However, confused and ineffective the teaching of reading had become in the United States in the nineteenth century, at least there was national debate, rudimentary research and a desire to find the pedagogical El Dorado. No such national debate occurred in Britain at this time. The enlightenment experiment of the United States that saw a well-educated and literate populace as a fundamental driver of democracy (Smith, 2002) had placed research and development of early reading instruction at the forefront of education, however anecdotal, heuristic and misinformed.
Despite this, there was, in England, an emergent movement away from the alphabetic method of teaching reading and some early experimentation with the utilisation of phonic methods. These were all heavily influenced by Blaise Pascal’s work on synthetic phonics in 1655 (Rodgers, 2002) which privileged sounds over letter identification and encouraged the synthesising of those sounds to decode syllables and then words. Pascal’s work built upon Quintilian’s pedagogy and although radical, was fairly rudimentary in its analysis and application of sounds. It was, furthermore, developed for the French language: although still complex, a far more phonetically consistent language than English. Nonetheless, the idea of teaching sounds and synthesising them together to decode words crossed the channel and gained some traction with the teaching of the complex English alphabetic code.
‘A thorough knowledge of the pronunciation of the characters of the alphabet,’ was the chief foundation of reading wrote R. Kay (2016, p2). Kay had been experimenting with phonics in a school in the late eighteenth century. Not only did Kay’s method privilege sound over letter identification, it took the simple but revolutionary step of privileging sounds in digraphs. ‘The New Preceptor’ was published in 1801 and formed the basis of all phonic teaching in England in the nineteenth century. An unrecognised hero of phonic reading instruction even Kay’s first name and gender remain uncertain.
Kay’s methods were adapted by James Kay-Shuttleworth at his teacher training college in Battersea (the precursor to the College of Saint Mark and Saint John) and blended with the phonic method introduced through Germany (Diack, 1965). Here Kay-Shuttleworth added a key component of effective phonics teaching: the linking of sounds and writing. This was through necessity rather than design. By adopting the German phonic method devised for orphaned children which eschewed the expense of reading books, in initial instruction words were built using marks on slate and then the sounds synthesised into words. Reading books were not introduced until children were confident encoding and decoding the words on slate. As Kay-Shuttleworth’s teachers worked exclusively with the poor, the economics of a method that required only reusable slate was conveniently efficacious. Although the only significant difference from Kay’s (1801) work, Kay-Shuttleworth had stumbled across a substantial innovation: the link between sounds and spelling during phonics instruction. Such was the success of this method; Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Schools produced a handbook on the system for trainee teachers.
The privileging of sounds in early reading instruction started to gain momentum in England culminating in the publication in 1857 of ‘Reading Without Tears, a Pleasant Mode of Learning to Read’ (Mortimer, 1890). Mortimer’s substantial teaching tome started with one-to-one sound and letter correspondence with short vowel sounds and extensive practice pages, firstly of three letter words and then short sentences followed by simple decodable stories. Although conflated with pictures and undermined by following Webster’s (1785) misstep of prejudicing letters rather than phonemes, the power of the book lay in its organisation and progression. A child never encountered a word that they had not been instructed how to decode (often confused and complicated admitedly) and for which they had not had ample practice decoding. This was then followed by the opportunity of reading a story (however simple and contrived) containing words that were entirely decodable according to the instruction. The book then worked through progressively more complex decoding but always with substantial opportunity for practice. The book sold in excess of one million copies in England alone and was translated into French, German, Russian and Samoan (Diack, 1965). Although almost exclusively utilised by the upper and middle class, the method proved extremely successful - with the notable exception of one master Winston Spencer Churchill (Churchill, 2013).
It would seem that England had stumbled to the forefront of initial reading instruction and was primed for universal literacy. However, universal education was historically viewed with deep suspicion in England, with many concurring with MP David Giddy’s (Standpointmag.co.uk, 2013) assertion in the early nineteenth century that the ability to read and write would be prejudicial to the morals and happiness of the poor. It was certainly not intended to interfere with the need to work, with the Committee of the Council on Education (Lloyd-Jones, 2013) insisting in 1850 that children of the labouring classes leave school at the earliest age at which they could earn a living. The extraordinary military and economic dominance gained by Britain as a result of the first industrial revolution was driven by ruling class scientific learning, middle class entrepreneurism and working-class cheap labour. As long as the ruling classes continued to be well-educated there was no reason to undermine the rich pool of cheap labour by educating the poor.
It was the hubristic pride of the Great Exhibition that undermined this meme. Devised as a showcase for British industrial and inventive dominance, it nonetheless became clear that in the United States, a less populace nation only sixty-eight years old, Britain had a rival of such pragmatic inventiveness and innovative clarity and perspicacity allied to seemingly unbounded natural resources, that the balance of world economic power was shifting (Thomas, 2013). This, combined with the remarkable advances in industrial and military influence by Germany, forced Britain to take a cold, hard look at the reasons for these cracks in its dominant position. The Duke of Newcastle’s royal commission in the 1860s was the first indication to the world’s foremost superpower that the universal education systems of the United States and Germany might be the engine for their growing industrial and military eminence. Prime Minister Gladstone, who had previously exhibited little interest in education, attributed Germany’s triumph in the Franco-Prussian war to, ‘the cause of systematic, popular education’ (Matthew, 1997, p203).
Concerns of economic and military competition allied to the growing tide of demands for workers’ rights, the fledgling union lobby and the rise of the Christian Socialist movement meant that universal education became an emergent political imperative. Further momentum was generated by the convenient truth that child labour was no longer a driver of industrialisation made redundant by developments in mechanisation and technology. Indeed, child labourers were often seen as ‘more trouble than they were worth’ (Simon, 1973, p359). These forces were drawn together under the umbrella of the National Education League whose expanding political power, influence and tactical manoeuvring resulted in the Elementary Education Act of 1870.
The Act, although blemished with stains of compromise and legislating for neither free nor compulsory education, signalled the commencement of the British government taking responsibility for the education of the nation’s children. Unlike the United States, however, whose desire for universal education was fuelled by an enlightenment desire to ensure all could partake in democracy, the British compromise was firmly founded in its class-riven society. The result was a three-tiered system. The upper-middle classes had their children educated in the public-school system of private education, middle class children attended the endowed schools and the lower classes were dependent on the church schools or the Board Schools and were only educated until the age of thirteen.
In terms of reading instruction, this meant that the upper and middle classes learnt Latin and Greek before English, thus empowering them which a rich phonemic awareness of the classical languages before attempting to decipher the complexities of the English alphabetic code. For the lower classes attending church schools, reading instruction was founded in the alphabet with little sound-spelling correspondence with the conflation of early introduction of syllables and the deciphering of polysyllabic and complex sacred texts.
For those attending the newly founded Board Schools, exclusively the children of the poor and working-class, the adoption of a phonic approach to reading instruction along the lines of Mortimer’s pedagogy would have been transformational both educationally and socially by enabling widespread literacy throughout the working poor. It would perhaps have been a delicious irony had the class-riven British educational paradigm so culpable in ensuring centuries of illiteracy trumped the enlightenment project of American democracy by delivering universal literacy through effective elementary decoding instruction.
The irony curdled and putrefied under the heat of a stultifying statutory assessment framework.
The Newcastle Commission (1861) had recommended that school funding be related to outcomes and this manifested itself in the form of the Revised Code (Lowe, 1862) which linked teacher pay to pupil performance in arithmetic, writing and reading. Children were tested in all three subjects (and no others) by Her Majesty’s Inspectors, and in reading by inspectors listening to children read and assessing competence. The result was not the search for and delivery of the most efficacious instructional model for reading, but the model that ensured that children passed the test. With very large classes and wide variances in abilities, the model utilised was rote learning and drilling such that, ‘children learned their books off by heart’ (Simon, 1965, p116). The improvements in reading instruction methods that had developed through the 1850s ‘were cut short’ (Lawson and Silver, 1973, p291). Even the inspectorate acknowledged the fallings, noting that by the age of fourteen a child would have attended three thousand reading lessons but would have, as a result, neither ‘the power or the desire to read’ (Holmes, 1911, 128).
By the 1890s the recently formed National Union of Teachers was exerting its burgeoning influence, lobbying vigorously for an end to payment by results and inspection without notice and by the turn of the century had, to all intents and purposes, achieved the complete abandonment of the framework (Lawson and Silver, 1973). Teachers were now free and empowered to design, develop and promote their own methods, curriculum and pedagogy. ‘For thirty years they had been treated as machines, and they were suddenly asked to act as intelligent beings’ (Holmes, 1911, p111).
The results for reading instruction were disastrous.
The next reading ape blog will explore the development of reading instruction in England and America in the early 20th century.
This blog is number 8 in a series of blogs. You may be interested in reading:
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