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Short-term gains, long-term pain: 'The Word Method' starts to take hold...

‘It is not perhaps, very important that a child know the letters before he begins to read. It may learn first to read words by seeing them, hearing them pronounced, and having their meanings illustrated, and afterwards it may learn to analyse them or name the letters of which they are composed.’ Thus, wrote Worcester in 1828. These words, so prescient in terms of the direction that English reading instruction would take in America, were the death knell for the effective teaching of reading English. It was not until 1840 that Josiah Bumstead’s ‘My Little Primer’ was first published. This was the first reader based specifically on the word method and, in the introduction, claimed to be a method ‘more philosophical, intelligent, pleasant and rapid. It is that of beginning with familiar and easy words, instead of letters’ (1840, p1).

The method was furthered by John Russel Webb’s (1846) primer entitled The New Word Method which advocated printing words onto cards along with a pictorial representation. Children were then encouraged to read the word on the card when it was flashed in front of them. Without any alphabetic or phonemic training, there was no possibility that children were decoding the words; they were either remembering the word through its shape or recognising the symbol. The method appeared to have astonishingly rapid results for early readers. Russel Webb’s nephew noted with delight that there was no stumbling over words but that, ‘children read in pleasant natural tones’ (Smith, 2005, p83). What he was observing, however, was that there was no decoding, only whole word recognition masquerading as reading fluency evidenced in the condemning words, ‘the children could not spell the words – they did not even know the names of the letters’ (Smith, 2005, p83). John Russel Webb’s New Word Method (1846) may have had little impact had it not been for a Teachers’ Institute meeting in New York that year that investigated the new method and resolved to not only publish the method but introduce it into all of its schools. The New York School Journal was effusive in its praise of the method, claiming that, ‘Millions of children have been saved years of drudgery by the use of the method…’

Webb’s (1846) primer disregarded any phonetic training for new readers and divided its contents into three parts. Part one focused on the teaching of initial high frequency words, part two on the teaching of new words and part three on the teaching of spelling. The only mention of sound to letter correspondence comes in part two and is revealing in its order of study: ‘Reading, Spelling, The Alphabet, Sounds of Letters’ (1846). Words, spelling and the alphabet were taught before sounds and rather than letters being the representation of sound, the implication was that they created sound. The method was cognitively flawed, confusing for early readers and contradictory to neuroscience (Dehaene, 2011). Nevertheless, Webb’s word reading methods spread like wildfire fanned by a wind of evangelical belief that it was the holy grail of initial reading instruction.

What the word method was in fact achieving was the appearance of fluent reading in early readers by treating whole words as symbols to be recognised rather than as sounds represented by letters and letter combinations to be decoded according to the alphabetic principle. This rapid early ‘word superiority effect’ (Reicher, 1969) in emergent readers is pedagogically undermined by McCandliss, Curran and Posner’s (1993) experimentations exploiting artificial alphabets with the clear evidence of plateauing and regression of whole word reading over time against the accelerated learning resultant from phonemic strategies. In their groundbreaking work, they invented new alphabets and taught one group word recognition reading techniques where the other group was taught the invented alphabet. The word-recognition group initially made rapid progress in reading compared to the decoding group. By the end of the second week, however, those remembering word shapes were forgetting their initial learning as more words were added, whereas the decoding group were reading with greater and greater fluency. In time the decoding group accelerated to reading fluency, leaving the word-recognition group with a very restricted reading vocabulary.

The seduction of this early reading fallacy has been a consistent lure of all whole-word reading programmes and sufficiently attractive to undermine English reading instruction ever since it was stumbled upon. It did not take long for this particular 'golden bullet' to hit England.

It took until the second World War for us to realise that the majority of those who had been taught to read by the state education system could in fact do no such thing.

The next reading ape blog will explore the development of reading instruction in England and Scotland.

This blog is number 7 in a series of blogs. You may be interested in reading:







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