Martin Luther - the unshackling of literacy - but a fatal flaw.

Learning to read is only worthwhile if, firstly, there is something to read, secondly, the reading of that text is worthwhile and thirdly, that expenditure of time and effort reading that text provides utility to the reader. To modern day citizens, immersed in a world of digital and physical text of such overwhelming quantities and scope that to deny oneself access to the written word would be culturally, socially and economically damaging, this tripartite algorithm is axiomatically satisfied without consideration. Nonetheless, prior to industrialisation and particularly prior to the invention of the printing press there were few texts to read, and even fewer reasons to read them.

For the ancient Greeks, the reason to learn to read was driven by the pedagogical keystone of oratory. Orating well was the raison d’être; in fact, Plato had a deep suspicion of writing, believing that it undermined the dynamic, interactivity of oral exchanges (Enos, 2012). Likewise, Quintilian’s pupils learned to read in order to access the texts of the great orators thus enabling imitation, and they learned to write to prepare texts for memorisation prior to oration (Murphy, 2012). For the vast majority of citizens, however, reading and writing afforded little utility beyond simple transactional notation and correspondence. As for the shared enjoyment of narrative, this was exchanged almost entirely through the interface of story-telling and drama.

The spread of Christianity with its sacred texts, prayers and homilies ensured a growing cannon of writing to access, however, these were almost exclusively in Latin and Greek and thus the preserve of the elite. Even with their translation into national languages there was little reason to read them as the church in Rome insisted that the interpretation (and by extension the reading) of these sacred texts was the preserve of the clergy (Smith, 2002).

Reading was a cosy little closed shop, exclusively the preserve of the powerful, the rich and the clergy. The idea of universal literacy would have been seen as laughable until an obscure German professor of moral theology decided that he didn’t get the joke and challenged the status quo with his Ninety-Five Theses (Luther, 2005).

Martin Luther (2005) and the Protestant Reformation transformed the paradigm with the establishment of the fundamental doctrine (the first of the ninety-five) that each individual was directly responsible to God for his or her own salvation. It was a cornerstone of Protestantism that the believer must not be dependent upon any priest or pastor for the interpretation of any mass or prayer but must read the Word of God directly and draw his or her own conclusions. Illiteracy exposed the individual to reliance on others for interpretation thus thwarting the fundamental concept of Protestantism. Learning to read was now a religious necessity. In fact, Luther even attached a timescale, recommending that the gospels be able to be read by the time a child had reached their tenth year (Luther and Tappert, 1967).

With Henry the VIII’s break from Rome and the English Reformation, the irresistible rise of Protestantism in England began – with a short interlude during the reign of Mary I. By the early seventeenth century the English (and American) protestants considered the enabling of children to read the Word of God for themselves a religious duty (Smith, 2002). For the first time since of the invention of the alphabet the tripartite algorithm of availability, value and utility was satisfied for all citizens - and satisfied with a trump card: universal literacy was a sacred imperative. Failing to read was failing God.

The control of universal reading instruction was thus appropriated by the protestant church. The desire for universal literacy was now driven by a powerful, influential and motivated promoter with a just, moral and sacred investment in the project. This altruistic, religious passion for reading instruction should have been the catalyst for universal literacy and perhaps even the universal suffrage craved by the enlightenment thinkers.

The result was a disaster for English reading instruction: a disaster that has ensured universal literacy for the English-speaking world remains a mirage to this day and, when allied to the Quintilian (1977) obsession with syllables, saw the colliding of two perfect schematic storms into a pedagogical conflation that is perhaps the foundational reason that the teaching of the skills to decode English have been so ineffective for so long.

Since Quintilian instruction, the alphabet had been the starting point for reading tuition and the learning of the letters, a crucial foundation of that instruction (Graham and Kelly, 2015). This alphabetic method was formalised through the Catholic Church by the development of hornbooks (Tuer, 1896). So-called because of the thin, transparent cover of horn protecting the small pieces of paper backed by a wooden frame, they were usually comprised of the alphabet, the Lord’s Prayer and several columns of syllables. This format of alphabet, syllables and sacred text in these forerunners of instructional text books developed into the most ubiquitous objects of reading education: the ABC and the primer. It was these that became the bedrock of the Protestant revolution of reading tuition and cemented the fatally flawed format for the teaching of the decoding of English.

Firstly, all encouraged the initial learning of the letters of the alphabet in contrast to and contradiction of Quintilian’s (1913) insistence that it should be the sounds that should be learned at the outset. This was often exacerbated by the consumption of gingerbread letters to embed the memorisation of the letter names (Prior, 2012). Letter names are an abstraction of the aural representation (Althusser, 2017) and often give no clue to the sound they symbolise. Thus, the most prevalent of all primers, ‘The New England Primer’ (Watts, 1820) , indicated the sound represented by a letter with a rhyme (usually religious) and a single word starting with the letter. There are two fundamental flaws in this strategy. Firstly, it ignores the inherent complexity of the English alphabetic code: that one letter may represent more than one sound and that the same sound may be represented by more than one letter. So, suggesting that the letter ‘A’ was a representation of the initial sound required to pronounce ‘Adam’ excludes all other sounds represented by the letter and precludes the letter’s use in combination with other letters when representing other phonemes. Secondly, by including the letter within a rhyme that was not decodable at the learner’s instructional level, the only method of learning was memorisation; and memorisation is not reading – the entire raison d’être of the primer.

It is the issue of memorisation that fatally undermined the primer, and it is here that the Protestant church must take the blame. By combining the desire to teach reading with the desire for religious instruction, the ABCs and primers produced and approved by the protestant church conflated their intentions. These books consisted of the fundamentals of the protestant religion from the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments and the Creed through to catechisms in the form of questions and answers. These were highly complex texts which required the full understanding of the complex code and polysyllabic automaticity to decode fluently; and all this with only the single sound to symbol correspondence indicated by the primer. Only the very best infant code-breakers would be able to read this.

So why didn’t the teachers see the error of their ways, admit defeat and seek a more efficacious instructional model? Because it appeared that children were reading. Their empirical reading fluency was merely a feat of memorisation. The Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, The Ten Commandments and the Catechisms were already familiar and were easily learned – it was certainly easier to memorise them than to decode them. There was no other further assessment of children’s reading ability as there was nothing else to read; and there was nothing else that the church wanted them to read. Books were a luxury and far beyond the means of any labouring family, and a family that could afford a bible could afford an education.

Nevertheless, little harm was done at the time. Some children managed to crack the code, and those that didn’t were certainly no worse off and at least had a greater knowledge of the religion to which they belonged. It was the legacy of the approach that was toxic for universal literacy.

Memorisation of words and passages that created the illusion of reading along with conflation with religious moral instruction would affect and infect the teaching of decoding when universal education was established in the nineteenth century.

The next reading ape blog will analyse how the teaching the reading English evolved further.

This blog is number 4 in a series of blogs. You may be interested in reading:




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