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Huey and Dewey - no Disney double act.

Edmund Burke Huey was the most influential writer on reading instruction in the twentieth century. His bestselling ‘The Psychology and Pedagogy of Reading’ (1908) stopped the phonic method of teaching in its tracks. His pedagogical alliance with John Dewey has probably done more harm to children attempting to learn how to read English than any other development in reading instruction. Their legacy still reverberates to this day. It all seemed to make such sense and just felt...well, right.

Huey (1908) was not clear as to how words are perceived and maintained that this is not only different for differing readers, but that individual readers will use different strategies to perceive different words. He maintained that initial recognition is not always the whole word form but that ‘dominant’ parts of the word outline become increasingly prevalent. This is in contradiction to the findings of Cattell (1886) that he references which indicates that the word is read faster than individual letters.

Heavily influenced by Ward’s ‘Rational Method’ (1908), Huey (1908) maintained that children learned to read as they learned to talk and that the desire to learn to read could be enhanced and motivated by environmental curiosity and interest and that vocabulary would grow with experience. This ‘natural’ method of reading follows verbatim the process of speech adoption, from the reading equivalent of ‘babbling’ to spoken sentences and fluency in reading. Smith avers that Huey ‘does not advocate any particular method,’ (2002, p116) in direct contrast to Diack who accuses him of ‘inconsistencies’ and ‘self-contradiction’ (1965, p53) when maintaining the importance of letters shortly after suggesting that reading be free from their domination. Diack again takes issue with Huey’s attitude to phonics and his accusation that Pollard’s (1889) phonics programme was ‘purely phonic, almost arrogantly so’ ,(1965, p61) yet advocating analytical phonics as an integral part of school reading instruction. The longevity, traction and adherence that Huey’s book had on reading instruction, particularly in the United States is clear from Smith’s testimony in 1934 that, ‘This book was the first scientific contribution to reading instruction and is still considered a standard reference…’ (p 116).

The influence of Dewey’s (1916) Inquiry Learning model on Huey is evident and noted by both Smith (2002) and Diack (1965). Dewey’s development of Rousseaux’s (2012) unfoldment theory of education, further adapted by Froebel and Pestalozzi chimed well with Huey’s immersive, whole word pedagogy. Dewey’s growing pre-eminence both as a philosopher and an educationalist, Russell described him as ‘the leading living philosopher of America’ (2014, p730), promoted and expanded his influence over schooling and reading instruction. His theory of knowledge and his substitution of ‘inquiry’ for ‘truth’ was, however, not accepted by Russell (2014) who characterised Dewey’s definition of truth as biological rather than mathematical and considered the severing of the link between belief and the fact that verifies the belief and replacing of it with ‘inquiry’ as invalidating the theory. Inquiry, Russel (2014) argued may prove to be false and therefore not factual and thus not knowledge.

Nonetheless, Dewey’s influence on reading instruction was substantial. His establishment of an experimental ‘laboratory school’ based on his inquiry learning work at the University of Chicago and the creation of the ‘Activity Curriculum’ was hugely influential. This was designed to stimulate curiosity in students through stimulating experiences (Smith, 2002) which encouraged the identification of problems that required solving. Once solved, the subsequent problem was to be identified, investigated and solved. The process emphasised the importance of the environment in a child’s education and was stitched together through social collaboration with the central core being the motivation of the student (Tracey and Morrow, 2012). Dewey’s Inquiry Learning was in essence constructivist, emphasising the requirement of students to create and construct their own learning.

The repercussions for reading instruction were profound as the implication was clear: the ability to read could be constructed through problem solving, investigation and motivation. If curiosity were sparked, then learners could construct learning. But how can a child construct the unravelling of the most complex alphabetic code known to mankind?

Huey (1908) was adamant that learning to read is just the same as learning to talk, with children grasping what is within their cognitive perception and ignoring the obscure. It is interest that drives development and an interest in print that drives a child’s desire to imitate; a clear parallel with Dewey’s ‘curiosity’. Formal reading exercises were eschewed by Huey, who advanced this imperative with the recommendation that if a child were unable to read a text then it should not be read; ‘Its very difficulty is the child’s protection against what is as yet unfitted for,’ (1908, p57).

This is in fundamental breach of Geary’s (2002) model of biologically secondary development that involves the co-opting of primary folk-psychological systems (in the case of reading this is language communication). Geary (2002) defines this co-optation as the adaption through instruction of evolved cognitive systems for culturally specific uses and specifically in the case of reading acquisition in the co-option of primary language systems. The cognitive systems and neurological routes that are employed when reading are different to those employed for oral communication and have adapted to the constraints of the human brain not evolved (Dehaene, 2014). The cognitive systems engaged for processing phonemes are the same systems engaged when reading (Pugh et al, 1997).

Geary (2002) is clear: reading acquisition is biologically secondary and requires instruction.

In defence of Dewey and Huey, they were advancing their theories well before the developments in neuroscience that fundamentally undermined their postulations, but it is the ubiquity of their ideas that was so damaging for reading instruction along with the intuitive axiom that motivation, collaboration and cooperation were at the heart of good learning (Tracey and Morrow, 2012). They added a final nail in the coffin of reading acquisition for children with their concept of ‘reading readiness’.

The crusade against teaching reading before the age of seven began in England in the late nineteenth century but became hallowed in American pedagogy such that the acceptance of ‘delay as a teaching technique’ developed into common educational parlance (Anderson and Dearborn, 1952). Dewey, nonetheless, took this to the extreme, espousing that a child need not be exposed to text before the age of eight and in some cases ten years old. Huey concurred with the eight-years old threshold and recommended no formal reading instruction until the habits of spoken language had been well formed; the curriculum would focus on promoting the desire to read (Diack, 1965).

This delay in the teaching of reading was disastrous for many children and contrary to all current research which concludes that children should be reading by the age of six (Clay 1979, 1991; Holdaway 1979; Teale 1984; Stanovich & West 1989).

This blog is number 10 in a series of blogs.

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