The final battle of the reading wars? Why 1965 should have marked the end of the war.

Where Flesch’s (1955) ‘Why Johnny Can’t Read’ stole the headlines, it was Terman and Walcutt’s ‘Reading Chaos and Cure’ (1958) that rationalised Flesch’s (1955) raw polemic with scholarly analysis. Their systematic deconstruction of Gestalt theory’s assumption that a child learns from wholes to parts as related to reading concluded with the resolution that an illogical union had been forged between the theory and the study of eye movements. This, they stated, had resulted in ‘the ultimate theoretical basis of the reading method which today is undermining our educational system’ (1958, p 48) as it ignored the basic and fundamental fact that printed words are symbols of sounds; and if further proof were needed, they quoted Cronbach’s assertion in the influential Educational Psychology that, ‘The good reader takes in a whole word or phrase at a single glance, recognising it by its outline…’ (1954, p46).

Flesch’s (1955) contention that English children were all being taught phonics was indeed a fallacy. When Diack and Daniels (1953) warned against the confusion being caused by mixed methods of teaching reading they received such an outraged backlash from the teaching profession (Lloyd-Jones, 2013) that Morris (1953) coined the term ‘phonicsaphobia’ to describe the ‘pathological’ (1953) , irrational reaction to any mention of phonics as a teaching method.

The clearest evidence of the universality of the entrenching of mixed methods teaching of early reading into the fabric of the English education edifice comes from the Plowden Report (Blackstone, 1967). A comprehensive inquiry into the English primary education system it concluded that, ‘Children are helped to read by memorising the look of words, often with the help of pictures, by guessing from a context…and by phonics, beginning with the initial sounds. They are encouraged to try all the methods available to them and not depend on only one method…’ (Blackstone, 1967, p212). What is revealing is not merely the clear reliance on, and recommendation of, mixed methods for teaching reading, but the inference that phonics is a last resort – and only for initial sounds (Lloyd-Jones, 2013). Flesch (1955) was wrong. England was no phonics Shangri-La. It was certainly in no better state than the United States.

At least the United States had the National Conference on Research in English which in 1959, with the debate at its most bitter point, established a special committee on research in reading. Jeanne Chall (1967), a committee member, proposed that a critical analysis of all research in existence would guide any experimentation proposed by the committee. Her proposal was accepted and funded by the Carnegie Corporation and the study began in 1962. It was completed in 1965.

Chall (1967) analysed all available historical research into the ‘look and say’ method compared with phonics approaches to early reading instruction examining their efficacy in outcomes for comprehension, vocabulary and rate. In all cases except one (Gates’ 1927 study), the results indicated that in the initial grades the ‘look and say’ method indicated higher scores but that this advantage was eliminated, nullified and surpassed by those taught by a phonics approach as they progressed to higher grades. Chall concluded that ‘phonics is advantageous not only for word recognition but also for comprehension…’ (1967, p. 108) and that phonics instruction had a ‘cumulative effect that is crucial in producing the later advantage…’ (1967, p. 108).

Chall (1967) also analysed the studies to compare systematic phonics instruction with the intrinsic (ad hoc) phonics method so beloved of Gates (1927) and so vilified by Flesch (1955). The results were emphatic. In terms of word recognition, spelling, vocabulary and comprehension, children taught using systematic phonics outperformed those being taught using intrinsic phonics. Only in reading rate did those utilising an intrinsic phonics approach gain an advantage and this advantage declined and was surpassed by grade 4.

The conclusions of the Chall study were unequivocal:

‘Most children in the United States are taught to read by…a meaning emphasis method. Yet the research from 1912 to 1965 indicates that a code-emphasis method – ie. one that views beginning reading as essentially different from

mature reading and emphasizes learning of the printed code for the spoken language – produces better results…

(1967, p. 307).

The ‘Great Debate’ (Chall, 1967) was over. The reading wars had been indisputably won by the phonics method. Things could only get better.

They were about to get a great deal worse.

Powered by one of the greatest academic institutions in the world, a revolution in reading instruction was emerging. Driven by advances in cognitive science and linguistics, The Centre for Cognitive Studies at the University of Harvard, was developing the new field of psycholinguistics. Championed by Frank Smith and Kenneth Goodman, the psycholinguistic approach to reading was conceived. These two horsemen of the reading apocalypse (along with New Zealander Marie Clay) were about to take the reading wars into a whole new theatre of conflict and inflict preventable illiteracy on a generation of English-speaking children.

This post is number 15 in a series of posts.

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