Universal literacy...not in England - the historical roots of a divided education system.

June 1, 2018

The worrying levels of illiteracy in England has its roots in a system of teaching reading that was heavily biased against the masses; a flawed system that still has hold and resonates in schools today. 


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 in 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 critically 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 intricate 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 and the moral guidance it dictated.  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.


It is pertinent at this juncture to separate the teaching of reading to the upper and middle classes in England from the instruction of the working classes and the poor, for it is this latter system that has evolved into what we perceive today as state sponsored education. It is this evolution of the teaching of reading to the masses that has resulted in a legacy of continued illiteracy in English speaking countries.


The merchant and middle-classes had an advantage: not only could they afford full-time education, they were taught to read and write Latin and Greek before English and in the case of Oxford and Cambridge universities were, until early in the nineteenth century, taught exclusively in Latin and Greek.  From the sixteenth century the sons of merchants were taught in English Grammar schools which were influenced by the Humanist movement and by Erasmus in particular (Baldwin, 1944).  The method of study advanced by Erasmus was fundamentally and profoundly influenced by Quintilian’s approach to learning with its emphasis on the development of rhetoric for the purpose of great oratory.  The learning of Latin enabled the student to access the rich classical canon from which they could develop their oratory expertise, thus were not merely restricted to religious texts, and Latin, as related earlier, has a far simpler phonic code.  The Grammar schools also insisted on Quintilian’s rigid expectation of mastery of reading and writing before advancing to the ‘gramaticus’ stage along with the teaching of sounds before letter names and by thus doing, ensured the decoding of Latin to automaticity.  So, although the Grammar schools expected students to read English eventually, it was with a comprehensive knowledge and mastery of the reading and writing of Latin.  With considerable decoding experience of Latin, cracking the English phonic code, although not simple, was far easier.  They had the added advantage of being schooled daily for several hours for many years ensuring ample opportunity for deliberate practice as well as having access to a plethora of texts, not just the highly restricted biblical scripts and catechisms associated with horn books and primers.


Compare this the lot of a peasant child taught to read the most complex alphabetic code ever evolved for an hour every Sunday using a primer full of intricate religious scripts and encouraged to learn letter names and spell before decoding.  Add to this an incoherent approach to the deciphering of the phonic design of English, no decodable texts, an encouragement to utilise memory as the primary reading technique and almost no opportunity to practice, and it is astonishing that anyone learned to read. 


In fact, there is little evidence that anyone from the working poor, educated in this manner, did learn to read, with the possible exception of Thomas Cromwell who ended up running the country – if that is what reading did for the masses, perhaps it was no surprise that universal literacy was viewed with such suspicion by the upper classes.


A bipartite approach to reading instruction had been kindled and smouldered away unnoticed for centuries, until with the introduction of universal state education in the late nineteenth century it flared up into the full scale 'reading wars'.




The next reading ape blog will explore why the enlightened, democratic and economically powerful United States got reading instruction so catastrophically wrong...and how this fuelled a disastrous approach this side of the Atlantic.


This blog is number 5 in a series of blogs.  You may be interested in reading:









4. https://www.thereadingape.com/single-post/2018/04/29/Martin-Luther---the-unshackling-of-literacy---but-a-fatal-flaw


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