History of Reading Instruction in America

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    The Colonial Period

    The greatest influence on education during this time was religion. The Protestant Migration from Europe brought people to America who wished to practice their religion freely. The purpose of reading instruction was as a means to participate in religious life. Instruction was based on the alphabetic principle and all instructional materials were religious or moral in nature. Students first memorized letters, then syllables, then entire passages of the Bible.
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    Post Revolutionary War Period

    After the Revolutionary War, education’s focus changed to creating a unified democracy. There was a new nationalistic and moralistic emphasis in reading instruction. Primers began to include secular material such as fables and other moral stories along with religious texts. Also during this time, educational materials began to be made in America. As the country grew, education began to become more unified and standardized.
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    Hornbooks and Spellers

    Reading was taught using the alphabetic principle along with syllabic phonics. Hornbooks or battledores were used to teach letters and sounds, followed by spellers. Noah Webster’s Blue Back speller used a synthetic phonics method to teach students to read. Spelling was taught prior to reading. Mental Discipline theory was applied to reading instruction through the use of practice drill and rote memorization.
  • Noah Webster

    Noah Webster
    Noah Webster was an influential force in Colonial American education. He believed that American values were superior to England's and set out to standardize American English spelling by creating the first dictionary. In addition, he created a reading textbook called the Blue Back Speller in which he taught children how to read, spell and pronounce words.
  • Horace Mann

    Horace Mann
    Horace Mann believed education should be funded by the public, should be secular in nature and should be accessible to everyone and that it was foundational to good citizenship. Mann was also influential in the development of teacher training schools and advocated for the recruitment of women into the teaching profession. Mann developed the word method of teaching reading. In this method, words are recognized as whole pieces of language with meaning.
  • McGuffey's Readers

    McGuffey's Readers
    First published in 1836, eventually McGuffey's Reader consisted of multiple volumes that progressed in difficulty. The McGuffey's Reader contained religious messages along with morality lessons in its readers. The first Reader taught reading by using the phonics method, building from sounds to words. The McGuffey Readers were so popular and widely used, that they sold more than 120 million copies between 1836 and 1960.
  • Friedrich Froebel

    Friedrich Froebel
    Friedrich Froebel, a German educator, opened the first kindergarten in Blankenburg, Germany, in 1837. He also emphasized the importance of play in learning.
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    Civil War and Reconstruction

    During the 1840’s, Horace Mann developed the word method of teaching reading. In this method, words are recognized as whole pieces of language with meaning. Therefore, the focus changed from pronunciation to meaning. Also during this time, McGuffey’s readers became popular. McGuffey used a phonics method of reading instruction, focusing on letters and combinations of letters. These were also the first textbooks that were leveled, becoming more challenging with each progressive volume.
  • George Farnham

    George Farnham promoted the Look-Say Method, which is also known as the “recitation method.” Students repeated the teacher’s reading which was in complete sentences. Children learned whole sentences and repeated them until they understood the meaning. The sentence was then broken down into words and then letters and then sounds.
  • Synthetic Method

    Synthetic Method
    Rebecca Pollard introduced the Synthetic Method which was sequential and phonics-based. The Synthetic Method included drills on sounds and syllables and the sounds they represent. However, there was no focus on fluency or meaning.
  • Edward Thorndike

    Edward Thorndike
    Edward Thorndike created the theory of Connectionism that was called The Law of Effect also known as the Principle of Reinforcement. This stated that the consequences of one's current behavior play a crucial role in determining future behavior. These laws were applied across subject areas in the classroom, especially in reading and writing.
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    Behaviorism is a theory of learning that focuses on observable behavior. It promotes a primarily bottom-up approach in which reading progresses from letters to words and finally, to meaning. Each component skill is taught separately, building upon previously learned skills. According to behaviorists, reading should be taught using direct instruction, and by breaking down the complex task of reading into sub skills that build upon one another.
  • Edmund Huey

    Edmund Huey
    Edmund Huey was an early pioneer in the scientific study of the cognitive processes of reading. He The Psychology and Pedagogy of Reading to try to explain the processes involved in reading. His viewpoint was that reading is an information-processing activity, where a set of symbols is used to transfer information from one person to another, The reader is a processor of information. He described how eye motions affected reading and how the mind perceived text and made meaning of it.
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    Unlike Behaviorism, Constructivism posits that learning is not observable. Rather, it takes place internally through mechanisms that are mostly unobservable. Constructivists believe that students must actively create their own learning and build on previous knowledge to make sense of what they are learning. This building on previous knowledge is known as schema theory.
  • John Watson

    John Watson
    John Watson, known as the Father of Behaviorism, theorized that reading is a behavior composed of isolated skills which can be reinforced to increase achievement.Watson was the first to apply Classical Conditioning to human behavior. He also suggested that documentation of behavior related to learning would help make psychology a true science.
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    Theories of Cognitive Development

    "Theorists working from a developmental perspective attempt to articulate the growth of specific behaviors and abilities across time (Tracey & Morrow, 2017)." As a child moves through developmental stages, the quality of his or her thinking changes and matures. Educators need to understand the ways that children develop so that instruction is developmentally appropriate.
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    Dick and Jane Readers

    During the 1950's reading was primarily taught using "Look-Say" method using the popular "Dick and Jane" primers which had limited vocabulary. Children were expected to memorize the words through repetition and picture clues.
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    Schema Theory

    Schema Theory is another constructivist theory. According to this theory, people organize everything they know into schemata. This includes everything that occurs in their lives and it is individualized. The differences in schema greatly influences learning. The extent to which a readers' schemata are developed in these skills greatly affects their reading comprehension.
  • Jean Piaget

    Jean Piaget
    Jean Piaget created the Theory of Cognitive Development in which he sought to describe how a child's thinking changes over time. He identified four factors that affected these changes: biological (physical) maturation, activity, social experiences , and equilibrium. Piaget proposed that there are stages of cognitive development through which children progress, becoming increasingly more mature.
  • John Dewey

    John Dewey
    John Dewey was one of the first constructivists in America. Dewey focused on the growth of individuals, the environment, and the role of the teacher. He believed students must actively create their own learning and they build on previous knowledge to make sense of what they are learning. Dewey's philosophy became known as Inquiry Learning.
  • Rudolph Flesch

    Rudolph Flesch
    Rudolph Flesch wrote the controversial book, "Why Johnny Can’t Read" as a critique of the look-say method of teaching reading used in the Dick and Jane books. Flesch disagreed with this method because it required children to memorize each word. Flesch believed the better way to teach reading, was by using a phonics-based approach.
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    Psycholinguistic Theory

    Psycholinguistic Theory is another Constructivist theory. Psycholinguists assume that reading is primarily a language process. Readers rely on language cueing systems to read texts. Psycholinguists believe that readers use their knowledge about language and the world to direct their thinking during the reading process. To do this, readers make predictions about what the text will say based on their knowledge and expectations.
  • Jeanne Chall

    Jeanne Chall
    In 1967, Jeanne Chall published the book, "Learning to Read: The Great Debate," which was a meta-analysis of decades of reading research. She concluded that phonics had a greater effect on student success in early literacy instruction. In spite of her findings, the Look-Say method of instruction continued to be the norm in classrooms in the United States for some time.
  • Dr. Kenneth Goodman

    Dr. Kenneth Goodman
    In the late 1960's, Dr. Kenneth Goodman’s work led to the development of the whole language approach in which readers recognize whole words as parts of language. He believed If children are immersed in high quality literature they will acquire reading skills naturally. Authentic high quality literature promoted comprehension and fluency. During this time period until the mid 1970's Analytic phonics came into wide usage along with the Look-Say method.
  • Louise Rosenblatt

    Louise Rosenblatt
    Louise Rosenblatt expanded upon Schema Theory by arguing that because every student's experience is unique, therefore their schemata is very individualized. Thus, when students read the same texts, they will have different reading responses based on their own unique background knowledge. Depending on the type of text, informational or fictional, students will have either an efferent (fact-based), or aesthetic (emotionally-based) to what they have read.
  • Donald Holdaway

    Donald Holdaway
    Donald Holdaway's Theory of Literacy Development explained the developmental nature of literacy. He emphasized the importance of a rich at-home literacy environment as instrumental in a child's literacy development. He also recommended peer interaction among students. His most famous instructional strategy was the use of big books for shared reading experiences in the classroom. Shared reading promotes fluency, confidence, and comprehension skills.
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    The Reading Wars

    Since the 1980s, there has been a great deal of debate between supporters of explicit phonics instruction and those who favor a whole-language approach. This debate has entered into the public arena through media coverage and political involvement. The advent of standardized testing has fueled this debate in spite of reading experts having a much more balanced philosophy towards reading instruction.
  • A Nation at Risk

    A Nation at Risk
    A report commissioned in 1983 by the National Commission on Excellence in Education concluded that the nation’s education system was not performing at adequate levels. It also declared that the U.S. education system placed the nation at risk of falling well behind other industrialized nations. The “risk” was that failing education system would lead to problems with the economy, and the ability of the US to be competitive with other nations. This report forced changes in the educational system.
  • Phillip Gough

    Phillip Gough
    In the 1970s Philip Gough proposed a reading model in which students are given parts to create a whole. In this model, reading is thought to progress from the processing of letter identification to comprehension. This is also known as a "bottom-up" theory.
  • Marie Clay

    Marie Clay
    Marie S. Clay (1992), founded of Reading Recovery to serve low-achieving readers. The program provides intensive, individual intervention to help students to be able to catch up to their grade-level peers.
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    National Reading Panel

    In 1997, Congress assembled the National Reading Panel to determine the effectiveness of different methods used to teach children to read. In 2000, the panel submitted its findings. They also published a guide for parents and for teachers.
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    Media's Influence on Reading Instruction

    President Bill Clinton, in his 1996 State of the Union Address promoted reading as a foundation for educational, economic and social success for the country. He brought education to the forefront of the minds of American citizens during this time. From this point forward, media has played an influential role in shaping public perceptions of of educational issues.