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How America helped ruin English reading instruction...with some help from the Germans.

If in England, the development of a system of teaching reading to the masses was a historic catalogue of failure then in America, the situation was no different. Similarly driven by the Lutheran revolution which demanded access to sacred texts and was further intensified by feelings of persecution after the exodus from the intolerance of the old world, the conflation of reading instruction with religious ideology was even more pronounced. The manner of instruction was dependent almost entirely on the 'primer'

and the New England Primer in particular (Smith, 2002). Other primers, like the Franklin Primer, did attempt to break with the exclusivity of religious works with the introduction of fables, but these were manifest in the form of rhymes which encouraged memorisation rather than decoding and were once more underpinned by a moral narrative. Although an American primer, The New England Primer almost certainly had its origins in England as The Protestant Tutor authored by Benjamin Harris (1680) and it is perhaps for this reason that the English and American models of reading instruction developed almost in parallel.

This could have been so different had Benjamin Franklin had his way. The great enlightenment thinker and politician and Founding Father of the American democratic experiment of people ruling themselves, was a passionate, proselytising advocate of phonics instruction. It was sound, he believed, that gave words their true power and a writing system, he opined, should be based on a code for sounding out words (Wolman, 2014). Indeed, so filled with contempt for his defeated imperial masters and their complicated associated language was he, that he sought to simplify their complex alphabetic code into a phonetic code that could be universally taught and learned by the newly emancipated members of his democracy. His ideas gained little traction for a revision of the code, but he was determined to ensure that his fellow Americans could read.

Franklin found a staunch ally, advocate and agent in Noah Webster, a lawyer turned school teacher, so frustrated with the difficulty he encountered teaching children to read using available resources that he wrote his own. The Elementary Spelling Book (Webster, 1832) was the first ‘speller’ of its kind in the United States and was revolutionary in a number of ways. Firstly, Webster privileged sound over letters insisting that ‘Letters are the markers of sounds’ (1785, p15). This was a radical deviation from the received wisdom that letter names and spellings were mastered before reading. Secondly, Webster represented sound in terms of the differing spellings associated with that sound and followed this up with documentation of the different sounds that could be associated with each letter thereby articulating, in terms of pedagogy, for the very first time, the fundamental complexity of the English alphabetic code: that one sound could be represented by more than one letter and that one letter could represent more than one sound. His third innovation was to eschew the reliance upon religious texts by adding stories, fables and morals.

Had he organised the instructional lists of words in terms of their phonemes, he would have developed the first coherent, if rudimentary, phonics programme. However, he organised the lists by letters and set these out alphabetically. It was a crucial error. As a result, he undermined his expressed intent to build foundations on sounds, introducing digraphs, consonant clusters and vowel digraphs to learners who had yet to encounter these complexities with the implication that sounds were derived from letters (McGuinness, 1999). This was further confused by an incomplete phonemic analysis ensuring that the speller was not phonemically comprehensive, resulting in the necessity for inventing spelling rules with rhymes and adages to recall these rules; this despite Webster insisting that rules should not be taught. As a linguist he was perhaps subconsciously aware that a code always follows its inherent logic, however complex, and that the inclusion of ‘rules’ immediately undermined its rationality and, by definition, negated its codification.

The speller was further flawed by its use of increasingly complex lists of syllables (a child would encounter 197 on the second page). Lists of syllables for reading instruction seems to have derived from Quintilian’s preoccupation with their use when teaching reading. However, in Quintilian’s case, as discussed earlier, it resulted in the practice of decoding to automaticity, as with the greater phonemic consistency of Latin decoding syllables (even those not occurring in the language) would not undermine reading; indeed, could only enhance automatic decoding. Furthermore, it introduced students to polysyllabic decoding. With English, however, syllable reading, when separated from the word, gives the reader no indication of which particular element of the code is associated with the syllable. Add to this the inclusion of texts that could not be decoded with the learning chronologically acquired, and it would seem that Webster had produced a turkey with its neck primed for instant wringing.

Since its inception, in excess of one hundred million of these spellers have been distributed (Smith, 2002). It still sells well today. Some turkey; some neck! The influence of the ‘blue back’ speller on the teaching of reading English cannot be underestimated both in North America and in England.

Despite these flaws, reading instruction in the United States continued in this vein until the 1840s. True to the enlightened, democratic, emancipatory ambition of the founding fathers, more and more Americans were attending school, driven by the desire for an ‘intelligent citizenship’ (Smith, 2002) sufficiently educated to partake in democracy. The quality of the instruction was debateable as evidenced by the poverty of writing in letters home from captured Yankee soldiers (Chestnut, 2011) – the northern states had established free compulsory elementary education in the early nineteenth century.

This altruistic beneficence born of enlightened democratic motivation drove the desire for universal free education in America and reading instruction lay at the heart of elementary schooling. The paucity of the pedagogy was becoming apparent and crucially apparent to one of America’s most powerful leaders. Horace Mann was one of the most influential educationalists of the first half of the nineteenth century and did more than any one individual to shape America’s innovative redirection of education as a driver of civic virtue rather than sectarian advancement (Cubberly, 1962). He had a deep influence on reading pedagogy. As a result of economic envy and military insecurity, he also had a profound influence on the teaching of English on the other side of the Atlantic.

Mann almost stumbled across the essence of an effective phonics programme that could have transformed English reading instruction both for his nation and for the English-speaking world. Almost. Sadly, for universal literacy, he took a ruinous wrong turn; a wrong turn which condemned those reliant on state education for English reading instruction to a cognitive lottery with very poor odds of success: a lottery that children today still have to play in many schools in the many countries where they learn to read English as a first language.

Mann, along with many contemporary American educationalists sought new sources for principles that would broaden the intellectuality of their potential electorate and that would make reading instruction more effective. They were drawn to the rapidly expanding military and economic powerhouse in Europe, Prussia, which was developing innovative approaches to education driven by the great Swiss pedagogue, Johann Pestalozzi. What Mann witnessed in Prussian and Saxon schools left him contemptuous of the alphabetic approach to the teaching of reading so ingrained in American schools. His description of a reading lesson in a Prussian school (Mann, 1983) has uncanny parallels with a modern synthetic phonics lesson: letter names were not applied, words were built using sounds not letters, digraphs were used to represent one sound, sounds were blended together to build words, children responded in unison and individually, words containing similar sounds utilising the same digraphs were identified.

Furthermore, the Prussian text books were secular and included a diverse range of content from stories to material on science, nature, history, geography and general information in line with Pestalozzi’s theories on whole-child engagement. Although not decodable phonetically, the texts were at least graduated from the simple to the more complex, allowing emergent readers the chance of encountering less complicated writing rather than being plunged into non-vernacular, traditional biblical language.

With the wholesale adoption of the German Pestalozzean system of reading instruction and text book composition, the free and compulsory American education system seemed set fair under Mann’s dynamic and dogmatic direction. Unfortunately, the system was germinated from a bad seed. Pestalozzi’s hamartia was his famous method of object teaching.

In Pestalozzi’s schools a series of engravings were prepared representing objects and experiences which were then characterised by words. Where possible Pestalozzi privileged the actual object over an engraved image and within his primers were images of objects along with their representation in written form. ‘The teacher first drew a house upon the blackboard,’ reported Mann (1983, p116) when describing a Prussian reading lesson. Although the lesson progressed in a manner not dissimilar to modern synthetic phonics instruction, it had been fatally undermined by the Pestalozzean construct of the drawn house.

With the picture of the house represented before the letters were decoded, there was no need for the child to decode the word. The picture negated the code and returned writing to the hieroglyphs that led Egyptian script into chaos. Indeed, this was worse than hieroglyphs because now the child had to recognise the image and also remember the word. Without the need to decode the word there was only one strategy remaining: ignore the letters and remember the whole word as a shape. By borrowing from the German model of reading instruction and utilising it for the teaching of reading English, Mann was entranced by the impact of the Pestalozzean pedagogy without acknowledging a fundamental difference between the two languages. As Goswami, Ziegler and Richardson pointed out, ‘English and German are very similar in their phonological and orthographic structure but not in their consistency’ (2005, p345). It was the consistency of the Germanic phonemic structure that militated against readers relying on whole word recognition.

The word method of teaching reading was born and the alphabetic code that had so enriched the world for two thousand years was replaced by symbol memorisation for English reading instruction. With the brain’s capacity for symbol memorisation limited to about two thousand (Willingham, 2009) and the English lexicon in the tens of thousands, a future of illiteracy for the English-speaking poor was assured.

The next reading ape blog will explore the development of the whole word approach and why it seemed so appealing to teachers.

This blog is number 6 in a series of blogs. You may be interested in reading:






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