The Witting Method – a Method for Reading and Writing Instruction
by Ann-Katrin Åkerman
The Witting Method is a method for reading and writing instruction at different levels in use in Sweden since the 1960´s. It has been developed by Maja Witting, who is today retired from. her work as researcher of education and Teachers educator at the Uppsala University. She is still active practicing and lecturing on her method. Her most recent project is a program for the college students at the Linköping University who cannot continue their studies at the university because of their reading and writing disabilities. This is a twin-project to the one in progress since 1977 at the Uppsala University.
This brief introduction to the method handles some of the theories the method is based on, the actual classroom work, the development of the method and some of the different areas where it is practiced at present: first time learning being one and re-learning for persons with reading and writing disabilities being another.
The reading and writing processes: technique and contents
The analysis of the reading and writing processes attached to the Witting method does not differ greatly from the way the processes are usually presented, but its consequences in the classroom work are less usual.
The reading and writing activities can both be divided into two parts of quite a different nature.
One part is the technique itself:
The reader or writer has to master the system of relations between the letters and the sounds. There is no room for hesitation when decoding the letters into the sounds which they stand for. The reader who is uncertain in this respect can not get full enjoyment out of the message. Putting his energy into the decoding itself leaves him no room for feelings and associations aroused by the content of the text.
Likewise the writer will be handicapped, unable to speak from the bottom of his heart, if part of his energy is preoccupied with the technique.
When reading a combination of for example the letters T, U, B you should be able to concentrate on the meaning of the word and not use energy wondering what sounds they stand for. When you want to write about a ”tub” nothing but the thought of the tub should be in your mind.
The letters also have to be decoded and written in the correct order. If the text says TUB it doesn’t say BUT or UTB or anything else. In Swedish, English and several other languages the reading direction is from left to right and from top to bottom. This happens to be our convention for written communication, and when communicating in these languages you have to apply by the rules in order to be understood.
A third distinguishable element in the technique of reading and writing is continuity. It can’t quite be regarded as reading when for example the reader pronounces the word [t] [ub]. The sounds have to be kept together if they are to become an understandable word. When writing the letters have to be kept in groups forming words separated from other words.
The other part of reading and writing is what makes the two activities such wonderful adventures. It is far from technique. It is in no way mechanical. It is instead creative, dynamic and personal. It is the content.
When reading you are taking part in the writer’s fantasies or facts, learning about the times past and the times we live in.
When writing you are sharing your thoughts with others and using your possibilities to influence the world around you.
Two parts with disparate characters demand two different approaches
These two parts, the technique and the content, are recognizable both in reading and writing. They are of totally different characters with separate demands and separate possibilities for the reader and the writer.
The technique requires accuracy but is not really difficult. What you have to learn is rather limited. Simply put, you need to master a certain number of letter-sound relationships. Most human beings can learn the technique even if some need a lot more time than others do.
The content is different.
There is no external limit to what you can develop in this respect. The limit is within the reader and writer himself. You can enjoy the content of any text that handles things you are familiar with. You can write about the things you know. It is all a question of your experiences and your personal intellectual level.
To the Witting method it is obvious that these two different aspects of reading and writing have to be treated in totally different ways.
When working with establishing the firm technical base the results will not be improved by free, creative activities. If you are on the contrary able to concentrate on the different letter-sound relationships, without slipping away into other thoughts and activities, this quickens the process and ensures a safer learning.
When working with the content the students ought to be able to use their full capacity freely and not be limited by not mastering the technique.
If you want to be able to fulfil these different requirements, built into the reading and writing processes themselves, you can not work with words and texts successfully in the initial stages. The mingling of form and content will make it difficult for the students where it should and could be easy learning and limit the students where they should be free.
This is where the unique feature of this method shows its strength.
The content neutral language structures
The heart of this method and its unique feature is the ”content neutral language structures” .
This term need some explanation.
The structures are combinations of vowels and consonants that conform to the language in question. As for the Swedish language this means that certain consonants do not appear together and others do, a vowel is usually not followed by another vowel. The letters are always used in their basic letter-sound relationship, avoiding sound laws that produce irregularities in pronunciation. All deviations from the basic alphabetical one to one relationship between letter and sound are excluded. A ”k” is always [k] and an ”e” is always [e].
In Swedish this gives us combinations such as: si, pa, se, ym, of, kry, sme, dru, klam, svip, lepa, buti.
They are all structures that appear normally in the Swedish language: they are language structures.
Like the Swedish language most modern languages are alphabetical. In every such language there is a kernel of phonetical spelling. Time has changed the pronunciation and spelling revisions have interfered with the alphabetical system, but it ought to be possible to find the kernel that constitutes the material for content neutral language structures of these languages too.
The structures are treated as neutral to their content. The structure itself means nothing until the student handling it changes his or her approach from form to content and examines it in search of content. ”Do I in my own experience and vocabulary find a word corresponding to this structure?” Until this point the structure is not meaningless, but neutral to its content.
With the help of the content neutral language structures it is possible to work with the technical part of reading and writing in a manner suitable to its character, and to handle the creative, free and personal part, the content, according to its demands.
The structures also help the students to acquire a linguistic awareness: There are sounds in my own personal spoken language, and these sounds are represented by letters in the written language.
The actual classroom work
The design of the work in the classroom is a consequence of the analysis of the reading and writing processes and of the existence of the content neutral language structures.
When working with the content neutral language structures the techniques of reading and writing can be regarded as basically the same activities but in reverse order. It is a question of interpreting letters into sounds or transforming sounds into letters in accordance with the given rules of the language.
Reading is more demanding than writing. When reading, time is an important factor. If a letter is misinterpreted the mistake is at once obvious. If the sounds are pronounced in the wrong order you loose the correct meaning. If you, can not interpret the letters quickly enough the sounds you find will not melt into meaningful words. You will in all three cases lose contact with the message in the text.
When writing you can always lake your time, listening to the sound and choosing the right letter before putting it on paper. All you need is to be able to keep the sounds in your head.
The Witting method lakes advantage of the fact that writing is easier than reading and chooses toteach the technique of reading and writing first of all through writing.
The technical part of the work consists mainly of what could be called ”attentive writing”. The content neutral language structures are used in an exercise where the students transform sounds into letters.
Only after having been thoroughly introduced to the students, a sound-letter relation is used in the exercise. This means that in the exercises with the content neutral language structures the students always work with a material well known to them.
The work routine lets the students listen with great concentration to the teacher pronouncing a combination of known sounds. The students themselves then pronounce the sounds with distinct articulation. They then listen to the sounds within themselves and convert them into the corresponding letters at individual speed. At last with no time pressure the students form the letters on their paper and examine the language structure comparing it to the sounds they started out with. When each individual has completed his work with the combination in question the teacher serves other content neutral language structure.
This work routine differs greatly from normal dictation exercises. In the cage of attentive writing the result is always correct. If not it is not the fault of the students. The mistake lies in the choice of structures: they are too difficult for the students and should be left out for the time being.
The routine vouches for a pure technique training. The students can not use memorized pictures of words but have to rely on listening and can thereby practice and firmly establish the relation between sounds and letters. In other words we can be sure of giving them the technique which leads to the possibility of freely using one’s total capacity to experience and express contents in future reading and writing.
Separate but together
It is important that the training of the technique is separated from work with content, but it is equally important that it is closely connected to and accompanied by work with content. Therefore the so called ”attentive writing” is always followed by work of a totally different character.
This part of the work can be cal1ed ”the associative routine”. It represents the creative and personal part of the reading and writing processes. It is part of the work where the individual should be restricted only by his or her own limits. The life a person has led, his or her experiences and interests will come alive and be important in this work.
It is now a question of letting the individuals use, examine and develop their own language.
The students learning to read and write for the first time should not be limited by the fact that they have not yet mastered the written language. They are all in possession of a spoken language and as long as they are still learning the system of transforming the sounds of their spoken language into written language they are free to work with their personal language only if most of the work is oral.
By closely observing their spoken language, the students become aware of its structure and its laws. This prepares them for the more precise written language and for their free use of the written language in future.
”The associative routine” starts in the content neutral language structures.
In our ”attentive writing” we may have been working with, for example, these structures: pa, is, se, ym, of, un.
The question now is if there are any words among these structures? Swedish students of different ages will most certainly find the word ”is”, which is the Swedish word for ”ice”.
Well then, what do you think of when you hear the word ”is”? What is ice to you? Every person has his or her individual experience of the phenomenon ”ice”. The word does not mean exactly the same thing to any two persons. The question opens up the individual inner language and also leads to a broadened view of the word when listening to what others have to say about ”ice”.
At different ages you get different answers from the students. Its their ”ice” not a certain ”ice” in a book.
I think of skating on the ice every winter holiday on the lake where grandma and grandpa live.
I think of ice hanging from the roof – icicles.
Ice is hard and you can see through it.
Or it can be almost white sometimes on the lake.
There is ice in the refrigerator – ice-cubes.
I used to love carefully breaking the thin ice layer on the puddles of the road to school.
Kurt Vonnegut invents ”ice 9″ in one of his books. It threatens to turn all water on earth into life-killing ice.
I take four ice-cubes with my whiskey.
The structures are also used to create words. ”Do you know of any words where you can find the sounds [pa]?”
Working together in a group or individually you will find a lot of words, some very familiar and others harder to focus. Using ”pa” you will get words like ”par”, ”tulpan” and ”hoppa” (the Swedish words for ”pair”, ”tulip” and ”jump”) placing [pa] in different positions. The young student might have heard the word ”paragraf” (”paragraph” in English) but is not quite sure what it means. A grown up person might wonder what ”empati” (”empathy” in English) really means.
Well known words are discussed and used in sentences. Their usage as well as their inflection might be analysed. Words from the students’ passive vocabulary are carefully examined in search for their correct meaning, the students using their all-round knowledge about their language and of course dictionaries.
All of this work can be done orally. No part of the content training has to be put in writing by the students in order to be useful and relevant schoolwork.
A lot of this work can of course also be saved on paper. Whether or not it is written by the students depends on how far they have come in their learning the technique of reading and writing. The young students having worked with ”is” (ice) in their ”attentive writing” already know how to write the word. If they make up words with letters they do not master, they are quite happy with just discussing the word.
Any questions of spelling are answered by the teacher and the students can always be sure that the words and texts they have written are correct.
Grown-ups with reading and writing disabilities have the freedom to write when they feel comfortable and may use the teacher as their secretary when that is preferable.
The creative part of the work is of course not limited to this. Using the words the students have made, you can go on with discussions, sorting the words, drawing pictures and stories, writing stories, examining the grammar of the language, taking part in other peoples’ writing etc. The Witting method also includes a program for the non-phonetical spelling of the Swedish language, to be used when the students have acquired the basics of reading and writing. All the usual elements of the subject are of course part of the work, but in a different manner.
The development of the method
The process that led to this method is in itself important because it gives us an understanding of the climate and the basic principles characterizing the activities in the classroom work.
The idea of separating form and content when working with a language is breathtaking. Language is first of all communication. It seems impossible to at any time ignore the content and still claim to be developing the student’ s ability to read, write and use his or her language freely and correctly.
During the development of her method Maja Witting also rejected the thought several times and it is therefore interesting to note how she finally came to accept the idea.
The separation of form and content was not a theoretical construction on her part. On the contrary it came about as a result of close contact with the students and almost as a demand from the students in question.
Maja Witting was fairly new in her profession as a teacher and was asked to teach reading and writing to a student whose earlier efforts had been in vain. The more experienced teachers could not present any untried methods, because to their knowledge everything bad been tried. And so it came about that Maja Witting had to rely on the student and his reactions when trying to find a practicable way to work.
She made an agreement with the student. He was to give her all the information he could about his difficulties. And it was surprising how accurately he could describe his situation.
They then decided to step by step try different elements in the work he had earlier been subject to, and the student agreed to give his teacher truthful reactions to the different things they tried. Realizing that the student was her best source of information Maja Witting kept a close record of his reactions and little by little they together formed a working routine, eliminating every negative element, saving the parts that might function and adding on new material.
The way to help the student give accurate information was using questions like: Do you feel comfortable doing this? Are you learning now? Is this too difficult? Is it too easy? Have you had enough exercise now? Do you know this well enough now? Do you feel secure?
Having decided to take the student’s reactions seriously Maja Witting could in the long run do nothing but accept the fact that the material to work with had to consist of what came to be called ”content neutral language structures”.
Once the idea had proven itself useful in practice it wasn’t difficult to find support for it when analysing the processes of reading and writing.
Developing the method itself was a process of about ten years and several students were involved.
The students and the teacher as true partners is the process of learning
The close cooperation between the students and their teacher during the development of this method is still one of the characteristic elements of the method. The students are learning and the teacher is their professional guide.
The students are aware that their information to the teacher is of the utmost importance to the result of their work:
”This is too difficult for me.”
”I need to practice that more.”
The students are always aware of what they are doing. They know how far their knowledge goes and they know what remains to be learned.
”I won’t write that word because I don’t know how to spell it. But I can draw a picture.”
”Is ”hoppa” spelled with two ”p”s? ”
It is clear to the students that the attentive writing uses sounds from their spoken language and that they are using words and phrases from their own language in the associative routine. They know that they have the responsibility to ask for the teacher’s help when they need it and to find other important occupations when the teacher is busy helping others.
All ages and all levels
The active and responsible student is a consequence of the method. It is also part of the reason why this method can be used in many different situations,
It makes no difference if the students are young or old, mentally retarded or belonging at the university. It is of no importance if they have never encountered writing, or if they have, and the encounter was disastrous.
What makes this possible is the existence of the content neutral language structures. They are neutral even in this aspect. Since they carry no meaning in themselves, anyone can use them.
If you choose to work with texts it is close to impossible to adjust the content to the student’s level and at the same time keep the technical demands within the limits of the student’s knowledge. All books of reading instruction have to restrict some of the students and offer other students texts that are technically too difficult. It is even more important to note that a book can never meet with or capture the language of every individual student.
Using the Witting method makes it possible for every student to individualize his work himself. The attentive writing offers the use of all senses, one by one, and the student is free to use what is his or her strength and at the same time develop other parts. And it is easy to see that the ”associative routine” gives room for everyone’s individuality.
First time learners
One of the main target groups for the method is students learning to read and write for the first time – ”first time learners”.
It is then irrelevant if some of the children already know most of the letters and can be regarded as almost-readers, while others meet the letters for the very first time. Side by side these children can work individually with building a firm technique and developing their ability to express thoughts and feelings.
The method is also used for ”re-learners”, those who once went through instruction at school but did not develop the ability to read and write needed in a country like ours.
The students who have used this method to conquer their difficulties to read and write can be found anywhere in society.
In fourth grade they might have been the trouble-makers.
In high school they might have been the ones who studied 24 hours a day to keep up their grades.
At the university they hardly ever finished their theses. The work required so much thought, that they didn’t have the energy to keep their inadequate technique under control.
At an industry it might have been the worker who refused to be promoted into a job with paperwork.
In the management group of the same company you might have found a director with a competent secretary and an interesting ability to make his associates give oral accounts and to handle things by telephone.
Among the mentally handicapped we also find those who are able to learn to read and write but failed the first time. They too are ”re-learners” and have been helped.
The method is used as a follow-up strategy to strengthen and develop the language capacities of students at any reading and writing level.
It is used when introducing the Swedish language to illiterate immigrants as well as to those who can read and write in their own language.
It has also been used in the efforts of aphasics to reconquer their lost language.
It seems likely that other areas of use will occur in the future.
It is always the same method: using the attentive writing and the associative routine. It is always based on the content neutral language structures, and on a dialogue between the student and the teacher sharing the responsibilities of the process of learning.
Källa: Ericson, B (Ed): Swedish Aspects on Literacy – Selected Papers from the 13th IRA World Congress on Reading, Stockholm, 1990.