Maggie Downie on the history of methods of teaching reading: guest post (2)

My previous post was a reply to a question posed in a Twitter discussion about a blogpost by @HeatherBellaF on the evidence for synthetic phonics. I’m grateful to @MaggieDownie for summarising the history of reading methods used in the English speaking world on the Reading Reform Forum site here. Maggie wasn’t able to post this as a comment on my blog, so I’ve reproduced it in full below. I’ll respond later. I’ve edited Maggie’s post only to reduce spacing and restore italics. Here’s what she says:


Heather recently posted a blog about SSP which provoked a bit of a twitter storm and a series of exchanges over the quality of the evidence with another RRF message board contributor who posted her own blog in response.

Heather’s blog: … -evidence/
Response: http://logicalincrementalism.wordpress. … g-reading/

I felt that the ‘history’ of reading instruction’ run through in the second blog was, to say the least, vague and inaccurate, and tried to write a response. This has turned out to be extremely long so I am posting it here instead. It is not a polished piece of work, nor does it address everything but I have tried to be show how instructional methods have taken hold over the past 100 years or so. I realise that I could have gone further, looking at reports such as Bullock and Warnock but this isn’t an undergraduate essay.

I might also say that reading Huey is a real eyeopener. Diack comments that much of what had been written about reading prior to his own book (1965) could be found in Huey, though as the 20th C progressed it was increasingly unattributed. The same could be said now in that much of what Huey said is still being said today. The power of Ruling Theory at work!

Sections in italics are from the blog post

Here goes!

As far as I’m aware, when education became compulsory in England in the late 19th century, reading was taught predominantly via letter-sound correspondence and analytic phonics – ‘the cat sat on the mat’ etc. A common assumption was that if people couldn’t read it was usually because they’d never been taught. What was found was that a proportion of children didn’t learn to read despite being taught in the same way as others in the class. The Warnock committee reported that teachers in England at the time were surprised by the numbers of children turning up for school with disabilities or learning difficulties. That resulted in special schools being set up for those with the most significant difficulties with learning. In France Alfred Binet was commissioned to devise a screening test to identify learning difficulties that evolved into the ‘intelligence test’. In Italy, Maria Montessori adapted methods to mainstream education that had been used to teach hearing-impaired children.

The history of teaching reading is far more complex than your overview suggests. It is not a straight run of ‘letter/sound correspondence and analytic phonics teaching from the inception of universal schooling in the 1880s through to Ken Goodman’s ‘Whole Language’ of the 1960s. It is a period of differing theories and methodologies; of the beginning of the scientific study of the reading process (mainly of eye-movements) and of gathering momentum in the disagreements about the theory of reading instruction which has led to the ‘Reading Wars.’

It might be noted that this is a peculiarly Anglo-Centric history; countries which have more transparent orthographies (i.e mainly, or completely having only one way to represent each of the phonemes of the language) have, for the most part, carried serenely on as they have done for years, teaching letter/sound correspondences, decoding and blending for reading and segmenting for spelling, with no apparent detriment to the children so taught and with far higher levels of literacy than many English Speaking countries. And with no thought of changing their effective teaching methods.

A great deal of information on the history of reading instruction comes from the highly influential work of Edmund Burke Huey, an Educational psychologist, ‘The Psychology and Pedagogy of Reading’ 1908. Also from Hunter Diack’s ‘In Spite of the Alphabet’ 1965 and Jeanne Chall ‘Learning to Read, the great debate’ 1967. A paper by Dr Joyce Morris ‘Phonicsphobia’ gives insight into English practice post WW2. From the 80s on may be fairly common knowledge to older readers.

From my reading of Huey it seems that by the 19th century there were four main methods of teaching reading (with variations within each category). The method which seems to have obtained until at least the mid. 19th C was the Alphabetic, by which is meant the ‘traditional’ centuries old method of learning the alphabet letters and how to spell words out. It is not altogether clear whether children were taught letter sound correspondences or letter names (or both) by this method though Diack suggests that as the method involved learning consonant vowel combinations (ba, be, bo, bu etc.) it must have involved ‘sounds’ at some stage. Whole word (Look & Say) had been proposed from time to time during the 18th C but may have derived some impetus from Thomas Gallaudet, an early 19th C educator of deaf children who used Whole Word to teach his pupils to read. By the time Huey was writing it was being seriously proposed as an effective method. Huey also identified ‘Phonetic’ methods; not ‘phonics’ as we know it but methods using simplified alphabets or diacrital marks to simplify early reading instruction. The fourth category was Phonics, phonics of a kind quite familiar to SP proponents and even called ‘Synthetic’ by some late 19th C practitioners. (Analytic Phonics does not seem to have featured)

Huey himself favoured a version of Whole Word known as the Sentence Method, based on the theory that children would learn best something that was meaningful and interesting to them. Children were taught to recognise and ‘read’ a whole sentence (with no regard to the individual words which comprised it or the letters the words contained). Diack suggests that this method was validated by Gestalt theories (that the ‘whole’ is the unit of immediate perception) in the 1920s and I think it perhaps influenced the bizarre statement of Whole Language guru, Ken Goodman, to the effect that a paragraph is easier to read than a sentence and a sentence is easier to read than a word.

Huey did believe that phonics should be taught but after children had learned to read and not connected with the reading process, presumably the phonics was for spelling. He did acknowledge that Rebecca Pollard’s ‘Synthetic’ (phonics) Method was successful but dismissed it as old fashioned and tedious.

It is important to note that a key element of Whole Word instruction is the focus on reading for meaning alone. There is no attempt to teach any word recognition strategies beyond, perhaps, linking the word to a picture. The success of the method relied on children’s own ability to memorise the appearance of the word (and to be able to recognise it in different forms e.g differing fonts, cases or handwriting). The educationists who promoted the method did so because of their perception that children who did not read with ‘expression’ were not understanding what they were reading and that phonics instruction led to expressionless mechanical reading with no understanding. There seems to have been no attempt to verify this belief. Horace Mann gave expression to it when describing reading he heard in schools in the 1830s as being ‘too often a barren action of the organs of speech upon the atmosphere’ and it can be seen today, over 150 years later, expressed, in less picturesque terms, by denigrators of SSP methods of teaching reading.

Diack says that in reality phonic methods predominated in the UK & the US for at least the latter half of the 19th Century. Under the influence of figures such as Huey & Dewey Whole Word methods became widely accepted in the US from the early 20th Century whereas Phonics lingered on in the UK for far longer.

At this point it might be appropriate to mention Montessori. I am not sure why her method of teaching reading is thought to have been developed from her work with deaf children. As far as I can make out from her own book (The Montessori Method. 1912) her method for developing the motor skills need for writing and her use of letter shapes for learning the forms of letters were developed when she worked with what we would now call children with learning difficulties, but her method of teaching reading owes nothing whatsoever to work with hearing impaired children. She taught letter/sound correspondence right from the start and her account of how her children learned to read and write would have any SP proponent nodding in approval. It is very beautiful and well worth reading
( … ethod.html) p246

It seems that Whole Word methods began to really take hold in the UK during the 1930s and proliferated post WW2 as part of the postwar desire for ‘modernisation. It was then that Joyce Morris encountered resistance to old fashioned ‘Phonics’ detailed in her article ‘Phonicsphobia’ (1994) as did Hunter Diack when he published papers in the 1950s in favour of phonics instruction. His approach to phonics was to teach letter/sound correspondences but in the context of whole words. I don’t know enough about his method to tell if it tends to Analytic or Synthetic but the reading tests he produced with J.C Daniels do not look to be ‘word family’ based.

It is possible that Whole Word may have slipped quietly away at some time had it not been for the rise to prominence of the highly charismatic and persuasive Frank Smith in the early 1970s. Having never taught a child to read he wrote a book called ‘Understanding Reading’. (1971) which seems never to have been out of print since. A great deal of it is regurgitation of Huey and some of it is stunningly inaccurate assertions of what happens in the reading process. The final chapter where he proposes that a really skilled reader can read a page of text and get the meaning of it without being aware of the words on the page is awe-inspiringly loopy. Yet he has a huge following and is revered. It was Frank Smith’s excitingly ‘modern’ take on reading that inspired two young cognitive psychologists, in the 1970s to base a study on Smith’s proposal that skilled readers use context and prediction to ‘read’ the words on the page and that poor readers laboured away with phonics. Stanovich and West were amazed to find that precisely the opposite was true.

Research into acquired reading difficulties in adults generated an interest in developmental problems with learning to read, pioneered by James Hinshelwood and Samuel Orton in the early 20th century.

From my foregoing account you should be aware that Orton and Hinshelwood were investigating reading disorders in the USA at a time when Whole Word had become the predominant method of teaching reading; any phonics instruction was incidental. ‘Alphabetic principle and analytic phonics’ really cannot be implicated here.

The term developmental dyslexia began as a descriptive label for a range of problems with reading and gradually became reified into a ‘disorder’. Because using the alphabetic principle and analytic phonics clearly wasn’t an effective approach for teaching all children to read, and because of an increased interest in child development, researchers began to look at what adults and children actually did when reading and learning to read, rather than what it had been thought they should do.

This is just extraordinary. Bearing in mind that no date is given for this rejection of the alphabetic principle and analytic phonics and that Dr Orton famously pioneered structured, systematic phonics instruction for remediation of dyslexics in the 1920s/30s (the implication being that this was not the instruction they received in schools) this statement makes no sense at all.

What they found was that people use a range of cues (‘mixed methods’) to decode unfamiliar words; letter-sound correspondence, analytic phonics, recognising words by their shape, using key letters, grammar, context and pictures, for example.

This is an odd one to unpick. It is probable that researchers did find that people used these strategies but they were used in the context of a belief that children could learn to read whole words, whole sentences etc. with no instruction in phonics until they *could* read. In the absence of initial phonics instruction, and, presumably because children struggled to learn to read when the Word method assumed that they would learn unaided, these ‘strategies’ were developed and taught in an attempt to help children learn more easily. Naturally these strategies would be observed in people taught to use them or people who had developed them by themselves in the absence of any other guidance. Chall shows clearly how basal readers developed the use of pictures and predictable text to facilitate the teaching of these strategies. But since Stanovich and West showed, in the 70s that these were strategies used by unskilled readers and that skilled readers used decoding strategies for word recognition (this is an extreme simplification of the research Stanovich outlines in ‘Progress in Understanding Reading’) and this has been the conclusion of cognitive scientists over the subsequent decades the validity of these strategies is seriously challenged.

Educators reasoned that if some children hadn’t learned to read using alphabetic principles and/or analytic phonics, applying the strategies that people actually used when reading new words might be a more effective approach.

As alphabetic principles weren’t being used to any great extent this statement is invalid. The tossing in of ‘analytic phonics’ seems more of a sop to phonics detractors than an indictment of ‘phonics’. McGuinness (1998) examination of US ‘analytic’ phonics instruction shows it to have been chaotic, illogical and unstructured and only marginally effective. There is no reason to believe that the situation was any different in the UK. Indeed, examination of pre SP phonics programmes (of which I have several) tends to confirm her conclusions.

This idea, coinciding with an increased interest in child-led pedagogy and a belief that a species-specific genetic blueprint meant that children would follow the same developmental trajectory but at different rates, resulted in the concept of ‘reading-readiness’. The upshot was that no one panicked if children couldn’t read by 7, 9 or 11; they often did learn to read when they were ‘ready’. It’s impossible to compare the long-term outcomes of analytic phonics and mixed methods because the relevant data aren’t available. We don’t know for instance, whether children’s educational attainment suffered more if they got left behind by whole-class analytic phonics, or if they got left alone in schools that waited for them to become ‘reading-ready’.

Some comparisons do exist. Diack notes that the committee set up by the UK government in 1947 ‘to consider the nature and extent of the illiteracy alleged to exist among school leavers and young people’ found that 11y olds in 1948 were a year behind those of 1938 and 15 y olds in 1948 were 2 years behind those in 1938. Martin Turner in his pamphlet ‘Sponsored Reading Failure (1990) found that standards in reading were falling (that was in the days when reading was monitored by Local Authorities) and suggested that this was caused by the prevalence of Whole Word and Real Books methodology.

Eventually, as is often the case, the descriptive observations about how people tackle unfamiliar words became prescriptive. Whole word recognition began to supersede analytic phonics after WW2, and in the 1960s Ken Goodman formalised mixed methods in a ‘whole language’ approach. Goodman was strongly influenced by Noam Chomsky, who believes that the structure underpinning language is essentially ‘hard-wired’ in humans. Goodman’s ideas chimed with the growing social constructivist approach to education that emphasises the importance of meaning mediated by language.
At the same time as whole language approaches were gaining ground, in England the national curriculum and standardised testing were introduced, which meant that children whose reading didn’t keep up with their peers were far more visible than they had been previously, and the complaints that had followed the introduction of whole language in the USA began to be heard here.

It seems that Whole Word/Whole Language approaches had been prevalent long before the introduction of the national curriculum and it is debateable that the National Curriculum Tests were truly standardised. But an account of government attempts to reintroduce more phonics into the teaching of reading since 1988 can be found here:

In addition, the national curriculum appears to have focussed on the mechanics of understanding ‘texts’ rather than on reading books for enjoyment.

I would agree with that but would also note that the initial teaching of reading was such that, even with increased official emphasis on the teaching of phonics a consistent ‘tail’ of some 20% of children have left primary school with barely functional literacy (L3 or below; some 120,000 children annually) and that inability to read with ease militates strongly against getting any enjoyment from reading, or choosing to read as a leisure activity.

What has also happened is that with the advent of multi-channel TV and electronic gadgets, reading has nowhere near the popularity it once had as a leisure activity amongst children, so children tend to get a lot less reading practice than they did in the past. These developments suggest that any decline in reading standards might have multiple causes, rather than ‘mixed methods’ being the only culprit.

But concern must be not only focussed on failure to read for enjoyment. There are very significant numbers of children and young people who are unable to read to a level which enables them to access the functional reading needed to participate in a highly text based society.

Huey. E.B the Psychology and Pedagogy of Reading 1908 … 1/mode/1up
Montessori. M The Montessori Method 1912 … ethod.html
Diack. H: In Spite of the Alphabet 1965
Chall. J Learning to Read: The Great Debate 1967
Smith. F Understanding Reading 1971
Morris J Phonicsphobia 1994 … sfobia.php

McGuinness. D. Why Children Can’t Read 1998
Turner. M. Sponsored Reading Failure 1990
Stanovich. K Progress in Understanding Reading 2000


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