children play. So you will want to get them other games too (one that is very complementary with A-N-I-M-A-L-S is Brøderbund's excellent Dr Seuss's ABC [new edition]), read books together, have them write their name on their drawings, etc. Each of these activities will reinforce the benefits from the others, and each will let children learn something valuable about letters, words, and what reading and writing are good for.

3. Frequently Asked Questions

How do I add/change words?
Adding pictures of a child's favorite people (or animals, objects, etc.) is a good idea because it will boost interest in the game:

(1) Save pictures in the PICT format and drop them in the Pictures folder.

(2) Record and save the spoken names as AIFF files and drop them in the Word Sounds folder (add subfolders if needed).

As long as the filenames match, the game automatically associates pictures and sounds.
Some people say learning to read too young is bad--let kids enjoy themselves instead! Isn't there some truth to that?
I wholeheartedly agree that children (and adults as well) should enjoy themselves. It is very difficult to learn anything if you are not having a good time! So I don't think there has to be a contradiction here. Look at it this way: as long as children are having fun, it is not taking anything away from them. This is just another game they can play, and if it can also help them start to read, what's wrong with that?
Is this the letter method of learning, or the syllable method, or the global (word) method?
It is neither, but it combines advantages from each one.
Is there a conflict with what children learn at school?
I don't think so. Each child can play and experiment freely with the game, and whatever a child learns will be learned in the way(s) that are available to that particular child at that particular moment of his/her development. It's almost the same as when your child looks through a picture book and you say the name of the thing he/she is pointing at.
Where can I find more information about children and learning, etc.?
08/2008: Read John Holt's How Children Fail and Instead Of Education, two exceptionally good books. For excerpts of Holt's writings see the HoltGWS.com site. Your children will thank you!

Web sites with detailed information on the component skills needed for reading include the Reading Acquisition site (researchers at the Univ. of Manitoba, Canada), as well as these other sites (but unfortunately, most of their authors are focused on ways of teaching instead of ways of learning, and they seem to forget that learning can and mostly does happen outside of school. This in turn makes it difficult to recognize that learning to read is often best done before children are old enough to attend school): Overview: How Children Learn to Read Words [The Reading Genie], How Most Children Learn to Read [Reading Rockets], Helping Your Child Learn to Read [National Institute for Literacy], Principles for Learning to Read [Educational Resources Information Center].
And here is Alan Kay in The Computer Revolution Hasn't Happened Yet (transcript) talking about "...the old unrealized dream of a flexibly competent computer tutor for subject matter that is best taught by helping the learner construct their own knowledge."