Category Archives: history of teaching reading

What does it mean to be literate?

Definitions vary:

  • Reading, writing, speaking and listening (The Common Core State Standards Initiative)
  • Understanding, using, reflecting on and engaging with written texts, in order to achieve one’s goals, to develop one’s knowledge and potential, and to participate in society (The Programme for International Student Assessment)
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) 2010 report, Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2009 Results

Here’s a video on the PISA 2009 Results.

At its most basic, literacy means the ability to read. When and where did this ability begin?

  • Scientists believe symbols representing ideas first developed around 8,000 years ago in ancient Sumer, in what we call Iraq. The symbols were used by commercial and agricultural interests to keep track of the numbers of things—chickens and eggs, for example.
  • Egyptian hieroglyphics developed about 5,300 years ago; it was the first system to include some phonetic symbols, not just pictographs.
  • Written Chinese notations began around 3200 years ago.
  • Around 3500 years ago, in Canaan, in what is now Syria, a consonant system of notations was first used.
  • Later alphabets (Phoenician, Hebrew and Aramaic) using both consonants and vowels, are thought to be based on this Canaan alphabet.
  • Beginning around 2700 years ago, the Greek alphabet derived from these others.
  • Literacy was widespread among male citizens of ancient Rome, but with the fall of the Roman Empire, literacy retreated , becoming the practice of princes and priests. Over the centuries, as trade increased, so did the need for some literate citizens. The Industrial Revolution which produced cheap paper and books became a strong force for more widespread reading, but so did educational reform which required children to learn reading, writing and arithmetic.

Today in the U.S., the ability to read is not universal, even though some statistics show the U.S. has a 99% literacy rate.

  • One out of three fourth graders scored “below basic” on the 2009 National Assessment of Education Progress Reading Test, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
  • More than 67 percent of all U.S. fourth graders scored “below proficient” on this same test, meaning they are not reading at grade level.
  • If a child is not reading proficiently by fourth grade, that child has a 78% chance of never catching up.

–Mrs. K

What are Dolch words? Are they the same as sight words?

Yes, Dolch words are the same as sight words.  Many teachers expect beginning readers to recognize these words by the end of first grade.

Child looking at flash cards of two and three letter words.

Click on the picture to enlarge it.

The list of 220 Dolch words was compiled by Edward W. Dolch, Ph. D. in 1936 and published in his book Problems in Reading in 1948.  Dolch listed the most commonly used words in children’s books available in the 1930’s.  He then divided them into six parts:  pre-primer, primer, Grade 1, Grade 2, Grade 3 and nouns.

Dolch thought that if a child could read the words on his list, then that child could read fluently.  Even though many of the words on the list are pronounced according to the rules of phonics, some are not and do need to be memorized.  This is why the list is sometimes called sight words.  Many kindergarten and first grade classrooms have these words posted to the walls or have flash cards of these words.

Online you can find free copies of the list by searching for “Dolch words.”  You can also find flash cards, interactive sentences which pronounce the words for a child and spelling tests based on these words.

Few story books use just the Dolch words.  Dr. Seuss in writing The Cat in the Hat, tried but found it impossible.  However, he used just 236 words, many from the Dolch list.

Is using phonics the best approach for teaching reading to young children?

In 1997, Congress asked the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (a division of the National Institutes of Health) plus the federal Department of Education to investigate the best research about the teaching of reading.  This action came about to settle once and for all the “reading wars” by proponents of various ways of teaching reading.

Three children with signs around their necks that read: Meniruze words, Phonics, Whole Language

Click on the picture to enlarge it.

A panel composed of 12 university professors, one principal from an elementary school, a parent, and one language arts teacher from a middle school, reviewed thousands of experimental research results; held public hearings at which parents, teachers, students, scientists and government officials testified; and asked for input from leading educational organizations concerned with reading issues.

In April 2000, the results were published (  They showed that although reading is a complex process and not every child learns to read the same way, a systematic, phonics-based approach yields the best results, especially for the youngest students.  The panel said kindergarteners (the youngest children researched) gain the most reading and spelling abilities from studying phonics, but that students through grade 6 improve using this approach.

For low achieving students and students with disabilities, a phonics-based approach significantly helped them to read words compared to other approaches.  For students who were already good readers, a phonics-based approach helped with spelling.

The panel stressed that systematic phonics instruction needs to be one of four components to teaching reading.  The panel defined phonics as how a letter corresponds to a sound in English, and defined systematic phonics as planned, sequential letter-sound instruction.  The other three components (to be discussed in a coming blog) are phonemic awareness, fluency and reading comprehension.

The panel indicated that teachers and parents should not teach only phonics if they expect a student to learn to read.  Yet phonicst is a good place to begin, especially for the youngest students.

Should I teach my grandson to read one word at a time, the way I was taught? Is this a good way?

If you learned to read in the 1950’s or 1960’s, you probably learned via the “look-say” method.  Your teacher wrote a word, such as “look,” on the blackboard.  She said it aloud.  You said it aloud.  You opened your reader to page 1.  There under a picture, was the word, “look.”  You read it aloud.  During the day your teacher referred back to the word on the board to help you remember it.  You repeated it.

The next day you did it again, except this time you added the word “see.”  When you turned to page two, there were both words, “look” and “see.”

2 Children reading books.  One is shown using a past reading technique and the other is using a more modern approach.By this method, children were taught to read words as whole units, much like Chinese children are taught their written language.  By the end of first grade, baby boom children had a reading vocabulary of about 150 to 180 words.  They might have been taught some phonics at this point, or phonics might have waited until second grade, or they might never have been taught phonics.  Students were expected to memorize thousands of words.

This “look-say” method was invented by Rev. Thomas H. Gallaudet, the director of a school for deaf and speechless children in the early 19th century.  Many schools adopted this method then, especially when it was endorsed by Horace Mann, the Secretary of the Board of Education in Massachusetts.  But after a while, teachers protested that their students couldn’t read.  And so teachers went back to a phonics-based approach until the 1950’s, when “look-say” became popular again.

There are several problems with this method of teaching reading.

  • With 50,000 words in everyday use in English, a student would never learn them all.
  • Nor could he read books which did not strictly adhere to the vocabulary list.
  • He would not learn word-attack skills to figure out new words.
  • But the biggest problem is that evidence was mounting by the 1970’s that another method, the phonics method, taught reading better.

Even so, “look-say” was not abandoned.  Instead in the 1980’s, it was wrapped into another reading instruction approach called “whole language” which ignored research supporting the superiority of a phonics-based approach.  Whole language focused on context, expecting the student to learn new words from the context of the other words in a sentence.  Like “look-say,” whole language was a haphazard approach.

So back to your question:  Should you teach your grandson to read whole words?  Sure, if you teach phonics as well.  But don’t skip the phonics.

Consider this:  You can teach your grandchild word after word after word, endlessly, or you can teach your grandchild about 41 letter/blend/diagraph sounds and about 100 rules.  Using the first approach, he’ll memorize several hundred words in a couple of years.  Using the second approach, he’ll master word attack skills that he can use on 80 percent of the words in the English language.

What are McGuffey Readers? Are they a good way to teach my child to read?

Long before there was research on how children learn to read, in 1836 William McGuffey created the first set of readers for American children. His series begins with a book of mostly one syllable words used in 55 stories, all of which teach a lesson on how to be good.  The second book of 85 lessons teaches history, biology, botany, table manners and respectful behavior using words a bit longer and harder to read.  Four more books in the series teach grammar and public speaking, using stories from Shakespeare and the Bible.  The first two books were much more widely read than the last four.

clip of George Washington chopping cherry treeOne of the stories concerns George Washington cutting down a cherry tree and confessing the truth to his father—perhaps the source of that myth.  Another story emphasized being kind to horses.  Another teaches respect for the flag.

McGuffey’s Readers, as they became known, were used in schools in the western and southern U.S. throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries.  The original stories, based on a European Christian ethical code, gradually changed in later editions to teach lessons not connected to any specific religion.  Millions of Americans were influenced by these books, and could quote from them later in life.  Henry Ford was one of those.  He was so indebted that he distributed thousands of the readers at his own expense.

Reading specialists today would find fault with McGuffey Readers.  The first book introduces words in no particular sequence.  Lesson one introduces three short vowel words, but by lesson 11, a digraph is used, and lesson 12 introduces words with long vowels.  The sound of letters is not emphasized.  Often the teacher would read the lesson aloud, and then the student would spell a word, name its letters, and then pronounce the word correctly.  Many words were memorized as sight words rather than as words that could be sounded out.

A selection from the first book follows.  Notice the use of three-syllable words, long vowels, “head” which doesn’t follow phonics rules, and the digraph “wh,” as well as one-syllable, short-vowel words.

“I like to see a lit-tle dog,
And pat him on the head;
So pret-ti-ly he wags his tail
When-ev-er he is fed.”

However, to McGuffey’s credit, reading specialists would point out that the lessons in McGuffey Readers become progressively harder to read; these readers were one of the first texts to be created that way.  New words are listed at the beginning of each lesson and words from past lessons are repeated.

Perhaps as many as 120 million copies of McGuffey Readers were printed, making them one of the most influential books ever printed.  They can still be purchased in some book stores and online.  Since the copyright on these books has long expired, and since there were many editions with changes from the originals, what is available today under the name McGuffey Readers varies.  The books are still being used to teach reading, especially in home school situations in the U.S.

For a free, online, early twentieth century version of the first reader, go to