History Of Reading Essay

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How individuals learn to read and how to best instruct individuals in reading have been two questions that have long intrigued educators and medical doctors alike. Each investigation has shed light on how reading is learned, and each has influenced how instruction in reading is provided. Although several centuries have passed since the first American settlers began teaching their young to read, evident still are the methods used then and the tug of war between teaching letters and sounds and teaching whole words. This entry looks at that history.

Colonial America

From the history of America emerges the history of reading instruction in America. This history began in seventeenth-century colonial New England. The methods used today can be traced to methods from England brought to America by early settlers. During this period in American history, the purpose of reading cannot be teased away from religion. Early books for young readers were meant to indoctrinate. The purpose for learning to read was to be able to read the Bible and keep to its teachings.

A child of the colonies was taught to read from a hornbook and by the alphabet spelling method. A hornbook was often made out of wood and in the shape of a paddle. The lesson was on a single sheet of paper or carved directly into the wood and protected by a sheet of horn—a thin scraping of an animal’s horn that produced the transparent sheet that protected the lesson. The lesson consisted of lower and uppercase alphabet letters, Arabic numbers and Roman numerals from one to ten, and the Lord’s Prayer. Some hornbooks also had vowel and consonant sounds. The alphabet spelling method is a type of synthetic method of teaching reading whereby one starts with letters and then moves on to syllables, words, and sentences. During the colonial period, children were taught to read by spelling the word first and then saying the word.

After the hornbook, a child moved on to read from a primer. A primer was a small book of prayers. Primers consisted of the alphabet, vowels, consonants, syllables, alphabet verses (religious couplets illustrating each letter of the alphabet with a corresponding black-and-white picture made from woodcuts), Biblical verses, and the Lord’s Prayer. During the colonial period, The New England Primer was the popular primer for reading instruction. Upon mastering the primer, a child moved on to read a book of psalms known as the Psalter; after that, the New Testament; and eventually, the entire Bible.

The New Nation

Popular during the colonial period, spellers continued in use until the early eighteenth century. Spellers focused on spelling, but they were also used to teach reading, writing, and religion. In 1783, Noah Webster published the first volume of his Grammatical Institute of the English Language. This book was a speller. It was followed in 1784 by a grammar and in 1785 by a reader. Webster’s spelling book eventually became known as The American Spelling Book and more colloquially as the Blue-Back Speller because of the book’s blue covers.

After the American Revolution, the purpose of spellers was to infuse nationalism, namely by creating a uniform American language, establishing national loyalty, and developing moral citizens. Because of the emphasis on educating moral citizens, religious teachings included in previous spellers were replaced with moral teachings. Patriotic speeches were also added to additional versions of spellers. Emphasis was placed on standardizing a system of pronunciation, so reading instruction of the period focused on rules and exercises in proper American pronunciation— basically, decoding.

Whereas spellers introduced children to reading, readers were intended for children who could read. In 1823, the popular reader was Lindley Murray’s English Reader. Its aim was to improve the art of reading, elicit the readers’ emotions, and inspire righteousness. In contrast, in 1835, Lyman Cobb wrote The North American Reader, a book of mostly expository texts that continued the aim of infusing patriotism and creating moral citizens.

Methods of dividing students into classes based on age and assigning these students one teacher were influenced by the Swiss educator Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746–1827), whose methods influenced reading instruction developments such as the word method of reading, the use of pictures in readers, and accessing students’ prior knowledge before reading. At the same time, the introduction of an increasingly graded school system (an innovation introduced from Prussia during the first half of the nineteenth century) led to graded readers.

During the period prior to the Civil War, readers began to include texts on a wider range of subjects and less patriotic material. More informational and expository text than fictional material was included. During this time, there also emerged considerable debate over which method of teaching reading was best—the ABC method or the word method; however, silent reading was becoming the new focus. Word lists were also a new focus.

Josiah Bumstead’s reader deviated from other readers in that it provided word lists grouped by categories (e.g., the body). In addition, the shift from solely teaching letter names to also teaching the sounds of letters, known as the alphabet-phonetic method, was a major change in reading instruction, evidence of which can be found in David B. Tower’s The Gradual Primer. Many primers also connected writing with reading and included the copying of sentences as an activity. The most popular and comprehensive readers were the McGuffey’s Readers, first introduced in 1836. This graded series had readers specifically designed for each elementary grade level.

A New Methodology

Rebecca Pollard’s 1889 work Synthetic Methods was the first textbook to focus on phonetics. This prompted the reorganization of several basal readers around phonetics (e.g., Beacon Readers, Gordon Readers, and Ward’s Readers). At the same time, other authors were using an analytic method in their readers and phonetics was secondary. The sentence or story method, which elaborated on the word method, was the main focus. Sentences and stories focused on rhyme (e.g., Aldine Readers), and some texts had folktales as their basis (e.g., Reading-Literature series). Basals were progressing toward literary readers organized around texts of interest to children and complete with pictures.

The early 1900s saw a nascent interest in reading research. The physiological and psychological laboratory studies that were conducted focused on reading ability and disability. Edward L. Thorndike’s handwriting scale, published in 1910, marks the beginning of scientific investigation in the area of reading. It was not until 1915 that a standardized test of reading was published. This has to do partially with the attention given to meaning over pronunciation and the fact that before this time, reading instruction focused on oral reading, which was time-consuming to measure.

With the shift toward silent reading, reading comprehension and rate were able to be measured in large groups. What was measured soon became what teachers focused on, thereby emphasizing silent reading. This focus led researchers to examine the differences between oral and silent reading. Educational periodicals, professional books, and basal readers also advocated the silent reading method. Soon thereafter, attention drawn to the fact that U.S. soldiers fighting in World War I did not have basic reading skills led to demands for the improvement of reading instruction, which led to additional research to identify and examine the fundamentals of reading.

It was also during this early period of the twentieth century that basal readers became popular. They were accompanied by teachers’ manuals, student workbooks, tests, and other supplemental resources for the teacher to use. The text selections were structured around directed reading lessons and teaching activities. Students were asked to read silently, answer vocabulary and comprehension questions, and participate in a class discussion about the text read.

New Initiatives

In 1955, Rudolf Flesch’s book Why Johnny Can’t Read, along with world events like the flight of Sputnik, rekindled the debate between phonics and the whole-word method of learning to read and put pressure on educators to better educate students. This national focus on education prompted governmental support and funding. It was during this time that reading instruction was implemented beyond the elementary years. With this drive to teach reading to adolescents and adults so that they might procure jobs, remedial reading courses were made available in schools. In addition, a bill was passed to provide financial support for research and programs on reading education.

Around this time, many professional books on the subject of reading appeared. In 1967, Jeanne Chall’s

book Learning to Read: The Great Debate suggested that phonics instruction yielded better reading outcomes than the whole-word method of reading instruction. Studies during this period, such as Bond and Dykstra’s First Grade Reading Studies, published in 1967, concurred.

Soon thereafter, in the early 1970s, the whole language approach to reading instruction, started by Kenneth Goodman and Frank Smith, came to contest with the basal texts. The whole-language camp believed that basal readers were not authentic texts for reading instruction. Basals had controlled vocabulary; too much of a focus on skills; and boring stories that lacked diversity in plot, themes, and ethnicity of characters.

In addition, the instruction promoted by basals (such as ability grouping and round-robin reading) did not foster effective reading practices. Along the same lines, a literature-based approach to reading was advocated around the same time. Literature-based basals were composed of authentic and age-appropriate texts taken from actual children’s literature texts.

At the turn of the twenty-first century, The National Reading Panel, using as a springboard the information compiled by the National Research Council in Snow, Burns, and Griffin’s Preventing Reading Failure (1998), evaluated research-based knowledge of reading. The National Reading Panel singled out five big areas of reading that the panel believed should be central to any federally funded reading initiative. The Big Five, as the areas are referred to, are phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency. With the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and the Reading First initiative (a nationwide effort to produce successful readers), the Big Five have been substantially emphasized as areas on which educators need to focus instruction and assessment.


  1. Mathews, M. M. (1976). Teaching to read: Historically considered. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  2. Smith, N. B. (2002). American reading instruction. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

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