To understand the History of Teaching Reading, a background on the social context
of learning reading and of writing systems is provided. The literacy skills level
is linked to educational policy.
Almost daily, there are disturbing news reports about the rising problem of illiteracy.
Politicians, business leaders, community organizations and parents are struggling
to cope with its adverse and growing effects on society.
Recently, the U.S. Department of Education issued its €œReading Report Card.€
68% of our nation€™s fourth graders were not able to read at a proficient fourth
grade level. At-risk youth, low-income children, and minorities are even more
The inability to read, write, and learn, effectively, does more than put its
victims behind in school. Self-conscious, and often emotionally upset by the situation,
children with low literacy skills often act out in ways that are harmful to themselves
and others. In fact, a Department of Justice study found that 85% of all juvenile
offenders have reading problems.
At the bottom of this is not bad politics or bad philosophy, nor is it a bad
economic system, tax code or lack of opportunity. What has been lost in the years
of finger-pointing and blame is the search for and discovery of a simple answer.
If people want to be productive, they need to understand the world and the opportunities
that it presents. To do this, they must be able to learn. To learn, one must be
able to read.
What is the basis of our language? How does one actually learn to read? Are children
today being taught to read in the most effective way possible? What follows is
a brief report that will attempt to answer these questions.
The History of Written Communication
It is important to understand how our language developed in order to understand
the issues involved with modern reading instruction.
The earliest form of writing could be called €œpicture writing.€ This type
of writing has been discovered on cave walls and dates back thousands of years.
Picture writing evolved into character writing in certain cultures throughout
the world. Many Asian countries use this type of writing in modern times. With
this type of writing, each symbol or character represents a concept. Character
writing does not depend on how the concept might look, as in picture writing,
or on how the word may sound, as in alphabetic writing. One of the disadvantages
of this type of written language is the sheer number of characters that must be
memorized, as every word is represented by a different character.
Phonics vs Whole Word
The History of Teaching Reading – Part 2 – Phonics vs Whole Word. The alphabetic
writing system evolved with letters representing sounds, not concepts. A “systematic”
phonics method teaches students the letter-sounds and basic spelling rules at
the very beginning of school. In whole-word, the child learns to recognize and
understand the complete word or group of words in context with other words or
pictures and the human brain learns or infers the phonetic rules.
In others parts of the world, writing evolved into an alphabetic system. In this
type of written language, there is a symbol for each sound made in verbal speech.
In an alphabetic system, symbols (letters) represent sounds rather than concepts.
English is written alphabetically. It is especially challenging because of its
frequent use of words from other languages. The integration of these words into
the English language changed the way English works. The mish-mash of spellings
and sounds in English took hundreds of years to standardize. In modern, standard
English there are about 45 sounds but only 26 letters, so some sounds are represented
by a combination of letters.
In spite of this, most scholars agree that written English is between 80% and
95% “regular”. This means that the English language is generally predicable. In
fact, 93% of the most common 1000 words are phonetic and follow the rules of spelling.
Teaching Reading Using Phonics
A “systematic” phonics method teaches students the letter-sounds and basic spelling
rules at the very beginning of school. Words that are exceptions to the rules
are not presented until the student has gained confidence in the written language.
Reading was taught this way for centuries.
In the late 1800’s, there were many changes in the social fabric of this country
and the world. Many new ideas were introduced both socially and politically. One
of those “new ideas” was in the subject of teaching reading.
The whole-word method has also been called “look-say” and “sight word”. In whole-word,
the child does not learn the letter/sound relationships. Instead, the child learns
to recognize and understand the complete word or group of words in context with
other words or pictures.
For example, words in one whole-word reader might include the following: WILL,
GO, WE, I, YOU, NOT, IN, BUZZY, SEE, HELP, COME, BEAR and so on.
Some children have no problem memorizing these words. However, they will more
than likely think that spelling is quite illogical when they see the “E” in the
words: WE, HELP, BEAR and COME. It is not likely that the student will ever discover
for himself all of the phonetic and spelling patterns.
In the early 1980s, whole-language reading instruction emerged. Advocates say
whole-language is more than a method, it is a philosophy: reading should not be
taught, but rather acquired through trial and error. Techniques of whole-language
* Students may substitute their own words in a story as long as the concept has
approximately the same meaning.
* The child’s self esteem in built not by drilling him in reading instruction,
but in guiding him through discovering how to read until one day it just “clicks”
and he can read.
* Spelling correctly is not important; it is the thoughts and concepts known to
children that count.
* Unfamiliar words should be skipped or guessed at according to context clues like
pictures or using prior information.
Whole language has become a new force in our modern education.
The History of Teaching Reading – Part 3 – Phonics teaches reliably
Phonics teaches reliably. The debate over the best way to teach a student to
read has been going on for over 100 years.
The Debate and the Answer
The debate over the best way to teach a student to read has been going on for
over 100 years. Initially, the debate was between the whole-word and phonics camps.
Today, whole language has replaced whole-word in that debate. As a result, the
U.S. Congress commissioned the National Institute of Child Health and Human development
(NICHD), to conduct the most extensive study ever on the subject of teaching reading.
As a result the National Reading Panel (NRP) was created.
The NRP released their findings in 2000 concluding that the most effective reading
instruction includes the following:
* Teaching children to break apart and manipulate sound in words.
* Teaching that sounds are represented by letters of the alphabet, which can be
blended together to form words (phonics).
* Having students practice reading aloud with guidance and feedback (guided oral
* Applying comprehension strategies that guide and improve reading.
The National Reading Panel found the effects of systematic early phonics instruction
were significant in kindergarten and first grade.
Unfortunately, however, there are millions of children and adults today that
do not have the benefit of having systematic phonics as part of their early reading
The Smart Way Reading and Spelling Program
The Smart Way Reading and Spelling Program was designed to help these students.
Smart Way provides one of the significant “links” that was missed early on for
many of these students-systematic phonics instruction. Additionally, Smart Way
teaches comprehension strategies throughout the entire program. With our targeted
placement test, the exact areas that an individual student needs help with can
be located and addressed. Bright Sky Learning feels strongly that, while the subject
of early reading instruction in our schools evolves into one based upon the scientifically
proven methods, we must not leave the millions of children and adults whose lives
are affected by low literacy skills behind. The Smart Way program provides a significant
tool that can help many of these students to become fully literate.
Quoted with permission from: The History of Teaching Reading
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