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Man and His Symbols

May 4, 2012

In a recent article (Fire, April 20, 2012), I wrote about the important role that written language has had in the development of our technological society. Writing is a very effective means of information diffusion, since ideas can travel in time as well as in distance.

As an example of the ubiquity of writing, look around the place where you are now. Even if you ignore these characters on your display, you're buried in script. The interesting thing is that we don't really notice the letters and words as objects, themselves. We just read the message and forget the medium. Having written that, how can I not mention the famous book of my generation,[1] so nicely explicated in the Woody Allen movie, Annie Hall.[2]

Symbols for the planets

Ancient symbols for solar system objects. Nowadays, Pluto might need to be written in lower case. (Via Wikimedia Commons))

I don't remember learning how to read, but the early stages must have been a chore, both for me and my teachers. What I do remember is that, after learning to read, I started to read almost everything available, which amounted to the Sunday comics, cereal boxes, and Life magazine. With access to the public library, my reading progressed exponentially, since I could read any topic I wished.

There was, however, some chaff mixed with the wheat. These were the tedious books assigned by English teachers. One of these, which should have been assigned only as a punishment, was Johnny Tremain. It won the 1944 award for best children's book, presumably because of its mix of patriotism and life lessons, but it wasn't my type of book.

Now, the library has been replaced by the Internet, and my Webster's Second Edition has been replaced by a spell-checker. I never did like Webster's Third Edition, since it dropped too many older words. This was a nuisance in the pre-Internet days, when you were reading older books, whereas the second edition was perfectly cromulent in that regard. My beloved Encyclopaedia Britannica has been replaced by Wikipedia, for which I've contributed articles.

A recent study by educators at Ohio State University, the University of Virginia, and the University of Toledo has determined that what's been lacking in the teaching of reading is a greater awareness of the letters, the symbols, themselves.[3-4] Reading teachers are most effective when they point out letters and words in text, show capital letters, and explain often the principle that you read from left to right, and top to bottom.

The study, conducted in a reading program entitled, Project Sit Together and Read (STAR), involved 550 four-year-olds in low-income neighborhoods in a thirty-week shared-book reading program in 85 targeted-enrollment preschool classrooms serving low-income children. Such a cohort of children is traditionally at risk for developing reading problems later in school.[3]

As could be expected in such a study, a control group was read books in a traditional style that doesn't draw attention to the letters on the page. In the other student group, teachers talked about the printed words, pointed out some of the words and letters, and did things such as trace letters with their fingers. The teachers asked whether children knew certain letters, and they mapped printed words to the spoken words.[3] An earlier study showed that untrained teachers reference print only a quarter of the time as trained reading teachers.[4]

Children who were read to in this way that referenced the symbols on the page and their arrangement showed better reading comprehension and better spelling skills when assessed one, and two years later. Also, students who were read to more often in the symbol-focused group had better scores.[3] The proposed mechanism for such improvement is that children need to associate the symbols with how they relate to words.[4]

Said team member, Shayne B. Piasta, assistant professor of teaching and learning and assistant director of the Children's Learning Research Collaborative at Ohio State University,
"By showing them what a letter is and what a letter means, and what a word is and what a word means, we're helping them to crack the code of language and understand how to read."[4]

Laura Justice, professor of teaching and learning at Ohio State was the principal investigator for this study, which was supported by the U.S. Department of Education. The other team members were Piasta, Anita McGinty of the University of Virginia, and Joan Kaderavek of the University of Toledo. The team has published these results in the April 2012 issue of the journal, Child Development.[5]

The title of this article comes from Carl Jung's book, Man and His Symbols. I have that book on my bookshelf, alongside the entertaining book, "Freud for the Jung, or Three Hundred and Sixty Six Hours on the Couch," by Irene Adler.[6]

Books by Karl Jung and Irene Adler

From the author's bookshelf.

Man and his symbols was Karl Jung's last major work. It's a light review of Jung's ideas that includes his theory of archetypes.

Adler's book, published in 1963, is a humorous novel about psychoanalysis. As for the book's title, Jung and Freud were founders of psychoanalysis, albeit with different emphasis.

Irene Adler was the pseudonym for Catherine Storr, a prolific author of children's books and a psychiatrist, herself)


  1. Marshall McLuhan, "Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man," McGraw-Hill, 1964, 318 pp., ISBN 8114675357.
  2. Scene from Woody Allen's "Annie Hall" (1977), YouTube Video; a shorter version can be found, here.
  3. Sarah Hutcheon, "Early focus on print promotes later literacy achievement," Society for Research in Child Development Press Release, April 17, 2012.
  4. Preschoolers' reading skills benefit from 1 modest change by teachers, Ohio State University Press Release, April 17, 2012.
  5. S.B. Piasta, L.M. Justice, A.S. McGinty and J.N. Kaderavek, "Increasing Young Children's Contact With Print During Shared Reading: Longitudinal Effects on Literacy Achievement," Child Development, April, 2012, doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2012.01754.x.
  6. Irene Adler, "Freud For the Jung Or Three Hundred and Sixty Six Hours on the Couch," Cresset Press, 1963, 170 pp. (via Amazon).

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