THE ORIGIN OF CALEB GATTEGNO’S APPROACH TO READING
From An Interview with Caleb Gattegno,
conducted by John and Susy Pint on July 4, 1985
Transcribed and edited by J. Pint, ©2007 by John and Susy Pint
It was Christmas, 1956 when I was brought—for the first time—into contact with the field of reading. I was 45 years old and had been in education for thirty years and I had never tackled the question of reading.
I had just arrived in Addis Ababa (commissioned by UNESCO – Ed), having had no time to prepare myself for being there. Now, it was Christmas and everything was closed and I had 48 hours to myself. Only then did I open the envelope UNESCO had given me. I looked inside and saw something about the language Amarinya and how they write it. So I looked at it for the first time, with a fresh eye and I said, “How could I remember 251 characters for writing this language?
I looked and I looked and, because I brought something in my eye, the structure of space in my eye, I recast this material. I started on Saturday morning and on Sunday afternoon I could read Amarinya. I didn’t know how to speak Amarinya, but I could read Amarinya. I could walk through the streets and read all the signs.
Now, I was at the Ministry of Education as an advisor. My job was mainly with science textbooks, but the subject of reading this language was a universe that opened up and I was full of beans*, so I made inquiries and I discovered that it takes eighteen months to teach what I had learned in two days. Well, I said, “This is impossible! It’s not permissible!”
So I experimented with the people at the ministry who were illiterate. They knew how to speak the language but they didn’t know how to read it. They ranged in age from fifty-five to sixty-nine. So they had very bad learning habits and so on, but in six hours they learned to read a newspaper! So I knew I had something which was worthwhile, but it wasn’t part of my assignment.
However, there was a colleague of mine from London University, a Scotsman, Mr. Rankin, who had been invited by UNESCO to work on literacy because he had done such work for the British government in Nigeria for a number of years.
(Gattegno didn’t enter into competition with Mr. Rankin, but during his second stay in Ethiopia in October of 1956, he considered how he could help “a fast-growing country with enormous poverty.” – Ed)
I looked into how I could be of help and one way was through the study of literacy. It didn’t take me long to see how I would teach it. I made a number of experiments. I taught a group of illiterates who were working for a Swedish concern, I worked with school children, etc. The people at the Ministry leant me the service of a calligraphist and I produced a document which I offered Haile Selassie before I left in the summer of 1958.
At this point I realized that a number of things I had worked on were helpful for dealing with reading. But, since it came so quickly and so simply to me, I thought there must have been hundreds of people who knew how to do it. So I went around asking people two questions, which were:
· What is the role of time in learning to read?
· What is the role of algebra?
And nobody had ever asked either of these questions. So I found that there was a place for me to bring all my preparation to work on that particular challenge. Of course, once I did Amarinya, I immediately saw that I could do Spanish and at once I saw that I could do Hindi, but I saw that I couldn’t do French and I couldn’t do English because they seemed to be too complicated.
Afterward, when I went to Argentina, Columbia, Chile, etc. in 1959, I tested my approach and also in Zamora and Salamanca, in Spain. I did experiments there which proved to me beyond a doubt that I knew how to teach reading like nobody else on earth, that I could do the job in a few hours, where other people took months or years.
I got some people in Argentina interested: an inspector and a teacher. They worked together to produce a book without asking me how to do it. They saw me use colored chalks and give very little while expecting a lot, and they thought they could write a book on how to do it. They had it published, but it was a failure. They didn’t truly work on the problem—they worked on my idea.
In 1959 I woke up in the middle of the night. There was a knock at the door, so to say, a figurative knock. It was one o’clock in the morning and the question that I was putting to myself was, “Do you think that Ethiopians are smarter than English speakers?
I had solved the problem in Amarinya and I had not noticed that Amarinya has 251 characters, but in English it’s the spellings that are so many! And I had not worked on them.
The next morning I made the English Fidel** and I knew I could do French and Russian and all sorts of languages.
I was in London when I produced this English Fidel, so I went to my colleagues at University College which is part of the University of London. Now the University College has had a Department of Phonetics for some time, the only Department of Phonetics in the whole country. The famous Daniel Jones*** was the founder. When I presented my Fidel to them, I presented it as coming from someone who had learned English recently and may have made mistakes. I said, “Would you tell me where I may have gone wrong?” However, instead of looking at my errors, they turned to me and they said, “Why is it you, who are in the Department of Mathematics, who has done this—and not us?”
* Full of beans: lively, energetic (UK and eastern USA).
** “Fidel” refers to the script developed to write Ge'ez, a Semitic language related to South Arabic. It is widely used for Amharic (Amarinya) in Ethiopia and Tigrinya in Eritrea. The set of consonant-vowel combinations (which in some places can number as many as 300) is known as "the Fidel." Because Amarinya was the first language Gattegno worked on to develop his approach to teaching reading, he applied the name Fidel to each set of color-coded charts used to teach the sounds and writing system of a particular language. Take a look at the English Fidel.
*** Daniel Jones (12 September 1881 – 4 December 1967) was a London-born British phonetician and is considered by many to be the greatest phonetician of the early 20th century. It is probably Daniel Jones (and not as is often thought Henry Sweet) who provided George Bernard Shaw with the basis for his fictional character Henry Higgins in Pygmalion. – Wikipedia