Teaching Reading - a History

by Robert McCole Wilson


on the previous webpage:

What is Reading?
Early Modern Europe
From Meaning to Reading

on this webpage:

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

Click here for a page from a 1950 Happy Venture Reader

Presented with the permission of the author

New Education, New Methods?

Education [...] has produced a vast population able to read, but unable to distinguish what is worth reading.
-- G. M. Trevelyan, English Social History

The next important movement for change centred at the Laboratory School of the University of Chicago and the work supported by President Harper, Colonel Parker and John Dewey (a student of Hall). From here their "Progressive Education" was to be spread widely, at least its theory.

Much of the work was supported by G. Stanley Hall (1844-1924) who had examined extensively the teaching of reading in such places as Germany where he had studied philosophy. Sometimes described as America's first psychologist, Hall argued that the stages of individual growth recapitulated those of social evolution and therefore the distinctive character of childhood must be respected. He believed that there was a critical period between five and eight when the child had both the "interest and capacity" to learn to read. If forced upon the learner before this it will have long-term negative effects, and if missed the learner will later have difficulties and disadvantages. This concept was to be echoed in R. J. Havighurst's "developmental tasks" in the 1950s.

First in 1886 Hall issued a pamphlet, and in 1911 a book, in which he advocated the word method. He also downplayed the importance of reading. Many great and wise men and women had not been able to read. He even used the legend of Thamus from Plato's Phaedrus to show that it could be a disadvantage.

Click here to read two pages of a 1923 primer.

Hall's ideas fitted in well with the progressive movement. Reading was not to be the centre of the child's education. The pleasure in learning to live was paramount and he or she would come naturally to learn to read along with other natural development. Education was to be a practical, hands-on activity rather than text-book study. It was at the end of Dewey's "play period" from four to eight years that the child would be introduced to reading and writing as part of other activities.

This emphasis placed on the incorporation of language learning -- reading, writing and spelling -- into the whole learning process was to be accepted widely. The teacher's task was to understand the child in order to meet the needs as they arose. Progressive movement advocates observed (so they believed) that the child comes naturally to words in a way he does not to letters, so the whole-word method was appropriate. Teachers were not alone in believing this; many parents joined them. Important contributions were their support for pre-reading activities and readiness for learning to read. But what some called "progressive" others criticized as "permissive" even "indulgent." [I acknowledge that I may have misrepresented or misinterpreted "Progressive Education." Many hours and pages have been spent by others in arguing just what it was.]

It was during this period that the child-rearing experts, usually physicians and later to include psychologists, replaced the grandmothers, unmarried aunts and clergymen in giving advice to parents on how to raise children. Dr Spock is only one in a long line of experts who influenced the way young children should be treated both at home and in school. The influence of the Italian physician, Maria Montessori (1870-1952), is still felt today. She advocated enabling children to learn through the senses until they reached a mental level appropriate to passing on to reading and writing.

In the first years of the 20th century, then, there were names for the many methods of teaching reading: alphabetic, phonetic, phonic, look-and-say, word, sentence, each with its own supporters and its own variety of uses. But some teachers were realizing that something was more important than the method. Flora J. Cooke, a graduate of the Chicago Laboratory School, said in 1900, "They must first desire to read; after the desire is awakened the child will learn by any method, with or without a school. He will find a teacher." (in Course of Study)

In the next fifty years, many papers and books were produced on the teaching of reading, too many perhaps. Some were in defence of a particular method, others attacking what was seen as a disturbing lack of achievement. A few took a closer look at what the mechanics of reading are and others tried to relate learning to the psychology of the process of learning to read. While gestalt psychology seemed to support the "wholeness" of reading, advances in linguistics could be used to support either approach. Developments in the production of standardized testing assisted in making better statistical comparisons. Much was said, but little that had not been said before.

Click here to see a 1934 primer.

Side skirmishes involved the frequency of English words and the degree to which English is spelled phonetically. One study showed that three thousand words comprise ninety-eight percent of those used by adults as well as children -- support for the word method. Others showed that English spelling was not as illogical as had been claimed; that its frequent inconsistencies often aided meaning, and context aided comprehension -- support for the phonics method. After 1900, studies of eye-movement helped distinguish between the physical actions of oral and silent reading

The beginning readers that were used in most schools after the 1920s were usually based on the word or "look-and-say" method with, in North America, "Dick," "Jane" and "Spot" becoming household names along with the characters in the Dr. Seuss books. Some phonics were also, though not necessarily, taught, depending on the school and classroom teacher. An examination of word-based beginning readers that were supposedly based on reading for meaning, however, shows a remarkable lack of substance. The child could find working with these as unattractive and boring as the meaningless repetition of letters.

One theme that was to be repeated was "functional literacy." The tests given to American recruits during World War I showed that about 25% were unable to read and write well enough to perform simple tasks assigned to them. Time and again, the newly formulated standardized tests showed such things as, for example, a certain percentage of eighth-grade students could only read at a grade three level. Secondary or high school teachers regularly criticized primary and elementary teachers for the low level of language skills of the students they received and the colleges and universities in turn deplored the reading level of the their incoming students. All too often, failure to develop language skills was blamed on teaching methods rather than on the overall learning conditions of class size, physical plant, resources available, or the home and social background; and many teachers were not very well educated themselves.

Click here for two pages of a 1941 primer.

After World war II, criticism of the large proportion of functionally illiterate, estimated at one third to one half of adults, grew until it reached its peak in the United states with the publication of Rudolf Flesch's Why Johnny Can't Read in 1955. While many educators defended the system by saying the aims of education were far more than teaching the "three R's," public alarm grew. Those outside the esoteric walls of educational theory saw the ability to read and write as absolutely fundamental to education. Their target was the word method; to them "look-and-say" was "look-and-guess" (as opposed to "drill-and-kill"). According to critics, because word attack skills were not being taught, children were handicapped in deciphering new words and could not handle further education.

In the 1960s, the number of studies on the teaching of reading numbered in the thousands. Some accounted for the high adult illiteracy by lack of practice. They had been able to read, but in work and everyday life they read little; because they didn't use it, they lost it. Of those studies directed at comparing the different methods, the majority supported some sort of phonics approach. But many studies need to be viewed with caution as they were limited in approach and some may even have been distorted by vested interests such as academics with a relationship to a publishing company.

One solution was to rewrite books using a limited graded vocabulary, first of, for example, 700 words, then 3000, then 7000. Another was to teach words and letters simultaneously, a "new" method that had been used in the 19th century. Some reading texts began by using at the beginning only words that are spelled phonetically, then progressing to more complicated phonics and exceptions. The most common was to again teach phonics directly.

Click here to see two pages of a c. 1950 primer.

In the United Kingdom at the beginning of World war II, much the same thing was discovered as in the U.S.A.: over 25% of recruits were functional illiterates. As the cause was seen by many as the non-phonetic nature of much of the English language, a new call for spelling reform went out. Among other solutions, Sir James Pitman, grandson of Sir Isaac, and his followers prepared what was to be called the Initial Teaching Alphabet or i.t.a. of 45 letters, to be first used in 1961. Again great claims were made for its effectiveness and that no problems were encountered in transferring to normal spelling. It was, for a while, used in places both in the U.K and North America.

The most common prescription was to go back to some sort of phonics method and commercial publishers were quick to respond with their own special solutions. Experts were called upon to develop programmes and many new names were given to old ideas in different covers. Most major publishers of school texts put out developmental readers and supplementary texts. One popular programme was DISTAR (Direct Instructional System for Teaching and Remediation) which incorporated intense, systematic phonics instruction, teacher directed, with constant teacher-student interaction.

Salesmanship to school boards and administrators was as important as the quality of the product. Teaching of reading became an industry supplying not only textbooks but also reading machines. One aspect that gained prominence was the need to read more quickly. To both the public and schools, devices, some based on tachistoscopes, and courses training in eye movement were offered commercially to help the buyer increase speed from a typical 200 to 400 words per minute to at least 650 and even several thousand. Universities as well as schools established reading laboratories to aid students in improving their skills in speed and comprehension.

Special courses were introduced into teacher training institutions for reading specialists and schools hired learning-assistance teachers whose main job became remedial reading. Clinicians contributed towards helping non-readers; dyslexia, for instance, moved from being a syndrome describing people who had difficulty in recognizing and writing letters to a neurological dysfunction of the brain. Learning theorists contributed "taxonomies" (e.g. Bloom et.al., 1956) analyzing the different objectives so that levels and types of achievement could be tested. Another development was the need to be initiated into the arcane language of teaching language arts by taking courses.

While the reading wars raged round them, most teachers continued with what they found effective, using in their own ways whatever was supplied or available. It seemed that the phonics crusaders had won against the infidel whole-word supporters. But it was not to last.

In the 1980s, the supposedly miraculous results of Marie Clay's Reading Recovery programme in New Zealand was an inspiration to those elsewhere who felt uncomfortable with or rejected what they saw as the repetitious, teacher-directed instruction broken up into separate packages of language arts. "Whole Language" became the new faith.

Advocates claimed it was more than a teaching method, but a philosophy. Reading should not be taught but acquired through the student actually reading real books, following as the teacher reads, using context, pictures and known words to understand even if every word is not familiar. Motivation rather than instruction would be the key, child-centred rather than teacher-directed. While phonics would be taught incidentally, teaching separate language skills (encoding, decoding, spelling) in isolation was rejected. Interestingly, the philosophy and methods of the Progressive Education movement of the early 1900s are rarely mentioned in literature on Whole Language.

The converts rejected any suggestion that it was just a revival of the look-and-say method. If meaning and motivation are present, the child will learn to read as naturally as to talk. Despite opposition from a few who said its success was unproven, its appeal was so seductive that many schools (such as California in 1987) and most teacher-training institutions embraced it.

Although some evidence was produced to support its effectiveness, methodology was subordinated to ideology. While older teachers fumed over the neglect of teaching basic skills, younger teachers rejoiced at the love of learning they saw in their students. Soon books constructed on a phonics basis were hard to find in schools, and new teachers had no grounding in how to teach phonics. But the explosion of "learning disabilities" mandated a costly industry of psychologists, special education teachers and reading specialists. How many students were genuinely disabled and how many were recruited to fill the need for clients is hard to say. Overall, the end results did not change.

But the joy was not to last, for the pendulum swung back more quickly this time. In the U.S.A., the "reading wars" became not only an educational issue but also entered the realm of politics and religion. In their nostalgia and their frustration at what they perceived as inadequate development of language skills by their children, many parents became a ready market for sales of phonics books and commercial tutorial schools. They saw poor spelling in particular as an indication that the "new" methods were unsatisfactory.

Commercial interests filled the gap marketing not only books but this time computer programmes as well, and tutorial companies multiplied their branches. Hooked on Phonics has sold over two million copies. In some places in North America, voters were able to persuade politicians to set up "charter schools" which reflected the "back-to-basics" movement. Lower standardized test scores were used as evidence that the new methods had failed.

In 1996 in response to voter demand, the California legislature decreed that phonics must be taught, closely followed by Texas and other states. The whole-language advocates retreated, but not very far. The fashionable word now is "balance" with the whole language people maintaining that they also teach phonics without abandoning the essentials of their method. Because "balance" is in the hands of the holder, to find out what is actually happening, we must go into individual schools and classrooms.

The Larger Context

English spelling is weird ... or is it wierd ?
-- Irwin Hill

We should be careful not to separate the teaching of reading from the general philosophy of education and views of how children should be treated. Another way of looking at the great reading debate is to ask who is on what side. Those that have an analytic (scientific) view of the world are more likely to support phonics along with those who support mental discipline; those who have a holistic (intuitive) view are likely to support the whole word methods as are those who support free development. The first are more likely to demand proof through controlled investigations and the latter are more likely to demand a larger view than cannot be shown by narrow testing. It could be that there was a swing back to the phonics method in the 1960s when those who had expected great things from science were in control, and a swing to whole word in the 1980s when those who had experienced the 1960s self-expression movement rose to positions of influence.

Another aspect to consider is the place of educational theory among scholarly pursuits. Up until the late 18th century, people looked back to the past for inspiration and authority. With the new thinkers came the idea of progress. When they saw the advances in science and industry they felt that they could build a better society based on social and economic change. If the physicians could cure more people and engineers could build better machines, then schools could teach better. In education, along with other social institutions, change was equated with progress. Education should also have its developments as did other disciplines. Administrators and academic theorists advanced their careers with innovations and the production of studies.

That schools are more pleasant places now than they were a hundred or two hundred years ago is undeniable. That the students learn more, taking into account the information and ideas available in the different times and the amount of time spent at school, is questionable. Real progress has been made, not in the changes in the theory of teaching methods, but in the reduction of class sizes, better facilities and the greater provision of attractive teaching and learning materials, and more, if not better, education of the teachers. Success, or lack of it, in children learning is probably related closer to the home and social conditions that they come from than how they are taught at school. Changing the method of instruction from one way that is done well to another way that is done well is not likely to make much difference.

Although our knowledge of adult motivations and needs has not changed very much since Classical times, children are no longer treated as miniature adults. We now have accepted that their needs and perception of the world are different, as much from the insights of writers of fiction as from academic studies.

Our understanding of how children learn is at about the stage of medicine before Harvey discovered the circulation of blood. Some very useful information has been discovered in recent years on such things as early childhood language development, but much more needs to be done before we can prescribe with certainty, if we ever can, what are the best methods of enabling them to learn. Any success in remedial reading classes is probably more the result of the small group and one-on-one instruction than the method used.

With the variabilities in the make-up of each child and the vast complex of influences that come from his or her environment, each child is different and will react in different ways. It is unlikely that there will ever be a "one size fits all" method of teaching. The danger is that, as in medicine where a physician may try to fit the patient to the cure, a teacher will fit the child to the teaching method as he or she must with the numbers in any class. Fortunately most children have that innate human flexibility which enables them to fit in with any teaching and find their own way if they are given support and the right environment. Those who deplore a low level of literacy are likely looking at a symptom not a disease.

Who is Right?

We talked of the education of children; and I asked him what he thought was the best way to teach them first. Johnson: " Sir, it is no matter what you teach them first, any more than what leg you shall put into your breeches first. Sir, you may stand disputing which is best to put in first, but in the mean time your breech is bare. Sir, while you are considering which of two things you should teach your child first, another boy has learnt them both."
-- Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson, L.L.D.

Who is right? Both and neither. Both in that most children use the word in context along with analysis of the letters and syllables to learn to read whether they are taught these ways or not. Neither in that other factors such as interest in the materials and the attractiveness of the learning environment are more important than any theoretical method. Beyond the philosophy behind the teaching of reading is the adaptability of the books and the willingness and ability of the teacher to use whatever will help at an any given moment with a particular child. And with the right books, most children will find their own way.

Success in learning to read depends more on the enthusiasm, ability and energy of the teachers and children than on any particular teaching method.

Some conclusions:
1.   The majority of children will learn to read no matter what the method.
2.   The environment, attitudes and expectations both within and without the school are more important than any method.
3.   Any method can be less effective if it is the dull repetition of meaningless letters and phonics, or the rote memory of hundreds of whole words in boring stories. Any method can be made stimulating by a resourceful teacher. Dogmatic adherence to one method may be harmful; adaptability to a child and situation is likely to be more productive.
4.   At some stage, all children need to learn enough attack skills (phonics) to decipher new words. While the evidence is inconclusive, careful studies indicate that direct instruction works best for most children.
5.   Children's readiness to learn varies. With little help, some will quickly learn the basics at an early age; others will not be ready until much older. Attempts to force too early may hinder later development.
6.   A small group of children have specific problems that need special psychological or medical diagnosis and treatment by experts. Appropriate learning assistance may help; inappropriate may aggravate the problem.
7.   Often what is called poor reading is really lack of background knowledge and understanding. After basic literacy has been achieved, there are specialized literacies.
8.   Much reading and writing are subject specific. Many areas of knowledge need special attack skills that are best taught within the context of a particular subject. This may be as obvious as learning a specialized vocabulary, to deciphering implied meanings, recognizing tone, and understanding symbols and metaphors. The phrase, "every teacher is a teacher of English," is more than a cliché.
9.   The best way to improve reading and writing is to read and write with lots of variety and some direction. To maintain the skills, regular application is needed.
10.   Common sense rather than philosophical dogma should prevail.

Further Reading

Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.

-- Dr. Benjamin Spock, opening line of Baby and Child Care addressed to new parents.

As this paper was meant for general readers rather than scholars, detailed references were not given. In fact, I found that much of what appears here had already been dealt with by others but had usually been ignored by advocates of the different methods. For a similar work by a reading specialist, the reader is referred to two connected papers by William T. Stokes Understanding the Phonics Debates: Part I and Recent History of the Phonics Debates: Part II. These papers also have useful references for someone who wants to read more deeply on the subject. See:



One useful source that Stokes does not list is:

Mathews, Mitford M., Teaching to Read, Historically Considered, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1967 (This is the best book that I have seen on the topic. Much of the information in this article was from it, particularly for the 19th century.)

For links to the Whole Language/Phonics debate, one place to start is at:


A number of early school texts can be found at The University of Pittsburgh site:


A Final Comment

The barbarians are not at the gates. They are inside the gates -- and have academic tenure, judicial appointments, government grants, and control of the movies, television, and other media. Virtually everything that was supposed to make things better made things worse. What has failed is accepted without question by so-called 'thinking people' and what worked is disdained as being out of touch with the times.
-- Thomas Sowell

In reading the works of educational theorists, it is unsettling to see how few have a knowledge of the history of education. So many policy and decision makers do not have a reasonable knowledge of what has been said and done before.

You teach a child to read, and he or she will be able to pass a literacy test.
-- President George W. Bush
(Townsend, Tenn., Feb. 21, 2001)

Suggestions or comments to the author:

Mail to rmw@island.net


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©  Copyright 1997-2003 Robert M. Wilson