Teaching Reading - a History

by Robert McCole Wilson

Author's address: Robert McCole Wilson, (87 Cottonwood St.) Box 838, Lake Cowichan, B.C., V0R 2G0 Canada.

Author's email address:  rmw@island.net


on this webpage:

What is Reading?
Early Modern Europe
From Meaning to Reading

on the next webpage:

New Education, New Methods?
The Larger Context
Who is Right?
Some conclusions
Further Reading
A Final Comment

Click here to see a page of the 1690 New England Primer.

Presented with the permission of the author


Not to know what happened before one was born is always to be a child.
-- Marcus Tullius Cicero

This paper was first written in the 1970s in an attempt to clarify the ongoing debate about the best method of teaching reading. While I am not a reading specialist, I do have some knowledge of the history of education and I knew that this debate was not new. I hoped that an historical view would assist those in the debate to be clearer and more accurate in their arguments. It has been somewhat updated but the substance has not changed. It should also be noted that the work suffers from the inaccuracy that inevitably comes with such a brief overview of a large topic.

What is reading?

Of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.
-- Ecclesiastes 12:12

One of the problems encountered when discussing this topic is what does it mean when we say a person can read? At first sight it means that someone can recognize marks and translate them into spoken words. But usually what is meant is that the person understands what he or she reads, or is "functionally literate." Beyond the recognition of the letters and words is the knowledge and understanding that the reader must bring to the written words to be able to make sense of them. The same adolescent who has difficulty in reading a school history text may have no similar difficulty in deciphering the complex information in a car repair manual and the history teacher may not understand the car manual. In similar ways these days we hear about "computer literacy" and "media literacy," phrases that do not take on meaning until they are used in context.

Some definitions of literacy are so all-encompassing that they include almost everything that is taught in schools. The differences in evaluating the effectiveness of methods of teaching reading are often the result of lack of agreement on what is trying to be achieved. Tests of reading ability are far more than deciphering and understanding of letters and words.

Another complication is the terminology used by the supporters of the many different methods and sub-methods advocated. Often the same name is given to different systems, and similar systems are given different names. But this multitude can be reduced to two for teaching basic literacy which, in this paper, will be called "phonics" and "whole word".

"Phonics" (code-emphasis) requires the letters and combination of letters to be learned first, and then combined to form the word.

"Whole word" (meaning-emphasis) has the child first learn to recognize and understand the complete word or group of words in context.


It is better that the grammarians should chide us than that the people should not understand us.
-- St. Augustine

Writing, and therefore reading, came as an aid and a necessity to early civilizations when food surpluses allowed specialization, and commerce developed to the extent that regulation was needed to avoid chaos. Many different types were developed: pictures, signs, tallies, numbers, shorthand. Because hieroglyphic and pictogram writing necessitated the memorization of hundreds, even thousands, of different characters, those that mastered them became a powerful specialist elite who had spent from childhood to adulthood learning them. There is, however, an advantage of a pictograph writing in that it is not dependent on a spoken language; a person literate in it can communicate with the speaker of another language who is also literate in it.

The alphabet first appeared as a syllabary, then by the time it was adopted by the Greeks about 2,500 years ago we have, with the addition of letters for vowels, the beginning of the modern Western alphabet. While pictographs represent objects, sometimes ideas, alphabetic letters represent sounds. Today we still recognize the almost universal pictographs on road signs and rest rooms no matter what language we speak, or even if we are illiterate in our own language, but we need to understand the language to be able to understand information in an alphabetic language even if we recognize the letters.

In a sense, the methods of teaching reading and writing parallel the two types of writing: one is the rote memory of a whole word or phrase, hundreds and even thousands of them; the other is the memorization of a comparatively few (26 in English) letters in their various forms, numbers and symbols in mathematics, a few pictographs such as "&", and punctuation. The basics can be learned in a few months or years and once learned, unfamiliar words can be sounded out.

While not central to this work, it is worth mentioning that some experts maintain that the form of a written language, and how and when it is learned, have a significant effect on the way a person thinks, even on brain development in childhood. And while abstraction is easier in an alphabetical language, it is possible to know a word without knowing its meaning.

It can be argued, though not proved, that because the Greeks were first to have a fully developed alphabet, they laid the foundations of Western philosophical thought. It can also be argued, and even harder to prove, that it was the ease of gaining literacy that led to Ancient Greece having the first large literate population which in turn allowed for the development of a democracy.

For the Greek and Roman leadership, reading was incidental to the real education of rhetoric, physical fitness and codes of conduct, and there is evidence that the Celts regarded the ability as unmanly. It was with the rise of Christianity and the importance of studying religious works that it became central to studies.

A problem that was to be significant for modern languages has its origin in the second-hand adoption, through the Tuscans, of the Greek alphabet by the Romans in the naming of the letters. The names the Greeks had for their letters were clearly distinct from their sounds; the Roman letter names were derived from the sounds. In English, while "e" may sometimes be the same as in "be", at no time is "aitch" a sound in a word. One of the steps that had to be taken in the advancement of reading pedagogy was to recognize this problem.

Ancient Greek and Latin were almost completely phonetically written. Since much teaching of reading and writing was in the hands of slaves or barely literate poorer people trying to earn a few coins, and there was no methodology of instruction, it is likely that teaching reading and writing varied, but we have a few hints that the usual method was "alphabetic"; that is, letters were learned first along with their sounds, then were combined into syllables and into words. Plato mentions:

Just as in learning to read, I said, we were satisfied when we knew the letters of the alphabet, which are very few, in all their recurring sizes and combinations; not slighting them as unimportant whether they occupy a space large or small, but everywhere eager to make them out; and not thinking ourselves perfect in the art of reading until we recognise them wherever they are found. (The Republic)

Dionysius of Helicarnassus, a Greek who lived in Rome during the first century B.C., described it thus:

When we first learned to read was is it not necessary at first to know the names of the letters, their shapes, their value in syllables, their differences, then the words and their case, their quantity long or short, their accent, and the rest?

Arrived at this point we began to read and write, slowly at first and syllable by syllable. Some time afterwards, the forms being sufficiently engraved on our memory, we read more cursorily, in the elementary book, then all sorts of books, finally with incredible quickness and without making any mistake.

Rome's foremost writer on educational practice, Quintilian (35-95 A.D.?), describes this method at the beginning of Institutes of Oratory. "It will be best for children, therefore, to be taught the appearances of the letters at once." (I, 1, 25. J. S. Watson's translation, 1856). While he also emphasized the interaction of reading, writing and speaking, because the art of rhetoric was so important in the public life of the empire, it is clear in Book X that he viewed reading and writing as supports for speaking.

With the rediscovery of the complete text of the Institutes in 1416, his prestige and influence were renewed. From Erasmus, Luther and Melanchthon down to Milton and Pope and into the 19th century, writers cited him. Although it was his exposition on form and content, his rhetoric, that interested them, they could not avoid his comments on the methods of teaching reading and writing. His recommendation for copying, not only of letters, but also of the texts of great works was an integral part of learning up until about a hundred years ago but now seems to have disappeared.

This seems to have been the common method of reading instruction from Classical times through the Middle Ages when a prime purpose of the few schools was to learn to read Latin. Much of the writing instruction was not so much aimed at personal literacy as at copying texts. There is some indication that, during the Middle Ages, reading and writing were seen as separate skills to be taught separately. Some leaders, such as King Alfred of England, could read but not write and some scribes appear to have been limited to copying.

Oral reading was usual. St. Augustine, for instance, was perplexed by St. Ambrose's habit of silent reading (in Confessions). The importance placed on it can still be seen by observing the lip movement of some religious people when they are reading their scriptures. It was only after the invention of the printing press made mass production of books possible, that silent reading became usual, but the recognition and teaching of it as a special skill had to wait until the 20th century.

Early Modern Europe

Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man. And therefore, if a man write little, he had need have a great memory; if he confer little, he had need have a present wit: and if he read little, he had need have much cunning,to seem to know, that he doth not.
-- Francis Bacon, Of Studies

With the Reformation came a demand for reading the vernacular by the many not just Latin by the few. First Luther in Germany, then the Calvinists, asserted that each person should be able to read and study the scriptures as a means to personal salvation. The Bible was translated and the new invention, the printing press, meant books were available to many more people. In England, the monarchy wanted the boys "to read English intelligently instead of Latin unintelligently."

Click here to read two pages of the 1690 New England Primer.

Borrowings from other languages, particularly French, Latin and Greek, were already making English a rich and diversified language, but the accommodation of these words meant that its spelling was so diversified, reading it became far more than deciphering a one-to-one correspondence between letters and sounds. This situation became aggravated over time by changes in pronunciation and the many dialects that have to be accommodated, so that spellings have become less and less indicators of sounds.

Because Latin letters were used for a language which was ill-suited to their pronunciation, the adaptation led to a mish-mash of spellings that took several hundred years to standardize. This occurred after the reign of James I largely as a result of the publication of the Authorised Version of the Bible in 1611. No longer could someone just learn the basic letters and translate them into the sounds of words. The same letter or letters could have different sounds and one sound could be represented by different letters. The method of teaching these many variations later came to be called the "phonics" system which is really an elaboration of the alphabetical system used by the ancients.

Most people who commented on teaching methods simply assumed that this was the way that reading and writing would be taught. Mulcaster, one of the earliest English educational theorists, saw learning to read as learning the alphabet:

For the letter is the first and simplest impression in the trade of teaching, and nothing before it. The knitting and jointing wherof groweth on verie infinitely, as it appeareth most plainely by daily spelling, and continuall reading, till partely by use, and partely by argument, the child get the habit, and cunning to read well, which being once goten, what a cluster of commodities doth it bring with all? (The Training Up of Children, 1581)

A century later, John Locke, an advocate of non-coercive but rational instruction, also equated learning to read with learning the letters though he recognized the need to make that learning more interesting:

148. [...] But then, as I said before, it must never be imposed as a task, nor made a trouble to them. There may be dice and play-things, with the letters on them, to teach children the alphabet by playing; and twenty other ways may be found, suitable to their particular tempers, to make this kind of learning a sport to them.

149. Thus children may be cozened into a knowledge the letters; be taught to read without perceiving it to be anything but a sport, and play themselves into that others are whipped for. (see sections 148-159, Some Thoughts Concerning Education, 1693)

While a few people, such as Sir Thomas Smith (1568) and John Hart (1570) understood the problem could be alleviated by a truly English alphabet (for Smith 34 letters after redundant ones had been eliminated), teachers were bewildered or angered when their pupils who had clearly learned their letters could not read. Some tried to alleviate the dull and exhausting work of learning letters and syllables by using games, others felt more of the same would improve reading and spelling. A supplementary problem was that the idea of readiness for learning was not yet accepted. We read of children as young as three being forced into long recitations of their letters in many combinations.

The grandfather of modern educational methodology was Comenius with his emphasis, among other things, on following the order of nature and appealing through the senses. The former led to instruction being graded from easy to difficult and selected for utility, and the latter to well-illustrated textbooks, beginning with Orbis Sensualium Pictus in 1658, covering many topics. While he clearly used the ABC method, his work shows an understanding of the need to relate words to the real world. It is understandable that others were later to use his work to support whole-word methods. Although his theories were ignored, his school books were used in homes as well as schools for over a hundred years in their many translations.

Along with the Bible, the Catechism and other religious texts, there were books designed specifically for reading such as the Horn Book, primers and spelling books. The Horn Book, sometimes with its content in a Christ cross (criss-cross), would be better described as an alphabet memory board.

[ For more information about hornbooks, see the webpages about the Hornbook Collection of the Blackwell History of Education Research Museum, at Northern Illinois University. ]

The popularity of the New England Primer, 1690, lasted for over a hundred years in the American Colonies. Their content was religious instruction combined with learning to read the alphabet, syllables and words.

Click here for the front page of Webster's American Spelling Book (1831 edition).

Click here for a lesson from Webster.

A number of "spellers" began to replace the Primers, the most famous being the more secular Noah Webster's American Spelling Book (1783) which in its hundred years of use sometimes sold more than a million copies a year. The words were grouped into graded lists, it had a series of graded reading lessons, and there were some illustrations. These were all designed for the phonics method of teaching.

William Holmes McGuffey (1800 -1873) brought out the first of his six graded readers in 1835 based on spelling principles, though their huge popularity depended on the moral and inspirational stories and the wide variety of topics and practical matters in them. His readers and spelling book were to reach an estimated 125 million in sales over the next half century. In Great Britain, similar books were used such as Dilworth's New Guide to the English Tongue, a speller with word lists, their pronunciation, grammar rules, and moral guides.

Click here to see teacher suggestions from the first McGuffey Reader, 1879 edition.

Click here for the same Reader's preface.

There was still no necessary connection between reading and writing. In Boston in 1789, for example, three reading schools were established and three writing schools. Handwriting was an important subject in schools and much time was devoted to it; many a child had his knuckles rapped for holding his writing instrument incorrectly as he wrote on his slate. The art of the "scrivener" was often taught separately until the need for this skill gradually disappeared after the invention and widespread use of the typewriter.

From Meaning to Reading

Should you not think it better to learn to spell, than to be laughed at for blunders?
McGuffey's New Fourth Eclectic Reader

The first person that we know of who tried to reverse the process of learning to read was Ickelsamer, a German, whose language had suffered similar problems by adopting the Roman alphabet. In contrast to the accepted belief of the time, he felt that speech sounds were primary and letters secondary and he ignored the conventional names for letters. In his primer The Shortest Way to Reading, 1527, he had his pupils learn the individual sounds of speech first and only after had them name the letters. But this was only a small step, and in any case, others were not ready for change.

It was the attitude that came with the Enlightenment and particularly the ideas of Rousseau that produced a society receptive to a real change. If the child was not learning, it was because Nature's way was not being followed: teachers were placing the subject first and not the child. From now on, those whose teaching methods used the child as a receptacle into which knowledge was pushed would be on the defensive.

By the second quarter of the 19th century, the need and desire for change had become so extensive that only a few of the new methods will be mentioned. To give credit fairly is like trying to say who invented television or the light bulb: the groundwork had been laid and so many were working together or independently on innovation that only a few better known and representative people will be mentioned.

The first person who was prominent in advocating the "natural" way of learning to read was the German, Friedrich Gedike (1754-1803). He felt the rote learning of meaningless letters led to slow pronunciation of uncomprehended words. The child should listen to songs and stories suited to his age, draw pictures, and exercise his imagination. By the time he was about ten he would learn to read easily by going from "wholes" to their parts, from books to their elements, words then letters.

Critics were quick to say that the system led to the child confusing words for a long time and not learning to spell; although his primer went through three editions, it had no lasting effect.

Shortly after, Ernst Trall advocated labelling common objects with words and giving children similar labels to match to them. After the child had learned sufficient words, he would move to a primer with those words plus others (the, and, do, etc.) to fill in sentences. Wackernagel introduced a primer for mothers to read with their children following. The child would gradually familiarize himself with the pages, words, then letters. Neither of these ever gained popularity in schools, possibly because of the difficulty of using them with large classes.

An important influence on teaching the "wholeness" of words was the Frenchman, Jean Jacotot (1790-1840), who developed his method when, as a teacher of Dutch students, they did not know each others' languages. He found through repetitious memorizing of long passages in French, the students showed remarkable ability in learning it. From this he developed the theory of learning the "wholeness" of a book then breaking it into successively smaller units until the letters were learned. German teachers followed this up but with sentences as the "whole".

It was during his visit to Germany in 1843 that the influential American educator, Horace Mann (1796-1859), saw this method in practice, and it was he who gave it great publicity when he returned to the United States. He apparently did not know that a similar method was already in use in such places as Boston and New York State, possibly brought there by German immigrants.

At the same time a hybrid method was developing, the learning of letters through the repetition of the same letter in a number of words until the child became familiar with its sight, sound and use. Essential to this was the avoidance of the isolated learning of letters and meaningless syllables. It was really this method that Mann enthusiastically endorsed.

A clearer advocate of the "whole-word" method was John Keagy (1792-1837) who proposed a miniature museum of articles whose names children would learn and only after they knew the words for them (as he said, somewhat like Chinese symbols) would they learn their letters and spelling. In 1840, John Bumstead of Boston brought out My Little Primer based on this method.

At about the same time, Reverend Thomas Gallaudet (1787-1851), in his efforts to teach the deaf, was developing the method of having them learn their letters by means of words. After a number of words had been learned through relating them to pictures and objects, letters were learned from these words. In 1836, some primary teachers in Boston sought and gained permission to use this method in their classes.

These, of course, are only some of the innovations that we know of, and there were no doubt many others that were not recorded.

In his lectures and reports beginning in 1841, Mann attacked the alphabetic and syllabic methods of teaching reading as meaningless repetition of "skeleton-shaped ghosts." He pointed out, for example, that l- e- g, does not spell "leg" but "elegy". After his report as Secretary to the Massachusetts Board of Education in 1844 attacked what he had seen in the schools, a group of grammar school masters attacked his method in return as requiring the learning of hundreds, even thousands of words before students begin to learn to spell. While they (as secondary school teachers) did not teach reading, they did have a close knowledge of what was being done, and they complained that the failure to have a clear system led to the "evil" of poor spelling. Their complaints reveal that a number of different methods were being used, some beginning with the alphabet, others using words with the same letters, still others requiring words to be learned without learning the letters.

In challenging Mann, Samual Greene of Philips School found the following weaknesses: letters have to be learned eventually; English loses its advantages over such languages as Chinese; learning just words does not lead to mastering other words; spelling is made more difficult, particularly as the child advances. He objected to the idea of making things too easy and simple for the child: while it is important that the child be happy, it is more important to lay a firm and permanent foundation.

Another, writing under the pseudonym of "Q", objected to the criticism that children found the learning of their letters arduous. Many, in fact, learned them from their mothers before they started school. The problem, he said, was that in large classes, the pupils were receiving only a small amount of individual attention. Q challenged the concept that it was as natural for a child to learn to read as it was to learn to talk. This shows that the analogy of the naturalness of learning to read and learning to talk was now being used.

Click here for a page from the first McGuffey Reader.

This early skirmish in the "reading wars" appears to have been characterized on both sides by lack of knowledge and by misrepresentation. One can't help but feel that this conflict had as much to do with resentment by practising teachers over what they saw as unwarranted interference by a central authority. While Mann was effective in bringing attention to the barrenness of much of the teaching, any immediate effect on the teaching of reading is in doubt, but the prestige of his name was later used for support by advocates of the whole-word method.

So, what was really going on in the classrooms by the middle of the nineteenth century? Many were still using the old "ABC" method judging by the number of spellers. It has been estimated that Webster's The American Spelling Book had sold close to a hundred million copies by the end of the century. A few were using the whole-word method. More and more teachers were using some form of the "new method" or "word method" whereby some words were taught first as a means of teaching letters. This varied from about fifteen, to less than a hundred in Mann's case, to 150 to 200 later recommended by Colonel Parker. It is just after this time that the name "phonics" began to be applied to the learning of the sounds of letters and their combinations, as opposed to the names of the letters.

We should be careful not to judge what was happening in schools by what was being taught in the expanding number of normal schools and teachers' colleges. In the classrooms, the teacher, still unlikely to be formally trained, was using how she herself had been taught, what she had picked up from her colleagues, or whatever methods she found most comfortable. Classroom readers designed for one method could be adapted to another so that the presence of any type does not indicate that the associated method was being used. Although they were designed for a phonics system, the McGuffey Readers were adaptable to other methods. Important then, but not now, in the teaching of what is came to be called "language arts" were elocution and recitation, and schoolbooks had passages for the students to learn for public performance.

Click here for another lesson from the first McGuffey Reader.

Teaching by an alphabetic system was also to be resurrected. In England, Sir Isaac Pitman (1813-1897) developed a phonetic alphabet of 42 letters for English and he and his supporters used it to teach reading in some English and Scottish schools. Great claims were made for the speed with which children learned to read it, and that they had no problems transferring to the regular alphabet. Its success led to a similar system in the United States, the Leigh system.

Why these methods did not last though they were highly acclaimed is hard to say. It may have been on one hand that phonics was too entrenched to be supplanted at this time, and on the other hand those pushing for change were supporting the word method. The need for special readers and their cost may have played a part. Another advance worth mentioning is the suggestion made by Farnham in 1881 that oral reading and silent reading are different skills. In advocating his "whole sentence" method, he said that children should be taught to take in the meaning directly from the printed page because the practice of pronouncing the words out loud or to themselves made silent reading a slow and laborious process.

All this was happening against the background of general acceptance by governments in Western Europe and its offshoots that literacy of the general population was essential for a developed society, that it should be compulsory and state supported. In democracies, it was realized that it was necessary for their functioning. Schools as places for the indoctrination of religious and moral precepts were beginning to give way to their being vehicles for the development of attitudes and responsibilities of citizens and this concept was to expand to include the idea of full personal development. After the passing of the 1867 Reform Act (expanding the franchise), the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Robert Lowe, remarked, "I believe it will be absolutely necessary that you should prevail on our future masters to learn their letters."

This echoed what James Adams had said early in the history of the United States: "The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and must be willing to bear the expense of it." As was realized in Germany, no matter what the political system was, trade and commerce needed people who could read and write. "The Prussian schoolmaster won the battle of Sadowa." (von Moltke)

While the developments and disagreements that had begun in the first half of the 19th century were to continue and expand, the second half brought few changes in the theory of teaching. From comments made by visitors to schools, the methods that had been in use were much the same. Public school conditions were harsh and crowded and the lessons rigid. But this was the time when basic education became almost universal in English-speaking countries. Industrialization and urbanization along with the huge migrations into the United States and the British colonies added to the natural population increases. A tremendous task was undertaken and had great success.

By the end of the century, literacy was the rule rather than the exception. In Britain, in contrast to an estimated 30% at the beginning of the century, a literacy rate of over 90% was being claimed by the end, with concerns that some itinerants such as barge and gypsy children were not being reached. In the United States, the 1900 census showed that illiteracy varied from 2.3% in Nebraska to 38.5% in Louisiana; these compared with a claimed 1% in Prussia and an estimated 79% in Imperial Russia. Care should be taken in accepting these figures at face value, however. No clear definition of how these figures were obtained or what the criteria were for judgement is given and standardized testing was not yet in use.

(this paper is continued on the next page)

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  Copyright 1997-2003 Robert M. Wilson