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An Interview with Ragnhild Söderbergh

Conducted by Patricia Anne DiCerbo

JULY, 2000




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 Education’s 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. Söderbergh’s Writing/Reading Joy “method” outlines five guiding principles of reading and writing as language acquisition:


Always relate words to the child’s own experiences.

The child’s positive emotions are crucial.

The reading should be done in a spirit of joyful interaction.

Finish before the child really wants to--never make reading a duty!

The reading should preferably be done on the child’s own initiative.

The following interview was conducted on Friday, April 21, 2000. Only small edits have been made to Dr. Söderbergh’s 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 won’t learn it. But if you’re 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…” ―and then 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 word?


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, that’s Jack’s brother, he’s among the four-year-olds.” That’s relevant to them.


PD: You put the surnames and the first names on the cards?


RS: Yes. The teachers use them at the assembly at the beginning of the day. They talk to the children, asking “Who’s 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 cards?


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 they’re 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 name’s 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 child’s 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 didn’t want to play with the other children, and, of course, he didn’t 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 don’t 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, there’s 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 student’s 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 children’s 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 that’s 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, that’s fine,” she says. In that way, it goes on. I think that’s very special, that the head, who started all this-he’s 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. You’re saying that children as young as one can develop phonological awareness?


RS: No, I have not got clear evidence because they can’t 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 that’s 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. She’s 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 variance.


This little child, when she was 11 months, she could read the word “farfar” - that’s 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!” That’s the same principle that this little one-sixteen months old-used. She could just say, “fafa” but that didn’t 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 said “fafa.”


But you don’t 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 letters?


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 aren’t explicit about it because they are not linguistically clever enough.


But here you have this boy that doesn’t 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 “You’ve got plenty of time [but] I’ll send it to you.”


When the child was 20 months, I suddenly got a letter from the mother-that’s very unusual-and she told me, “Now, she’s 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 didn’t 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 doesn’t 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 didn’t keep good records. Some did.


It is interesting with Emil, because at first [the father] said, “Well, he has very few words. He’s 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 that’s 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 nothing else.


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 can’t [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 that.


PD: Is it true that in your research, you’re saying that your method helps not only to develop reading and writing, but also critical thinking?


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 don’t 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, I’d been talking about this, and I had my research work, and I was interested in these things as a linguist, but I didn’t 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 uncontrolled!


PD: So, you didn’t develop a curriculum for them to use―the schools developed it themselves?


RS: Yes, and I think that’s 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, “I’m not the practitioner, and you are, because you see the children everyday and you can develop it.”


That’s how it is growing. In some areas of Sweden, it is growing all by itself, but I don’t know if they follow the first principles, that is, joy and all that sort of thing (The five guiding principles).


At Öjaby, they have done video and they have been helped by professional people from Sweden’s 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 you’re 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 don’t 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 children’s 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 Africa.


RS: Yes, but when they start to read and write, it is in English because Malawi is an old protectorate of England’s. They couldn’t understand why we shouldn’t 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. That’s 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 don’t know. But the distances are so short there…I 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 that away.


PD: Do you have a lot of different language groups?


RS: Yes, we have. In the district outside Stockholm, we have 35 different language groups so there is a new language mixture.


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 and Norwegian.


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 don’t do any research work.


PD: In the U.S., we’re trying to get research to be connected to practice a little more. You’ve had the chance to talk with teachers and have that impact.


RS: I don’t want to impose myself, but I hope to make my ideas known to people who may be interested in them, and may use them. That’s 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 you’re not old enough.” Most teachers and parents, they think, “Well, you shouldn’t do anything.” Many people tell me, “My boy, he was able to read when he was five or four or something, but I didn’t do anything about it.”


There’s 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 father academics.


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 children’s 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 Smoczy’nska, 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, contact:

Ragnhild Söderbergh,

Brahegatan 28

SE-114 37 Stockholm


Tel: 08-664 55 19







Redigeret af Jeppe Bundsgaard
Kommentarer modtages gerne: Patricia Anne DiCerbo
Webmaster: Kjeld Kjertmann
Publiceret: 11-07-2005
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