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Virtual insanity in reading instruction - teaching reading without words.

Huey’s (1908) ‘scientific’ proof that phonic instruction was a superfluous, torpid stage of reading development resulted in a revival of whole-word reading methods. Phonics was not entirely expunged from reading education but was exiled to the peripheries of instruction as a post facto analytical intervention. Along with Dewey’s influential environment-driven approach to child learning, the course away from early phonics instruction was set fair with the pedagogical sails filled with these warm, intuitive, constructivist educational trade winds.

A third gust of theoretical wind would further drive reading education towards the rocks of illiteracy. With the publication in 1927 of ‘The Mentality of Apes’, Koehler (2013) brought Gestalt psychological theory to the world of education. The Gestalt school of psychology was founded on Wertheimer’s (Ellis, 2013) assertion that behaviour was not determined by its individual elements but that, ‘the part processes are themselves determined by the intrinsic nature of the whole…’ (cited in Ellis, 2013, p11). It was not long before educationalists extrapolated the Gestalt proponents’ theory, that immediate wholes were psychologically innate, to the teaching of reading. The whole, in terms of meaning, was not the word but the sentence. It manifested itself in the disinterring of the sentence method of teaching reading as promulgated by Farnham in the 1880s with his insistence that, ‘The first principle to be observed in teaching reading is that things are recognised as wholes…’ (1905, p17). It is ironic that the ‘The Sentence Method of Teaching Reading’ by Jagger (1929) had exactly the same title as Farnham’s manual, despite the temporal difference of forty-five years and the geographical difference of four thousand miles.

Jagger imbedded Gestalt theory into the foundations of reading instruction and generalised his postulations to the very extremities of reason maintaining that, ‘…our system of written words…is mainly indicative of sense; it is indicative of sound in a secondary degree. The written form of each word is associated directly with its meaning and indirectly with its sound…’, adding with a flourish, ‘…to teach reading ideographically, without the interpolation of sound between written sign and meaning, is therefore in accord with the present character of English spelling as well as in accord with the historical development of writing.’

Written English, Jagger emphatically concluded, is not alphabetic but ideographic. Phonics was as dead as a doornail.

The sentence being, ‘the indivisible unit of thought and language’ (1927, p114) resulted in children who were taught by Jagger’s methods learning sentences designed and framed by themselves from their own speech and then spoken repeatedly. Each sentence was accompanied by an image and the more vivid the image the more efficacious would be the reading. Once the sentence had been repeated to mastery the image was withdrawn. The individual words within the sentence were then broken down and taught as wholes but only those words that communicated substantive meaning; pronouns, articles and prepositions were to be absorbed inherently. Individual letters were never taught as they, as such, did not exist.

This made the teaching of writing somewhat arbitrary under Jagger’s system for without letters how was a child to form words? Jagger was rather circumspect about this and happy for children to ‘scrawl’ initially. Nonetheless, this scrawl was only illegible to the eyes of others; to a child it made perfect sense. Gradually, Jagger insisted, these ‘scrawls’ would become increasingly accurate and represent the actual word and it was only when fully exact were children able to discern the individual parts of the ideographs, namely the letters, and need to know their individual labels. This left spelling in an indiscriminate vacuum, but even this contradiction did not daunt the confidence of this English pedagogue who neatly sidestepped the issue by declaring that spelling need not be taught in infant schools and that no time should be wasted attempting to eradicate spelling errors (Diack, 1965).

Gestalt theory and the sentence method of Jagger was an explicit refutation of the phonic method and greatly influenced reading instruction and crossed the Atlantic to further support Huey’s (1904) misinterpretation of Cattell’s (1886) science with a review in the Elementary School Journal (Smith, 1929) praising Jagger’s book as, ‘…a valuable contribution to the field of reading…’ (1929, p791). Where it had its greatest influence, however, was in the sphere of initial reading books and primers.

It transpired that after the eschewal of letters, for any evident success the method was reliant upon the frequent repetition of words. This led to a dilemma for the compliers of reading books: frequent repetition of word in their books resulted in the inevitable logic that the number of different words needed to be reduced and those words that remained needed to be repeated as frequently as possible. This led to the paradox that the books that were devised to teach a child to read were specifically designed to withhold as many words as possible from the child learning to read. This was clearly not an attractive selling point, so the process was renamed as ‘scientific vocabulary control’. Once again, science rode into the battle against illiteracy on the wrong side.

The success in the diminution of the vocabulary load of ‘scientific control’ reduced some reading books vocabulary to a mere twenty words (Diack, 1965). Not satisfied with this meagre fayre, the method further reduced cognitive demands on emergent readers by including pictures for all of the repeated words. Gestalt theory and the sentence and word methods had reached their logical but absurd conclusion: reading instruction without the need for words.

The fundamental foundation for this paradox is built firmly on Cattell’s (1886) experiments which clearly demonstrated that a sentence could be read more quickly than a word, which could be read more quickly than an individual letter and the postulation that if this were the case then the teaching of sound to letter correspondence was unnecessary. The flaw in the postulation ( is that the experiments were carried out on fluent readers. Emergent readers do fixate on every letter and use their phonic knowledge to assign sounds to letter combinations during word decoding. It is this understanding and knowledge, borne of repeated practice to automaticity, that sits in fluent readers’ long-term memory that enables them to recognise regular and meaningful letter patterns, allied to their orthographic knowledge, and thus fixate on words and groups of words and not on the individual letters (Rayner, 1989). Gestalt theory applied to reading instruction and the whole word and whole sentence methods failed to recognise the necessity for the atomisation of the process and the required teaching in isolation of these phases of reading mastery.

So how did the method become so prevalent if it were so ineffective? Firstly, it could be inefficient without being ineffective: some children will have learned to read despite the method. Many children are able to crack the complex English alphabetic code with constant exposure to text (Adoniou, 2017). Secondly, most children can learn to remember two thousand words by shape (Rasinski, 2010) which will give them a basic and workable reading vocabulary (Rayner, 1989) and the appearance of reading fluency when faced with very basic texts. For these children semi-literacy was the prognosis. For children with cognitive barriers to coping with either, illiteracy was the life sentence.

From the comfort of the twenty-first century and its evidence-based, research driven pedagogy the situation may seem like a far-distant and somewhat risible historical anomaly. Our smugness should be short-lived. Firstly, the methods became ubiquitous throughout the twentieth century and the foremost approach to the teaching of reading across the English-speaking world. The Department of Education advice to South African English teachers in 1955 stated emphatically, ‘…On no account must he (sic) get the impression that ’reading’ consists of looking at or knowing or saying letters or words…The child must be taught to not to look at and say each word separately, but at one glance to see the whole sentence and say it as a unit…’ (Diack, 1965, p92).

Worse was to come with Smith and Goodman's whole language methods (more of that in a later post).

And for those of us who are amused by the farcicality of ‘scientific vocabulary control’ and reading books that reduce the number of different words to ensure sufficient repetition, along with the inclusion of picture cues, take a look at your school library and count how many ‘Biff and Chip’ books are still resident, count how many teachers' cvs proclaim their owners to be 'Reading Recovery" experts and how many 'Balanced Literacy' advocates still sell their snake oil...and then remember that Huey, Dewey, Jagger et al didn't have access to the research that we do. Not quite so funny is it?

This blog is number 11 in a series of blogs.

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