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Marlys Isaacson, Dr. Isaacson, Learn to Read, visual learners
Picture Me Reading creator, 
Marlys J. Isaacson, Ph.D.

In 2003 Dr. Isaacson wrote, “Had it not been for a series of one-in-a-million coincidences, all occurring within a short period of time within my 20 years as a school psychologist, Picture Me Reading never would have existed. Although developed in response to the special needs of certain children, Picture Me Reading has proven to be a superb method for almost all beginning readers.”

For example, one of her granddaughters had a kindergarten teacher who had been using Picture Me Reading for several years. All of her students left kindergarten reading at a minimum of the first grade level and several in each class read at the second and third grade levels.


The following stories may remind you of children who could profit from our unique visual-conceptual method. If so, please share the information with the parents and/or teachers of the children. It literally could change their lives. Examples of these success stories may be found on the "User Comments" page of this website.

It all began with Jacob… Jacob was 7½ and half way through first grade and he just could not read. He had spent two years in kindergarten in order to master the letter sounds, but he still could not blend letters back together to form words after he laboriously “sounded them out” one by one. He couldn’t recall the words from memory by the way they looked, either. Jacob’s mom, who was very involved in his education, was worried.


Jacob loved doing the tasks Dr. Isaacson asked of him during his psycho-educational evaluation, and he did very well with nearly all of them – until he was asked to read a few simple words on an achievement test. Then his face fell, and his shoulders slumped.  He could not read even very simple words like ‘red’ and ‘see.’


Dr. Isaacson tried to help him “save face.”  She said, “That’s alright, Jacob. I guess your teacher just hasn't taught you that word yet.” He drew himself up, straightened his shoulders and replied sadly, “No. My teacher HAS tried to teach me that word, and I know it is in my reading book, but I just can’t remember it!”  She was impressed that this little boy was accepting personal responsibility for his reading delay, even though it would have been so easy to let the blame fall on his teacher.  She suddenly recalled something she often did many years ago to entertain her first grade class and capture their attention – making funny pictures of the new words she was introducing. She told Jacob, “I’ll show you a way that will never let you forget that word again.” Then she wrote ‘see’ on her legal pad, and drew big eyes with eyelashes in the loops of each ‘e.’ “This word tells what your eyes do,” she said.

Jacob perked up. “See!” he exclaimed, and looked as happy as if he had just won a prize. Quickly, following an impulse, she taught him some more pictographs, one by one, while making a ‘story’ of them. He would not leave her office feeling defeated, if she could help it!  She wrote:


I see a horse.

I see a big horse.

I see a cat.

I see a little cat.

I see a big horse and a little cat.


Jacob already knew the single letter words. The remaining six words he figured out instantly, as he watched her draw the pictographs. He was excited to be able to read a ‘story’ – something he could not do after 2½ years in school, but had mastered in less than five minutes.


Next, Dr. Isaacson put the pictograph words out of sight, and wrote the words ‘horse’, ‘see’, ‘big’, ‘and’, ‘cat’ and ‘little’ in random order on her legal pad. She asked Jacob to point to them, as she said the words, mixing up the order to make sure he had not simply memorized the placement of the words on the page. He did it perfectly. Next, she asked him to point to the words one by one and read them. Again, he did it perfectly. No matter how they were mixed up, he made no errors.


Jacob wanted to take his ‘story’ when he left her office. He read it to at least three adults on his way back to class. Later, Dr. Isaacson suggested to his mother that she might get the words to be taught in reading each week from Jacob’s teacher the Friday before.  Jacob was such a bright lad, she was sure he could make up his own pictographs to help him learn to read the words in his reading book.


Dr. Isaacson encountered Jacob’s mom again several weeks later. “How is he doing?” she asked. “Well, just last night, he was reading to his dad,” she replied, “when all of a sudden, his dad jumped up and shouted, ‘Hey! Who taught this kid to read?!’” She went on to explain how Jacob now made his reading words into pictures and then easily was able to recall them from memory. The class’s most recent reading story had been about a visit to the aquarium, with lots of words about sea life. “Sharks have tall fins,” he explained to his mother, as he added a slash to the top of the “h” in that word, so that it resembled a fin. “That’s how you know it is a shark. And you never see a dolphin that is out of the water,” he went on, drawing a wavy line under the word “dolphin,” to look like water. Jacob was on his way!!


Dr. Isaacson was pleased to learn that her little “trick” had been of such help to Jacob, but then she forgot all about it--until she met Jessie a short while later.


Jessie was an 11-year-old girl being home-schooled by parents who had been very successful teaching their older children.  But, they were very concerned about Jessie, knowing she was in real educational trouble. Her language skills were extremely delayed. Despite their best efforts, the child could not count, name any letters (much less their sounds), name colors or shapes or most objects – or any of the basic readiness skills which would normally be acquired by early kindergarten. The private speech/language therapist who worked with the child was advising Jessie’s parents to send her to a special education class in the public schools, and that’s why Dr. Isaacson was asked to evaluate her.


She visited Jessie at her home, taking along only tests that did NOT have language requirements, in order to determine levels of skills not affected by her language difficulty.  She needed to know her strengths, as well as her weaknesses.  Even on those, that bright-eyed girl performed in the very lowest range. The psychologist finished that portion of the evaluation, and then conferred with Jessie’s mom. “Send her to school,” she advised, “not only for the social aspects, but she needs to learn what we call ‘survival words’ -- such as ‘stop,’ ‘danger,’ ‘do not enter,’ ‘women,’ and other words we need just to function in today’s world. They will not use phonics as you have tried to do, because that technique does not work for her.”


Suddenly, she recalled the incident with Jacob! She related it to Jessie’s mother, and drew some pictographs on her legal pad to show what she meant.  Jessie’s mom asked if she could keep that paper, so she left with the sheet with ten pictographs drawn on it. She arranged to return the following week to complete the testing.


A week later, Jessie performed as poorly on the required measures of knowledge of letters and numbers as she had done with all her previous tests. She knew none of them.  But, inexplicably, she suddenly pointed to the word ‘see’ on my achievement test form, smiled, and said, “See!”


A few minutes later, the testing completed, Dr. Isaacson gave Jessie’s mother the results, and described her surprise at the child’s recognition of ‘see.’ Mom smiled enigmatically and replied, “Let me show you what we have been doing.” She went to get a handful of small cards. The ten pictographs Dr. Isaacson had left the week before had been extended by six more that she had later made up.  “Watch,” she said, flipping through the sixteen cards, as Jessie read each pictograph word aloud instantly and flawlessly.

“Now, watch this,” she went on, and she laid several cards on the table at a time and asked Jessie to read them:


See big Mom.

I can see big Mom.

I see big Mom go up. etc...


The psychologist was astonished. She had not heard Jessie utter a single phrase longer than three words in nearly four hours of testing time, and any utterances at all had been very rare, yet in just a week she had learned to read effortlessly pictograph sentences of five words or more. Somehow, she concluded, intelligence of a sort that was not even touched, much less accurately measured by any of her tests, lay behind those expressive dark eyes!  She told her husband that evening what she had observed. “I can’t explain it, because it should have been impossible for Jessie to do that. I have a feeling I am going to have to write a book someday about what I saw today!” Little did she know that Jacob and Jessie had started her down the path not to writing a book, but instead to the adventure of developing a unique method for teaching reading!


Dr. Isaacson tried to tell this story to the teacher into whose special education class Jessie was later placed. Her response was less than warmly receptive, and seeing her blank look, she was quite sure nothing like the pictograph words would be written into Jessie’s IEP. She comforted herself with the thought that her mom would carry on helping her child master more sight words, even if the teacher didn’t.


Dr. Isaacson couldn’t get Jessie and Jacob out of her mind.

And then she thought of Heather!


Heather was the 11-year-old daughter, with Down Syndrome, of a friend who lived across town from us.  Heather had been receiving special education services since before the age of two.  After nearly ten years of special education, she could read only her own name and that of one or two classmates.  Her IEP addressed primarily self-help and language goals.  One important objective was the ability to formulate a five-word sentence, such as, “May I have a drink?”


Dr. Isaacson told Heather’s mom about Jacob and Jessie, and asked her if she would like to try the technique with Heather.  She was excited about doing so, explaining that Heather seemed quite alert to visual details in her environment.  As Heather watched, Dr. Isaacson made words into pictures on 3 x 5 index cards. Her attention captured for nearly an hour (an incredible attention span for any child!), Heather was soon reading aloud pictograph sentences twice as long as those her teachers hoped she would learn to speak!  Pointing to each card in left to right order, she flawlessly recognized and named nouns and action words.  They helped her act out abstract words such as ‘the’ and ‘and’ (using pointing gestures for “the” and joining hands for “and”), and she was able to read words with and without context. When the cards were counted at the end of that session, she found Heather had been reading sentences with about twenty picture words in all!


They set another date for three weeks later. When Heather arrived, Dr. Isaacson had a book for her, entitled I Can Read. She made a pictograph card for each word in the book and sent them home with Heather. If she could learn those words, she would be able to read the book!  They played more ad hoc reading games with the child, as in the first lesson, then waited another three weeks to meet again.  She asked Heather’s mom to bring her video camera to the next session.  A video record would tell Heather’s story far more vividly than she could!


That videoed session captured Heather responding correctly to all of the pictograph words they had introduced up until that time (by now, about fifty!) and to about fifteen of the same words without pictographs. Then, they took out the book, and with camera rolling, listened to Heather read the book. Pointing at each word as she read it, haltingly and hesitantly, much like a struggling first grader, and requiring help on about a fourth of the words in the text, Heather read the book!  There was no question that she was reading each word, rather than simply parroting memorized text, as many children do, (an act which many adults mistakenly call “reading.”)  After just three lessons, and some practice at home with the handmade pictograph cards, the child who could read only a couple of names after more than nine years of formal schooling had proved beyond any doubt that it was possible to teach her to read.  With her Speech/Language therapist advocating for her, an amendment was made to Heather’s IEP. In the years that followed, a reading goal was included in each of Heather’s IEPs.


By then, Jacob, Jessie, and Heather had provided enough anecdotal evidence to convince Dr. Isaacson to try this method with some of the other children referred to her for psychological evaluation because of their reading difficulties.  She was not surprised to find that most of them responded very favorably and with excellent success. Convincing their teachers that something other than phonics and/or the whole language lessons then in vogue needed to be used with these youngsters in the early stages of their reading instruction proved to be difficult, however. Who, aside from the Chinese and Japanese, ever heard of teaching people to read whole sight words using letters and conceptual pictures?


Dr. Isaacson met Jared not long afterwards. Like Jacob, Jared had repeated kindergarten, and for the same reason. After the second year, his parents had tried a series of developmental optometry exercises, believing his reading delay might be due to visual difficulties, but no improvement in reading followed. Now half way through first grade, and still a non-reader, Jared, an extremely bright boy with a high tested IQ, was frustrated and angry at what he considered a betrayal of the promise that he would learn to read and write when he went to school, and he took out his frustration on everyone at school. He was being given extra time in phonics instruction, but that brought only more and more resistant behavior.


She wondered aloud to the reading specialist if Jared might be a visual learner, rather than an auditory learner.  The reading specialist watched as Dr. Isaacson tried a visual learning task from a popular cognitive test used by school psychologists. Jared was told the words for which conceptual symbols stood, just ONCE, and then he read them in sentences. Each new set of four symbols given added to the complexity of the sentences he was asked to read. By the end of the test, he had mastered all of the symbols presented, by hearing each of them named ONCE, and was able to read a thirty word paragraph consisting of those symbols. He scored at the ending-high-school level on this test! (Meanwhile, the reading specialist, whose learning preference was the exact opposite of Jared’s, shook her head, exclaiming at the demands of the task, “Oh, that makes me crazy!” In that moment, she must have experienced feelings much like those Jared felt every single day he went to school.)


Continuing with their experiment, with the reading specialist continuing to look on, Dr. Isaacson tried making pictographs on 3” x 5” cards for Jared, with plain words on the backs. He happily learned the words and made many sentences, played games with them, and exhibited the first cooperative behavior in a reading or testing context that anyone had seen in a very long time. He read the pictograph story written for him without error, and then went on to master about 20 words from the story (without pictures) in about a 30 minute period. He took his story with him when he left.


When Jared’s mother came to school to hear the testing results and discuss ways to help her son, she leaned over and quietly asked, “Where can I get some materials like the ones on that paper that Jared brought home? He came running into the house waving it, and it was the first time I have seen my son come home from school happy in 2 1/2 years.”

Dr. Isaacson admitted that she did not know, but promised to try to find out for her if any existed. In the meantime, she gave her a pad with about 50 or 60 pictograph sketches on it, and gave her the same advice she had given to Jacob’s mom: get the reading words, and encourage him to make his own.



As for the modification and remediation plans for Jared – an IEP was written for him by those at school, who wanted very much to see him succeed. It included an extra half hour a day of phonics! “Why would you do that,” Dr. Isaacson asked, in astonishment, “when you have seen that phonics does not help him?” The answer I received was, “Well…because he hasn’t gotten his phonics!!”


Dr. Isaacson once read someone’s definition of a happy coincidence as an instance of “God getting involved in our lives while wishing to remain anonymous.” She can’t say for certain that God intended these apparently coincidental experiences to lead to a way of helping thousands of children like Jacob, Jared, Heather, and Jessie to become readers. But that is what happened.  Before long, she was making decks of pictograph words by hand for the children she evaluated who seemed able to profit from them.  A few open-minded teachers looked at these homely materials and saw the possibilities they offered, as children previously failing in their classes began to make solid progress.  Soon she was hearing of other children with special needs actually learning to read, using her flash cards. Julie, a young and creative special education teacher, began using them with her class of first- and second-graders with Down Syndrome and other special needs. She called Dr. Isaacson and excitedly invited her to come and observe her class. Children in her class whose parents had been told they would never learn to read were reading after a few months of using pictographs.  Not only were they recognizing sight words, they were beginning to decode new words, using “word families” and beginning phonics, as well!  Not long afterwards, a few curious regular education teachers concluded that if children with special needs could learn with them, kids without special needs should do so even faster. And that, of course, is true, as those forward-looking educators, and many more since then, also have discovered.


Searching ERIC (Educational Research Information Center) at her local university fulfilled Dr. Isaacson’s promise to Jared’s mom, but it turned up NO examples of educational studies within the prior thirty years using pictographs embedded in words to teach reading vocabulary. Many picture dictionaries existed then as now, of course, and many graphic flash card systems for teaching nouns (but NOT the abstract Dolch Words!) can be found with pictures accompanying the words (above, below, or beside them). None is as effective as Picture Me Reading because with them, there is a double memory task involved for the student: he must associate the word (which has no cues within it) with the picture that accompanies it, and then, when encountering the word at a later point, (assuming he recalls that he has seen the word with a picture), he must try to dredge up from his memory what specific picture he has seen associated with it.


She wrote that attempts at an early stage to interest educational publishers in materials using this innovative visual-conceptual approach yielded only negative replies. With literally thousands of children like Jared and Jacob languishing in educational failure due to reading delays that were unlikely ever to be reversed (children failing in reading at the end of grade one are virtually certain to remain failing at the end of grade four, according to research!), there seemed to be just one thing to do – become the “Little Red Hen” of early literacy and say, “Then I will do it myself!” Dr. Isaacson decided.


Jacob, Jessie, Jared, and Heather are now adults. The remarkable coincidences of the events involving them during that short period of time led to a long developmental process, as she continued to work with the children in her school system, and as specific needs to be met became clear to her. Her retired naval officer husband later joined her as a “reading missionary,” taking on the task of learning the nitty gritty of publishing, printing, packaging and marketing Picture Me Reading as well as keeping the books.

Their work during the intervening years has resulted in many heart-warming stories of success. You can read about some of them on the page that includes a few of the comments and testimonials that have been received from relieved and happy parents and teachers. 

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