What is it like to put a microcomputer in your living room and let your three year old play with it ? The answer depends on who you are, on your knowledge and values. The computer entered my living room and my family life because it is part of my culture and not—in case anyone wonders—because I am prepping my toddler to enter medical school. My interests in children and computers led me to gather a great deal of detailed information about what Peggy knew before her first encounter with the computer and how her knowledge changed over the time she has been interacting with it. The following sketch is based on my observation of only one child's learning, but I believe it will be of general interest because microcomputers are penetrating our society now and Peggy's story provides some advance information about how that fact may affect our children.
Children typically learn to read at school around the age of six A few teach themselves to read earlier. Rarely, one hears of children as young as three reading the New York Times to their parents and so forth. Peggy, at the age of three, even living in a bookish family, did not know how to read in any substantial sense before her computer experience. Her knowledge of letters at three years and three months of age was quite specific and limited. She recognized only a few letters as distinct symbols with any meaning. For example, she knew that "P" was the first letter of her name. She also recognized "G" as the "mommy letter" because her mother's name is Gretchen.
What was Peggy's understanding of spelling? One incident gave me some inkling. My oldest daughter was learning a bit of French; one day Peggy claimed that she knew how to "spell French" and continued, "un, deux, trois, quatre, cinq." At another time her spelling of "French" was "woof boogle jig." (Some of you may recognize this as the Klopstockian love song from a W.C. Fields movie.) Peggy seemed to have the general idea of spelling as decomposing a meaningful whole into a string of essentially meaningless symbols, but she had not yet learned any of the culture-standard assignments of letters to words.
Peggy's ability and willingness to identify a string of symbols as a particular word came from a very specific beginning. After receiving a book as a gift from her older sister (who then wrote PEGGY LAWLER on the fly-leaf, Peggy interpreted all small clusters of alphabetic symbols as "Peggy Lawler." Later, as a consequence of being often read to, she became able to recognize the word "by," which appeared on the title page of every book we read to her. There is no reason to believe she had any idea of what "by" might mean in that context. She did recognize that same word "by" in quite a different context, spontaneously pointing out the word in the line "These Romans are crazy, by Jupiter!" from an Asterix cartoon book. Her knowledge of reading as a process for interpreting graphic material is best seen in her observation when we read a book together, that she read pictures and I read words. From her remark, we can infer she would "read" by inventing a story based on her best speculation about the pictures' meaning. She assumed that I was doing the same with the words. Not a bad assumption, but completely empty of any information about how written words signify as they do.
Contrast the foregoing sketch of Peggy's knowledge at three years and three months with what she now knows seven months later. Her knowledge of letters is essentially complete, in that she discriminates the 26 letters of the alphabet and can name them. Her knowledge of words, in the sense of interpreting them one at a time, is significantly greater. She reads more than 20 words, most with complete dependability. But unlike children who have learned to read and write by conventional means, she sees the spelling of words as step-by-step directions for typing a name into the computer. Although her general idea of what book reading is may not have changed, she has a different and powerful idea of what reading single words means that derives directly from her experience with computer programs I wrote. ( I call the computer environments created by the programs I have written "microworlds," following the terminology of Seymour Papert [Mindstorms, 1980.])
Peggy's introduction to computers did not have much to do with "reading" in terms of content. But her desire to control the machine led her into typing on the computer her first "written" word. Having helped load programs by pushing buttons on a cassette tape recorder, one day on her own Peggy typed "LO" on the keyboard of the computer terminal and then came seeking direction as to what letter came next. A few days later, she typed the "LOAD" command while the rest of the family was at lunch in a different room.
The initial microworlds were one for moving colored blocks around on the computer's video display screen and another (made for her older sister but taken over by Peggy) which created designs by moving a colored cursor about on the screen. Her older sister used this drawing program to make designs, but Peggy's first design was a large box—which she immediately converted into a letter "P" by adding the stem. Letters intrigued Peggy. They were a source of power she didn't understand.
A few days later, Peggy keyed the letter "A" and explained to me that "A is for apple." Her comment suggested a way we could—on the computer— make a new kind of pre-readers' ABC book. A child's conventional book of ABC's typically offers a collection of engaging pictures displayed in alphabetic order with a large, printed letter associated with each picture. The child looks at the pictures and is informed "A is for apple." The relationship of letters to pictures is exactly the opposite in the ABC microworld we invented. The letter is the "key" for accessing the picture. That is, typing the key for the letter "D" on the computer's keyboard produces a picture of a dog on the computer screen. Instead of responding to a statement such as " See the doggie. D is for dog," Peggy was able to try any letter on the keyboard, first, to see what it got her, and later, if the picture interested her, to inquire what was the letter's name. She was in control of her own learning. She could learn what she wanted, when she wanted to, and could ask for advice or information when she decided she wanted it. The ABC microworld was tailor-made for Peggy. The shapes were selected and created on the computer by Peggy's older sister and brother, aged ten and twelve. As a consequence of playing with the ABC microworld, Peggy developed a stable and congenial familiarity with the letters of the alphabet.
In the past, children have always learned to read words as alphabetic symbols for ideas to be evoked in the mind. For Peggy, words are that, but they are something else as well -- a set of directions for specifying how to key a computer command. What is strikingly different in this new word-concept is that the child and computer together decode a letter string from a printed word to a procedure which the computer executes and whose significance the child can appreciate. Because the computer can interpret specific words the child does not yet know, she can learn from the computer through her self-directed exploration and experiment.
Learning to read from print is necessarily a passive process for the child. Words on the page stand for other people's meanings. Until children start to write they can't use written words for their own purposes. Microcomputers put reading and writing together from the start. A word that Peggy can read is also one she can use to produce on the computer effects that interest her. For Peggy, reading the alphabetic language has become more like what every infant's learning of the vocal language is like. Speaking is powerful for the infant, even for one who commands but a few words, when a responsive person listens and reacts. Likewise, the production of alphabetic symbols -- even one letter and one word at a time -- can become powerful for the young child when computer microworlds provide a patient, responsive intelligence to interpret them.