WRITING / READING JOY
An Interview with Ragnhild Söderbergh
Conducted by Patricia Anne DiCerbo
Swedish researcher Ragnhild Söderbergh is well
known for her study of early literacy. She is the author of such works as Early
Reading with Deaf Children (1985) and Becoming Literate During the Second Year
of Life: A Vygotskijan Perspective (1998). Dr. Söderbergh recently spoke at the
Reading Research Symposium for Second Language Learners, a two-day symposium
(April 19-20, 2000) sponsored by the U.S. Department of Educations Office of
Bilingual Education and Minority Languages Affairs. Her paper, Reading and
Writing as Language Acquisition from the First Year of Life, will be posted on
the National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education (NCBE) website under the
proceedings from that symposium.
Dr. Söderberghs Writing/Reading Joy method
outlines five guiding principles of reading and writing as language
Always relate words to the childs own
The childs positive emotions are crucial.
The reading should be done in a spirit of
Finish before the child really wants to--never
make reading a duty!
The reading should preferably be done on the
childs own initiative.
The following interview was conducted on
Friday, April 21, 2000. Only small edits have been made to Dr. Söderberghs
remarks. The Öjaby referred to in the interview is The Preschool Öjaby Day
Care Center in the town of Vaxio in southern Sweden.
PD: What I understand from your research is
that reading and writing can be encouraged at the same time as spoken language,
from a very early age.
RS: Yes. My main point is that reading and
writing is not being looked upon as an academic subject. The tradition is that
schools take care of it when children [are young]―in Sweden they are
seven―and then they teach it as they teach a foreign language. [Of
course,] if you get a foreign language four hours a week for four years, you
wont learn it. But if youre immersed in a foreign language by going into that
country, it is different. Written language is language in its own right, and
there are people using this language everywhere in literate countries. If you
can make the child part of this, and interact with the child using written
language where it has a pattern and a meaning for the child, and where the
child wants to know―you can start very very early.
We know that children interact without words
when they are very small, and then they start to use words. There is a long
period where there is just one word at a time period, from one year to say 15,
16, 17, 18 months―it differs with different children. At that time, they
are awfully interested in pointing and you just say, This is
you give them names So, in some way, they get a bigger and bigger dictionary up
here, tied to their real experiences and interaction. At the same time, they
are very interested in getting written words. It is the same principle.
PD: So, in the same way that you, as a parent,
might talk to your child and expand on what they say, you expand on the written
S. Yes. Well, you see, if a child is really
interested in something, you may give the word card for it. All children like
names and love to have them written down, even very small children. At the
daycare center, after a few weeks, everybody knows not only the Christian name
of everybody, but the family name, and they want to know the names of the
teachers and of everybody working there. I visited a daycare center where there
were four-year-olds and three-year-olds―I went to the four-year-olds
first, and then I went to the three-year-olds, and I found a card with the same
surname as in the other group. I said, I have seen that name before. Oh, thats
Jacks brother, hes among the four-year-olds. Thats relevant to them.
PD: You put the surnames and the first names on
RS: Yes. The teachers use them at the assembly
at the beginning of the day. They talk to the children, asking Whos here? and
they take these cards, and they put them into a stack, and then, Well, Jane
seems to be ill today. And they put that [card ] into a different stack. You
remember Anna-she will be three today.
PD: The teacher is organizing the written
RS: Yes. And little by little, the kids will
take over and help the teacher to organize the cards. That is just how you
start. Then you talk about what day it is today, Why it is Thursday. Then
they say, Well, this day has got a number. It is the third of April. April,
wow, it is spring now, and theyre talking about that. For every day, they go
on and somebody will have their name in the almanac―we have names for
every day. Oh, yes, you have your names day today. And they always know
about birthdays, of course. So, then they celebrate them, they sing what
corresponds to happy birthday-and the child has got his name in a bouquet of
flowers or something. So, in that way, they get the cards, and those are cards
that the kids are interested in.
PD: In your work, you mention five guiding
principles for language teaching. Can you explain a little more about how these
principles might work in the home or classroom―Particularly the idea that
you should always relate words to the childs own experiences?
RS: I have a very very good example here. At
the daycare center, they got a new boy, and he was four years old. They had two
problems with him: He didnt want to play with the other children, and, of
course, he didnt want to take part in any activities. So, he just took a bike
outside in the yard, and [he pretended to be racing in a motorcross], and one
of the teachers went there and said to him, Well dont you want to fill up
with gas? Oh, yes. Where do you fill up, generally? Oh, he said, with
Shell. Then the teacher took a skipping rope and tied it to a lamp pole and
then she took a big cardboard poster and wrote Shell on it. It says Shell,
she said, Now you can fill up. Then the other children came. Oh, we want to
fill up too! Then another child said, Oh, theres been an accident! We need
an ambulance. The teacher wrote ambulance and gave that to the child, tied
it to her bike. Then another child cried, Oh, we need a police car! They got
police [written on a card], and then they started to play. And this boy started
to play with the others and the teacher asked him, Oh, I know you like motor
cross. Yes, he said. I have got special gloves. Yes? And what do you call
them? He said the name, and she wrote it down. So, he got a bunch of cards
with those special names that he was very proud of knowing, and the other
children said, Oh, interesting! And in that way, he started to want to read.
PD: This connects, really, to two of the ideas
you discuss-the joyful interaction and connecting to the students own
interests. Both of those are illustrated in that example.
RS: Yes, and with very small children, at this
daycare center, Öjaby-I have written about it in my paper-they change
diapers, and then they put the child on a [changing table], and they keep the
childrens reading cards in cups on a shelf. So, when the child is lying there,
he gets his reading cards, and he takes the card with fire engine written on
it, and he shows it to the teacher. She asks, How does the fire engine go?
and he says, Tut-tut, tut-tut, tut-tut.
And then he gets the word, Assar, and thats
the name of the head, who started all this, and he says, Assar! Assar! Oh,
you can say, Assar? [the teacher] says. Oh, you are calling out Assar? Oh,
thats fine, she says. In that way, it goes on. I think thats very special,
that the head, who started all this-hes so popular with the children so they
even learn to say his name. They just knock on the door, and go into him and
say, Well, write me a reading card, and I want this and this. And he does
it, and they walk out smiling. The whole atmosphere is that joyful interaction.
PD: I want to make sure I understand something
from your work. Youre saying that children as young as one can develop
RS: No, I have not got clear evidence because
they cant show if they have. But they can see, they look at the written words.
[At this point, S explains how the children she
has observed often point to letters that they have seen on their different word
cards, or on book covers. With each month, the children showed more refined
understanding of the letters they were seeing, and also recognized more
letters. S talks about one child, in particular, Agnes.]
So, Agnes, who is 15 months old, sees this book
title with the name Lukas and she traces the letters ka in Lukas with her
forefinger and says kakakaka-because she has got a reading card like that,
and thats her baby word for hen. And one month later, she shows that she sees
small differences in letters. There is a cover of a book-a Danish book so there
are Danish letters-and she points first to the letter O, then to the letter
Ö― the full circle and its variance. Shes looking for similarities.
PD: And this is as young as fifteen months?
RS: Yes. By 16 months, she starts to do more.
When they are sitting with the same book, she turns it over and points this
time to the Q, the Ö, and the O and then to the C and G-that is,
first to the full circle and its variance, then to the semicircle and its
This little child, when she was 11 months, she
could read the word farfar - thats her paternal grandfather. Then by 15
months, whenever she saw an f in any word, she pointed to it and said fafa.
Compare that with Mariana in Texas who at two years, two months said,
wherever she saw a d, a daddy letter! When she saw a j, [she would say]
a jumping letter! and when she saw a g, a gato letter! Thats the same
principle that this little one-sixteen months old-used. She could just say,
fafa but that didnt mean that she thought that this was the word, farfar.
Because wherever she saw an f-in the beginning, in the middle, at the end-she
But you dont credit the child with being able
to do that, you say, Oh, he thinks it is farfar (grandfather). Mariana,
at two years, two months old, she was so explicit that she could show you that
she really meant I named the letter after daddy.
PD: That was the earliest age where you felt
you had enough evidence to show they had a true awareness of the visual
structure of written words, that is, the letters and the combinations of
RS: Yes, but then I started to read data and
get data from one-year-old children, and then I saw they do exactly the same
thing. But they arent explicit about it because they are not linguistically
But here you have this boy that doesnt speak
at all, very little. He gets a new word, hund, meaning dog. Earlier he had
huvud, also beginning with hu, meaning head. He reads this word by doing
this (points to head) When his father shows hund to him and says, This is a
dog, he points to the two letters on the reading card and then to his head
(huvud in Swedish). In this way, he makes clear that he has noticed that hund
and huvud begin with the same letters. He was then 19 months old.
PD: And at that time, you were studying this?
RS: I was doing research in child language, and
then many people just called me or wrote to me [for] articles. The mother of a
one-year old child-it was her fourth daughter-she found me and said, Can you
send me some of your articles on early reading? I asked, How old is your
child? When she said one year, I answered Youve got plenty of time [but]
Ill send it to you.
When the child was 20 months, I suddenly got a
letter from the mother-thats very unusual-and she told me, Now, shes
reading. She was a teacher so she could give a very detailed account of what
had happened. She showed how her daughter Nana-she had got her first reading
cards when she was 14 months-had been very much interested in nursery rhymes.
So, her mother wrote down nursery rhymes for her. First, her mother put a
nursery rhyme inside her crib and before going to sleep, Nana wanted her mother
to sing. As her mother sang, she traced the words with her finger. Then Nana
traced the words herself as her mother sang. The mother wanted to find out if
she really knew every single word. She just pointed haphazardly, and it turned
out that the girl could say the words-although there were words that she didnt
use in her active language yet. Then the mother started to write down more
nursery rhymes. The child liked that very much, and they were singing and
pointing and singing and pointing. She liked the rhyming words so she started
to coin her own rhymes, in nonsense words.
PD: This was between 14 months and 20 months?
RS: About 19, 20 months. Suddenly, she found
out how letters related to sounds in that way. She started to be able to read
new words that had never been presented to her. But of course, it should be
words that are comprehensible, that make sense to the child. I mean, you cannot
take something very abstract and that doesnt make sense to the child.
After that, this mother started to give courses
at a parent center on helping your child to read when they are starting to
speak. A few of the parents coming there had children as young as 12, 13, 14
months. In that way, I could meet those parents and I got data from them. It
was very informal sort of research. In this way, I got the data from the boy
Emil (who compared hund to huvud) because his father had kept very very
good records. Some parents didnt keep good records. Some did.
It is interesting with Emil, because at first
[the father] said, Well, he has very few words. Hes a slow speaker. But
then, as months went by, they found these things, and at 19 months of age, he
could read 60 words, but he only had 40 words in his active vocabulary because
he compensated by pointing. He loved when his father put down parts of the body
because then he could point―and also clothes that he had on. But then his
father reported five months after this, Now he is reading sentences. It
pushed him. The fact that he got these written words helped him to release his
vocabulary and then he was reading sentences.
I have got more systematic studies of deaf and
hearing-impaired children from the seventies that show hearing-impaired and
deaf children get a bigger vocabulary by reading, but they also acquire
morphology and syntax thats characteristic of the written language. Because if
they are completely deaf, they only use sign language. Sign language has got no
morphology and [a different] syntax. But they learn from written language. So,
in a way they learn a foreign language, but they learn to read this language.
They learn it by having teachers who tie their experiences to written words,
and they comment on it in sign.
PD: The children that you studied―in
their home and in the preschool―were they all from middle-class homes, or
from different socioeconomic groups?
RS: The studies from the sixties and early
seventies, where children were learning to read at home, were of middle-class
children. But in the seventies, those in charge of deaf and hearing-impaired
children in the south of Sweden wanted to start reading with these children.
They took all children with hearing problems into their care. That meant that
the only thing that was common for these children was hearing-impairment and
PD: In your work, you say that children help
each other to read and write. How does that work?
RS: You see, they have paper and pens and
pencils and chalk. They sit down―they have a period for sitting down and
doing what they like, making drawings. And they want to write. They get their
boxes with reading cards, and they can read them, and copy. At first, you cant
[understand] what they write, but it becomes better and better. I visited a
daycare center where the four year olds had had reading cards for three months,
and they immediately wanted to write because they were mature enough to do
PD: Is it true that in your research, youre
saying that your method helps not only to develop reading and writing, but also
RS: Yes. In 1992, I got a letter from
Amsterdam. There is a center there for children with developmental dysphasia.
The director, who started the center, wrote to me telling me that they had been
using what he called my method for five years. [After] working with children
for only one year, the gains were very large. They started to talk better and
their behavior was different―they got self-confidence. Then he looked at
the children who had been doing this for five years. They became readers and
their oral language developed. He was so enthusiastic and he tried to find my
address just to tell me about this because he said, I dont write scientific
reports about what we do, we just practice and we see if it works or not. I
want you to know that the practice is very good for our children.
PD: You talk about the preschools, the Öjaby,
as if many of them are using this method of teaching. Is that correct?
RS: Well, Id been talking about this, and I
had my research work, and I was interested in these things as a linguist, but I
didnt want to impose it on schools. But I was invited everywhere to give
lectures, I was talking on the radio, and I was on TV. Then I organized the international
congress on child language in 1987 in Lund. This man, Assar Thorsjö, from
Öjaby, found me and said, I want to do something special for my children. We
started this collaboration. I went up to Öjaby and I talked to the teachers. At
the same time, they asked teachers from schools, and from the University, and
politicians―so that they were informed. Then Assar got money and they
started a one-year project with children―only with the
two-year-olds―because they wanted to concentrate on that group. But the
six-year-olds were so envious that three of them, just by spying on the
two-year-olds, learned to read in a very short time. When their money was
finished, they decided This is so wonderful! that they would continue it in
their curriculum. They went on and they have been going on. And schools in the
area wanted to be informed. Then people came from other preschools, from high
up north in Sweden and from the Stockholm area and from Denmark and everywhere
to look at this. It has been going on like this, and it is just subversive and
PD: So, you didnt develop a curriculum for
them to use―the schools developed it themselves?
RS: Yes, and I think thats how it should be
done. I will give you one of many examples. A group of teachers from Gothenburg
had first listened to me giving a lecture. Then they traveled down to Öjaby to
look at it, and then they invited me, in January of this year, to stay for two
full days. They had already started , and they were very proud and showed me
what the kids were doing. I looked at it and said, It is wonderful. I gave
lectures to them, and we discussed what they were doing, and they said, Oh,
please return in April and do the same thing. Then you have to take the
lead, I said, You have to put questions to me, you have to show what has
happened. They wrote reports, and I went there, and they gave me new ideas. I
told them, Im not the practitioner, and you are, because you see the children
everyday and you can develop it.
Thats how it is growing. In some areas of
Sweden, it is growing all by itself, but I dont know if they follow the first
principles, that is, joy and all that sort of thing (The five guiding
At Öjaby, they have done video and they have
been helped by professional people from Swedens TV, and it is very good. They
show what they do at Öjaby and how it is integrated into a perfectly normal
daycare center―it is routine.
A year ago, 225 children had left Öjaby during
the past years and gone into ordinary school. They were able to trace these
children and see what had become of them. Not a single child had any reading or
writing difficulties. Some children had been there for perhaps two years, and
some for five years, but all of them had been at Öjaby.
PD: Is there a name for the Öjaby curriculum?
RS: (Translated) Writing/Reading Joy
PD: Do you have any ideas of how we might apply
what youre doing here in the U.S?
RS: Not even in Sweden have I given advice. I
started work on this in 1965 when I gave the first reading cards to my little
daughter, and it has been going on that way, growing and growing. But I thought
what I should do in my life is to do research work and to show new things like
this that people do not know about. I write about it and give lectures. Then
the teachers, they must feel, Oh, this is relevant! Then they will have to
put it into practice. I dont want to impose anything, anywhere. Because it is
so different. Culture is so different. I was invited to Malawi in Central
Africa, and one of my colleagues is a professor at the Department of Education
and she was starting a real preschool or daycare for children from three years
of age. You see, they are so poor there, so this was something wonderful. They
were helped financially from somewhere here in the United States.
I asked these African teachers to write down
their songs, or to sing songs and I took it down on tape. I asked, Can you
write that down? Do you sing that for children? Well, start singing those songs
again in school, and write them down. And I asked them to use the childrens
names. But you have to start from your own roots, your traditions and your
culture and language.
PD: Of course, there is an oral tradition in
RS: Yes, but when they start to read and write,
it is in English because Malawi is an old protectorate of Englands. They
couldnt understand why we shouldnt teach them to read in English because they
had got all these English materials from the U.S., picture books. I said, Of
course, you could do that also, but you must give them their own language, and
make them proud of their own language. Show them that it matters.
PD: That brings up another point. I was
wondering about the applicability of your work to bilingual education, and
whether you had any thoughts on that.
RS: Yes. As early as the 1970s, students of
professor Theodore Andersson (Al and Kay Past) and students of professor Robert
Lado (e.g., Ok Ro Lee) demonstrated that bilingual reading promoted both
bilingualism and bicultural development. Since then, there has been a great
deal of research and practice in the field. Part of it was documented in papers
collected by Professor Andersson, who intended to publish them. Unfortunately,
they were not published before his death. Now professor Carol Evans, of the
University of Tucson, Arizona, and I have started to work together to collect
these papers into a book. This may be a good starting point for the future
research asked for at the OBEMLA symposium.
Speaking about Sweden and the daycare practice,
it is important to know that in Sweden now, almost every child is going into
daycare because the tax system is such that both parents must work in order to
be able to live. You have nowhere to put your children because you cannot
afford to pay for daycare at home. So, you put your children into daycare.
Thats why it is so important that daycare is good. They have books and they
have reading in daycare. I think it may be more equal in that way. The kids who
have good homes, they go home to books. The others do not, but they have
daycare. They go to the libraries with these children. The children are read
to, and they are borrowing books from the libraries. Of course, it may be a bit
different in smaller towns. I dont know. But the distances are so short there
know that outside Stockholm, in some areas, there are 80-90 percent nonSwedish
people. There they are very particular about books and books in the native
languages of the children.
In the last 30 years, we have had lots of
immigrants. But, we were a welfare state when we started to get these
immigrants so we wanted to give them the same opportunities. In the early
years, they had their home language instruction. Every immigrant child had
instruction in their home language for two hours a day. Now they have taken
PD: Do you have a lot of different language
RS: Yes, we have. In the district outside
Stockholm, we have 35 different language groups so there is a new language
PD: Have you worked with bilingual children?
RS: I have not, but I have had close contact
with people working with bilingual children. I do not want to work with
bilingual children because I consider myself to be monolingual. Even if I am
pretty fluent in English, it is only a second language. I am also not fluent in
other languages that I both understand and read, such as German, French, Danish
I organized a colloquium in Lund on reading and
writing. The mother of the girl who read the nursery rhymes came there and gave
a paper, Assar, from Öjaby, came there, and people working in daycare with
minority language children―Turkish children, Finnish children. They have
started reading in Turkish and Finnish. So, I know this is going on, but it is
practice and they dont do any research work.
PD: In the U.S., were trying to get research
to be connected to practice a little more. Youve had the chance to talk with
teachers and have that impact.
RS: I dont want to impose myself, but I hope
to make my ideas known to people who may be interested in them, and may use
them. Thats what has happened.
PD: Is there anything else you would like to
say about your work?
RS: What I want to point out is that you should
look at reading and writing as language acquisition. You should interact with
children and not say, This must wait, because youre not old enough. Most
teachers and parents, they think, Well, you shouldnt do anything. Many
people tell me, My boy, he was able to read when he was five or four or
something, but I didnt do anything about it.
Theres a very interesting book by Margaret M.
Clark, Young, Fluent Readers. She was working in reading research, and then she
had looked at dyslexics, and then she was tired of that and she wanted to turn
it around and look at children who were good readers. She decided to ask in
three schools in Scotland if she could apply a test to the children who entered
school and were five years old―to find out if any were fluent readers.
She found 33 children from very different backgrounds. In twelve of the
families, the father either had no work at all or had heavy manual work. The
next ten were just ordinary people passing ordinary school, but no academics.
Then there were ten academics, but in only three cases were both the mother and
Then they looked at the kids. In 25 cases, the
parents had discovered―when it was too late―that the child was
literate. They had not consciously been doing anything. In eight families, they
had been doing something because they had discovered that their children were
interested and they wanted to help them.
Then they looked at the family situation and
there were great variations―from one-child families in three cases, to
several children in a family. The child learning to read was the youngest, or
the oldest, or in the middle.
And they looked at the childrens performance.
She (Clark) was interested in language interaction. When the children were
taken to her center to be tested
she asked the children to stay there for a
while, just to play. Then the parents talked with their children when they
returned from testing and somebody would start taking notes. They discovered
that there was an unusually good dialogue going on between these parents and
children. Then they asked about reading habits. In many families they were
eager readers, spending a lot of time just sitting in the same room with
everybody reading his own book. Although they were not high-income people or
academic people, they were readers.
References Mentioned in the Interview
Becoming literate during the second year of
life: A Vygotskijan perspective. (1998). In Smoczynska, M. (Ed.) Studia z
psychologii nozwojowej i psycholingwistyki. Krakow, Poland: Krakow University.
Clark, M.M. (1976). Young, fluent readers.
London: Heinemann Educational Books.
Söderbergh, R. (1985). Early reading with deaf
children. Prospects, Volume XV (1):77-85.
Söderbergh, R. (in press). Reading and writing
as language acquisition from the first year of life. Washington, DC: National
Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education.
For more information about Writing/Reading Joy,
SE-114 37 Stockholm
08-664 55 19