By Joy Wansley
June 09, 1980 12:00 PM

Glenn Doman has a startling theory—that it is easier to teach a 1-year-old to read and do math than a 7-year-old. The Pennsylvania physical therapist insists he has proof after 40 years of work with children, many of them brain-damaged. “Tiny children are so dumb they think that learning is the most fun in the world,” he explains. “We never succeed in beating that notion out of some—we call them geniuses.”

Doman, 60, who is director of the Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential in Philadelphia, first publicized his theories in 1964 in How to Teach Your Baby to Read. Now he has written a companion book, Teach Your Baby Math (Simon & Schuster, $8.95).

The method of instruction is the same for both. Sets of large cards are shown to the child up to three times a day for a total of 10 minutes, no more. The math cards do not use numbers but bright red dots from one to 100 because children, unlike most adults, can distinguish quantity at a glance. “We want to teach kids the truth of numbers as opposed to the symbols for numbers,” Doman says. “Is the written word ‘eight’ the truth? Or ‘VIII’? Eight things are the truth of eight. If a toddler can perceive that, then why take reality, convert it into symbolic language, interpret the language and then convert it back again?”

On the 96th day of a 99-day schedule, children are introduced to numerals. They have already learned to add, subtract, multiply and divide using dots. As Doman explains it, “If a kid can visualize 50 and 100 dots and you ask, ‘What is 50 plus 50?’ the kid will come up with the answer. He ‘reads’ 100 dots the way I read h-u-n-d-r-e-d!” The therapist suggests parents continue the training until the child is 6.

“Teaching belongs in the home,” Doman says, “and mothers are the best instuctors.” At the Institutes parents of severely retarded children are given meticulous teaching instructions. Reports Doman: “We began seeing brain-injured children emerge who not only could perform as well as average children but who indeed could not be distinguished from them. If a 2-year-old with problems can learn to read and do math, why can’t all 2-year-olds?”

Doman, of course, has his critics. They cite the emotional harm that may result from parental pressure. “Children will learn to read and do math anyway,” says Irving Sigel of the Child Care Research Center in Princeton, N.J. “Reading is comprehension. Flashing cards only proves they have memories.” Doman shrugs. “It has been the role of innovators to be attacked.”

The son of a Philadelphia private detective, Doman is a product of the public school system which he decries (“Children should be educated at home until they are 14”) and a 1940 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in physical therapy. While on the staff of Temple University Medical School, he met Dr. Temple Fay, the world-famous head of neurology and neurosurgery, who urged Doman to study the human brain. But World War II intervened. Doman enlisted on Pearl Harbor Day and came out of the Army a decorated lieutenant colonel. He had also married Katie Massingham, a registered nurse.

Doman set up a physical therapy practice, treating stroke victims. “It was a good business,” he recalls. But at Fay’s urging in 1955 he borrowed $78,000 and purchased a 15-acre estate in suburban Chestnut Hill, where he established the nonprofit Institutes. It is Doman’s residence as well as his lab.

Since his three children are aged 27 to 33, he never practiced on them what he now preaches. “As for my grandsons,” he says, “I have a strong hands-off attitude.”

Doman’s aim is to create a young elite. “We want to make these kids superior,” he proclaims. “There would be about a billion of them.” He laughs. “Of course, there are only about a billion kids in the world. We want every one of them.”