Huey, Dewey and…? a response to the history of reading methods (3)

Before responding to Maggie’s post, I want first to thank her and other members of the Reading Reform Forum for the vast amount of information about reading that they have put into the public domain. The site is a great resource for anyone interested in teaching reading.

I also feel I should point out that my previous post on ‘mixed methods’ was intended to be a prompt response to a question asked on Twitter, not a fully-referenced essay on the history of methods for teaching reading. It accurately accounts for why I think what I think, but I’m grateful to Maggie for explaining where my understanding of the history of reading methods might be wrong.

On reflection, I think I could have signposted the key points I wanted to make more clearly in my post. My reasoning went like this;

1. Until the post-war period reading methods in the UK were dominated by alphabetic/phonics approaches.
2. Despite this, a significant proportion of children didn’t learn to read properly.
3. Current concerns about literacy levels don’t have a clear benchmark – what literacy levels do we expect and why?
4. Although literacy levels have fallen in recent years, the contribution of ‘mixed methods’ to this fall is unclear; other factors are involved.

A few comments on Maggie’s post:

Huey and reading methods
My observation about the use of alphabetic and analytic phonics approaches in the early days of state education in England is based on a fair number of accounts I’ve either heard or read from people who were taught to read in the late 19th/early 20th century. Without exception, they have reported;

• learning the alphabet
• learning letter-sound correspondences
• sounding out unfamiliar words letter-sound by letter-sound

I’m well aware that that the first-hand accounts I’ve come across don’t form a representative sample, but from what Maggie has distilled from Huey, the accounts don’t appear to be far off the mark for what was happening generally. I concede that sounding out unfamiliar words doesn’t qualify as ‘analytic phonics’, but it’s analytic something – analytic letter-sound correspondence, perhaps?

Montessori
I cited Montessori as an example of the Europe-wide challenge posed by children who struggled at school; I wasn’t referring to her approach to teaching reading specifically. In her book she frequently mentions Itard and Séguin who worked with hearing-impaired children. She applies a number of their techniques, but doesn’t appear to agree with them about everything – she questions Séguin’s approach to writing, for example.

Frank Smith
I haven’t read Smith, but the fact that skilled readers use context and prediction to read the words on the page wasn’t his ‘proposal’. By the 1970s it was a well-documented feature of contextual priming in skilled readers, i.e. skilled adult readers with large spoken vocabularies. From what Maggie has said, the error Smith appears to have made is to assume that children could learn by mimicking the behaviour of experts – a mistake that litters the history of pedagogy.

Hinshelwood and Orton
Hinshelwood was a British ophthalmologist interested in reading difficulties caused by brain damage. Orton was American, but was a doctor also interested in brain damage and its effect on reading. I can’t see how the work of either of them would have been affected by the use of Whole Word reading methods in US schools, although their work has frequently been referred to as an explanation for reading difficulties.

the rejection of the alphabetic principle
Maggie says my statement that the alphabetic principle and analytic phonics had been abandoned because they hadn’t been effective for all children ‘makes no sense at all’. If I’m wrong, why were these methods abandoned?

using a range of cues
The cues I listed are those identified in skilled adult readers in studies carried out predominantly in the post-war period. Maggie’s hypothesis is that the range of cues is an outcome of the way the participants in experiments (often college students) had been taught to read. It’s an interesting hypothesis; it would be great to test it. An alternative hypothesis is that the strategies used by skilled adult readers are an outcome of how brains work. Prior information primes neural networks and thus reduces response time, and frequent exposure to auditory and visual patterns such as spoken and written words results in automated, fast recognition. For example, in chapter 2 of Stanovich’s book, West and Stanovich report fluent readers’ performance being facilitated by two automated processes; sentence context (essentially semantic priming) and word recognition. According to chapter 3, fluent readers use phonological recoding if automated word recognition fails.

educators’ reasoning
I wasn’t saying that the educators’ assessment of alphabetic/phonics methods was right, just that it was what they claimed. Again, if they didn’t think that, why would alphabetic/phonics methods have been abandoned?

falling literacy standards
The data that I suggested weren’t available would enable us to make a valid comparison between the literacy levels of school-leavers (aged 13, say) at the beginning of the 20th century when alphabetic/phonics methods were widely used in the UK, and current levels for young people of the same age. The findings Maggie has cited are interesting, but don’t give us a benchmark for the literacy levels we should expect.

national curriculum and standardised testing
The point I was trying to make was not about the impact of the NC and SATs on reading, but that the NC and SATs made poor readers more obvious. In the reading-ready era, some children not reading at 7 would have learned to read by the time they were 11, but that delay wouldn’t have appeared in national statistics.

reading for enjoyment
Children leaving school without functional literacy is certainly a cause for concern, and I agree that methods of teaching reading must be implicated. But technological changes since 1990 haven’t helped. The world of young people is not as text-based as it used to be, and not as text-based as the adult world. That issue needs to be addressed.

Note:
Huey, Dewie & Louie are the names of Donald Duck’s three nephews
There’s no Louie in this story yet.

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