The Pedagogy Of Literacy
Between Mann's death and the great waves of Italian immigration after the 1870s, the
country seemed content with McGuffey readers, Webster Spelling Books, Pilgrim 's
Progress, the Bible, and the familiar alphabet method for breaking the sound code. But
beginning about the year 1880 with the publication of Francis W. Parker's Supplementary
Reading for Primary Schools (and his Talks on Pedagogics, 1883), a new attack on
reading was mounted.
Parker was a loud, affable, flamboyant teacher with little academic training himself, a
man forced to resign as principal of a Chicago teachers college in 1 899 for reasons not
completely honorable. Shortly thereafter, at the age of sixty-two, he was suddenly
selected to head the School of Education at Rockefeller's new University of Chicago, 1 a
university patterned after great German research establishments like Heidelberg, Berlin,
As supervisor of schools in Boston in a former incarnation, Parker had asserted boldly
that learning to read was learning a vocabulary which can be instantly recalled as ideas
when certain symbolic signposts are encountered. Words are learned, he said, by repeated
acts of association of the word with the idea it represents.
Parker originated the famous Quincy Movement, the most recognizable starting point for
progressive schooling. Its reputation rested on four ideas: 1) group activities in which the
individual is submerged for the good of the collective; 2) emphasis on the miracles of
science (as opposed to traditional classical studies of history, philosophy, literature); 3)
informal instruction in which teacher and student dress casually, call each other by first
names, treat all priorities as very flexible, etc; 4) the elimination of harsh discipline as
psychologically damaging to children. Reading was not stressed in Parker schools.
Parker's work and that of other activists antagonistic to reading received a giant forward
push in 1885 from one of the growing core of America's new "psychologists" who had
studied with Wilhelm Wundt at Leipzig. James McKeen Cattell boldly announced he had
proven, using the tachistoscope, that we read whole words and not letters. Cattell's lusty
ambition resounds in his cry of triumph:
These results are important enough to prove those to be wrong who hold with Kant that
psychology can never become an exact science.
Until 1965 no one bothered to check Cattell's famous experiment with the tachistoscope.
When they did, it was found Cattell had been dead wrong. People read letters, not words.
It was out of the cauldron of Columbia Teachers College that the most ferocious advocate
of whole-word therapy came: Edward Burke Huey was his name, his mentor, G. Stanley
Hall. In 1908 they published an influential book, The Psychology and Pedagogy of
Reading, which laid out the revolution in a way that sent a message of bonanzas to come
to the new educational book publishing industry. Publishing was a business just
beginning to reap fantastic profits from contracts with the new factory schools.
Centralized management was proving a pot of gold for lucky book contractors in big
cities. The message was this: "Children should be taught to read English as if it were
Huey was even more explicit: he said children learned to read too well and too early and
that was bad for them:
He must not, by reading adult grammatical and logical forms, begin exercises in mental
habits which will violate his childhood.
As Blumenfeld (to whom I owe much of the research cited here) explains, Huey
concocted a novel justification based on Darwinian evolution for jettisoning the alphabet
The history of the language in which picture-writing was long the main means of written
communication has here a wealth of suggestions for the framers of the new primary
course. It is not from mere perversity that the boy chalks or carves his records on a book
and desk.... There is here a correspondence with, if not a direct recapitulation of the life
of the race; and we owe it to the child to encourage his living through the best there is in
this pictography stage....
'Mrs. Anita McCormick Blaine, daughter of the inventor of the harvesting machine, became his patron,
purchasing the College of Education for him with a contribution of $1 million.
Dick And Jane
As many before him, Huey missed entirely the brilliant Greek insight that reading and
understanding are two different things. Good reading is the fluent and effortless cracking
of the symbol-sound code which puts understanding within easy reach. Understanding is
the translation of that code into meaning.
It is for many people a natural and fairly harmless mistake. Since they read for meaning,
the code-cracking step is forgotten. Forgotten, that is, by those who read well. For others,
self-disgust and despair engendered by halting progress in decoding sounds sets into play
a fatal chain of circumstances which endangers the relationship to print for a long time,
sometimes wrecking it forever. If decoding is a painful effort, filled with frustrating
errors, finally a point is reached when the reader says, in effect, to the devil with it.
Another piece of dangerous philosophy is concealed inside whole-word practice — the
notion that a piece of writing is only an orange one squeezes in order to extract something
called meaning, some bit of data. The sheer luxury of putting your mind in contact with
the greatest minds of history across time and space,/ee/wg the rhythm of their thought,
the sallies and retreats, the marshaling of evidence, the admixture of humor or beauty of
observation and many more attributes of the power and value language possesses, has
something in common with being coached by Bill Walsh in football or Toscanini in
orchestra conducting. How these men say what they say is as important as the translating
their words into your own. The music of language is what poetry and much rhetoric are
about, the literal meaning often secondary. Powerful speech depends on this
By 1920, the sight- word method was being used in new wave progressive schools. In
1927, another professor at Columbia Teachers College, Arthur Gates, laid the foundation
for his own personal fortune by writing a book called The Improvement of Reading,
which purported to muster thirty-one experimental studies proving that sight reading was
superior to phonics. All these studies are either trivial or highly ambiguous at best and at
times, in a practice widely encountered throughout higher education research in America,
Gates simply draws the conclusions he wants from facts which clearly lead elsewhere.
But his piece de resistance is a comparison of first-grade deaf pupils tutored in the
whole- word method with Detroit first graders. The scores of the two groups are almost
identical, causing Gates to declare this a most convincing demonstration. Yet it had been
well known for almost a century that deaf children taught with a method created
expressly for deaf children only gain a temporary advantage which disappears quickly. In
spite of this cautionary detail Gates called this "conclusive proof that normal children
taught this way would improve even faster!
Shortly after the book's publication, Arthur Gates was given the task of authoring
Macmillan's basal reader series, a pure leap into whole-word method by the most
prestigious education publisher of them all. Macmillan was a corporation with wide-
reaching contacts able to enhance an author's career. In 1931, Gates contributed to the
growth of a new reading industry by writing an article for Parents magazine, "New Ways
of Teaching Reading." Parents were told to abandon any residual loyalty they might have
to the barren, formal older method and to embrace the new as true believers. A later
article by a Gates associate was expressly tailored for "those parents concerned because
children do not know their letters." It explained that "the modern approach to reading"
eliminated the boredom of code-cracking.
With its finger in the wind, Scott, Foresman, the large educational publisher, ordered a
revision of its Elson Basic Readers drawn on the traditional method, a series which had
sold 50 million copies to that date. To head up the mighty project, the publisher brought
in William S. Gray, dean of the University of Chicago College of Education, to write its
all new whole-word pre-primer and primer books, a series marking the debut of two
young Americans who would change millions of minds into mush during their long
tenure in school classrooms. Their names were Dick and Jane. After Gates and Gray,
most major publishers fell into line with other whole- word series and in the words of
Rudolf Flesch, "inherited the kingdom of American education," with its fat royalties.
Blumenfeld does the student of American schooling a great service when he compares
this original 1930 Dick and Jane with its 1951 successor:
"In 1930, the Dick and Jane Pre-Primer taught 68 sign words in 39 pages of story text,
with an illustration per page, a total of 565 words — and a Teacher's Guidebook of 87
pages. In 1951, the same book was expanded to 172 pages with 184 illustrations, a total
of 2,603 words — and a Guidebook of 182 pages to teach a sight vocabulary of only 58
words!" Without admitting any disorder, the publisher was protecting itself from this
system, and the general public, without quite knowing why, was beginning to look at its
schools with unease.
By 1951, entire public school systems were bailing out on phonics and jumping on the
sight-reading bandwagon. Out of the growing number of reading derelicts poised to begin
tearing the schools apart which tormented them, a giant remedial reading industry was
spawned, a new industry completely in the hands of the very universities who had with
one hand written the new basal readers, and with the other taught a generation of new
teachers about the wonders of the whole-word method.
Mute evidence that Scott, Foresman wasn't just laughing all the way to the bank, but was
actively trying to protect its nest egg in Dick and Jane, was its canny multiplication of
words intended to be learned. In 1930, the word lookwas repeated 8 times; in 1951, 110
times; in the earlier version oh repeats 12 times, in the later 138 times; in the first, see
gets 27 repetitions, and in the second, 176.'
The legendary children's book author, Dr. Seuss, creator of a string of best-sellers using a
controlled "scientific" vocabulary supplied by the publisher, demonstrated his own
awareness of the mindlessness of all this in an interview he gave in 1981:
I did it for a textbook house and they sent me a word list. That was due to the Dewey
revolt in the twenties, in which they threw out phonics reading and went to a word
recognition as if you're reading a Chinese pictograph instead of blending sounds or
different letters. I think killing phonics was one of the greatest causes of illiteracy in the
Anyway they had it all worked out that a healthy child at the age of four can only learn so
many words in a week. So there were two hundred and twenty-three words to use in this
book. I read the list three times and I almost went out of my head. I said, " I'll read it
once more and if I can find two words that rhyme, that'll be the title of my book." I found
"cat" and "hat" and said, the title of my book will be The Cat in the Hat.
For the forty-one months beginning in January of 1929 and concluding in June of 1932,
there were eighty-eight articles written in various pedagogical journals on the subject of
reading difficulties and remedial teaching; in the forty-one months beginning in July of
1935 and concluding in December of 1938, the number rose almost 200 percent to 239.
The first effects of the total victory of whole-word reading philosophy were being
reflected in academic journals as the once mighty reading Samson of America was led
eyeless to Gaza with the rest of the slaves.
'1955 proved to be a year of great frustration to the reading combine because of the publication of Rudolf
Flesch's hostile Why Johnny Can 't Read, which precisely analyzed the trouble and laid it at the doorstep of
the reading establishment. The book was a hot seller for over a year, continuing to reverberate through the
reading world for a long time thereafter. In 1956, 56,000 reading professionals formed a look/say defense
league called the International Reading Association. It published three journals as bibles of enthusiasm: The
Reading Teacher, The Journal of Reading, The Reading Research Quarterly. Between 1961 and 1964, a
new generation of academics shape-shifted look/say into psycholinguistics under the leadership of Frank
Smith, an excellent writer when not riding his hobby horse, and Kenneth and Yetta Goodman, senior
authors at Scott, Foresman who had been widely quoted as calling reading "a psycholinguistic guessing
game." From 1911 to 1981, there were 124 legitimate studies attempting to prove Cattell and the other
whole-word advocates right. Not a single one confirmed whole-word reading as effective.
I Quit, I Think