History of Reading Instruction

Learning to read is not a natural process. As Mitford Mathews said, “Words are not like tadpoles or flowers or horses. Words are man-made...” There is a certain amount of drudgery inherent in learning to read. Through the years, there have been a number of changes made in the systems for teaching reading in an attempt to make learning to read easier. A short history of reading instruction by Geraldine Rodgers called "Why Noah Webster's Way Was the Right Way" can be found on Don Potter's Education Page. As she says in this essay, "Teaching the reading of alphabetic print by its "sound" is the correct way.   Teaching the reading of alphabetic print by its “meaning" is the incorrect way. Obviously, if “sound” and “meaning” methods for the teaching of alphabetic print are mixed, then the mixture is incorrect in direct proportion to the emphasis given to the “meaning” method."  The history of reading instruction is, to some degree, the history of pendulum swings between these two approaches. Unfortunately, only one approach, the "sound" method, produces a capable reader.

This webpage focuses on the history of reading instruction in the English language. Completely regular phonetic languages like Latin and Spanish do not suffer from the meaning/sound divide. Those interested in how our language came to be should read "The Alphabet Effect" by Robert Logan. An examination of the research in favor of phonics can be found in Dr. Patrick Groff's "Preventing Reading Failure." Those interested in a complete history of reading instruction should read "The History of Beginning Reading" by Geraldine E. Rodgers (available at in 3 volumes or in e-book format at Author House.)

Whole language or whole word teaching was implemented as an untested theory. It sounded good on paper, and it seemed to work for young 1st and 2nd graders. Young children can memorize words rapidly, but it takes a bit longer to teach them rules and how to blend sounds together. Whole word methods seemed to produce young children who learned to read quickly; however, it was only the illusion of reading. With the whole word method, textbooks used by students included only the words these children had already memorized. However, once children got into the 3rd or 4th grade, the 1,000 to 2,000 words they had memorized were insufficient for reading at an advanced level, and they had no way of sounding out new words. A 33 year old student we will call Jane had approximately 5,000 words memorized, but she could not figure out how to read a single word she had not already seen. Phonics was the key to unlocking the rest of the 595,000 words in the English language for her.

Kindergarten and 1st grade teachers need to use a lot of repetition to successfuly teach phonics. Moreover, the fruits of their labor are enjoyed by 2nd grade teachers. This may, to some degree, explain the persistence of the whole word method despite the overwhelming research proving the superiority of phonics. This may also explain the proliferation of sight words in phonetic programs. I have tutored several students taught with phonics who were having difficulty reading because they had been given too many sight words to memorize. If you learn a few simple rules, you can teach all but 2 of the most commonly taught 220 sight words with phonetic principles. However, sight words should not be taught at all in a pure phonics program that teaches by sound. They should merely be taught phonetically along with other words. The teaching of sight words can slow the reading process and lead to the development of dyslexia.

Many teachers are not taught all the phonics principles and rules needed to teach students to read, and don’t realize the patterns that the exceptions follow. As Robert Sweet said in an interview for Children of the Code, “From my perspective, many of the teachers think they are teaching the code. They just teach it through rhyme, they teach it through exposure to print.” Teaching a student to read with phonics is simple if you are taught all the rules. Our online Spelling Lessons show all of these rules. In the days of one-room schoolhouses, the rules were shown in the Speller so both students and teachers had easy access to these rules. Trying to teach reading without the knowledge of these rules is like teaching basic math without knowing the rules for borrowing and carrying.

A certain amount of drudgery is still needed in teaching reading, but there are ways to make learning the basic phonetic skills needed for reading more fun. You can teach the letter sounds with the Leapfrog movie, “The Talking Letter Factory,” or online at Starfall. Simple blending skills and more phonograms can be taught with the Leapfrog movies “The Talking Words Factory” and “The Code Word Caper” and also online at Starfall. You can also use the phonics concentration game and other games using magnetic letters. However, as Richard G. Parker said in 1851, “The roots of learning are undoubtedly bitter, and the rudiments of letters possess few attractions to the child. Let him then advance boldly to the task. Let him learn, in the onset, that he has labor to undergo. There is no royal road to learning. Plunge him at once into the thickest of the fight. Teach him at once how to overcome difficulties, and his subsequent contests will be less discouraging, and his success will be complete.”

When students taught with whole word methods or phonics programs with too many sight words are taught with systematic, explicit phonics, the change is remarkable! A whole new world is opened to them, and they become more confident and excited about the world. A whole new opportunity to achieve also opens. Most importantly, they have the ability to read the Bible and choose for themselves whether or not they will embrace the truth of God.

Click here for a larger version of this graph suitable for printing.


15th to 18th Century: Syllabic Phonics. Hornbooks were used to teach reading, followed by Spellers (syllabic phonics methods with the syllabary, analytic phonics.)

1655: Pascal invents synthetic phonics. [2]

1700’s to 1800’s: Battledores followed by Spellers were used to teach reading (syllabic phonics methods with a syllabary.)

1783: Noah Webster uses synthetic phonics to teach reading in his American Spelling Book using a syllabary. [3]

Early 1800’s: Spellers and then Readers were used to teach reading (Syllabic phonics methods with the syllabary.) (Spelling was taught prior to reading and students were not allowed to read words that they had not yet learned to spell.) [4]

1826 - 1876 Elocution Era. A form of whole word methods were used with teachers pronouncing unknown words for their students. There was a large focus on elocution and reading for meaning with proper elocutionary style. Students memorized the stories in their Readers and recited them aloud as a class. Spellers were now used in the upper grades and were no longer the beginning reading text. [5] [6]

1840 - 1850: Teachers Institutes and Normal Schools spread across the United States. [7] [8]

1844: Horace Mann’s Seventh Report advocates whole word methods for teaching reading.

1844: A committee of 31 Boston School Masters refute Mann’s Report, but whole words methods used in an elocutionary manner continue to be used in many schools.

1851: R. G. Parker, in his preface to his "First Reader," cautions teachers "that it is scarcely possible to devote too much time to the spelling book," a warning apparently aimed at teachers who would teach words by meaning instead of by their sounds.

1866: Leigh Print, a self pronouncing print developed in 1864 by Edwin Leigh, is first used in the St. Louis Schools. It is especially popular from 1868 - 1873, but was removed from most schoolbooks by advocates of whole word methods. [9] [10] [11] [12]

circa 1878: Spelling Books dropped from many schools. [13]

1879: McGuffey publishes a phonetic edition with a modified form of Leigh Print. [14]

1879: Meiklejohn published “The Problem of Learning to Read,” advocating teaching regularly spelled words first and introducing exceptions later.

1893 - 1896: In a survey of Public Schools throughout the United States in 1883, Joseph Rice found that phonics led to better results in reading than word methods. [15] In 1895 and 1896, he gave spelling tests to 33,000 children throughout the United States. He found that the best spelling results were obtained where the phonic method was used. [16]

1889 - 1900: The use of elocutionary whole word methods and the sentence method coupled with the loss of the spelling book in many schools led to such a decline in reading and spelling ability that phonics was returned to the schools through spelling lessons. Whole word and sentence methods continued to be used, but phonetic spelling was taught in second grade and above. [17] [18]

1900 - 1930: Whole word methods continue, but supplementary phonics were used as well, resulting in excellent spelling and reading abilities. [18] [19]

1921: Thorndike publishes "The Teacher's Word Book," a list of the most common 10,000 words in the English language.

1930: Dick and Jane enter the reading scene. Thorndike's word list allows controlled vocabulary readers in upper grades as well, unlike earlier whole word methods where new words eventually had to be taught through diacritical markings or the teaching of phonics in upper grades through spelling.

1936 - 1938: The Slave Narratives are published. They contain a detailed account of how spelling books were used to teach reading.

1955: Rudolf Flesch publishes “Why Johnny Can’t Read,” advocating a return to phonics.

1966: The Hanna Study of the most common 17,000 words reveals that English is more phonetically regular than commonly assumed. [20]

1967: Jeanne S. Chall publishes “Learning to Read: The Great Debate,” a comprehensive look at hundreds of studies of reading methods. She found that phonics was more effective than whole word methods.

1980's -1990's: The use of whole word methods increase; this iteration is called "Whole Language."

1983: Jeanne S. Chall republishes "Learning to Read: The Great Debate," with new research findings strengthening the case for phonics.

1985: Margaret Bishop publishes “The ABC’s and All Their Tricks,” arranging the results of the Hanna study in a user friendly format.

1985: Flesch publishes “Why Johnny Can’t Read and What You Can Do about It.”

1990's: Brain research using functional MRI (fMRI) shows that the brain reads sound by sound.

1993: 40 Professors of Linguistics in Massachusetts write a letter to the State Commissioner of Education to protest the attempted introduction of Whole Language.

1999: Dr. Reid Lyon of the National Institute of Health (NIH) reports to Congress on the findings of research on over 34,000 children —findings include the importance of phonics and phonemic awareness for teaching reading.

2000's: Brain research shows changes in the brain and reading improvement when phonics is taught to poor readers. [21] [22]

2001: No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation passed. The Reading First portion of NCLB mandates phonics instruction.

2006: A study found that dyslexics that were taught spelling in a phonetic manner improved their spelling. The study also found that this type of teaching "can actually change their brains' activity patterns to better resemble the brains of normal spellers." [23]

2011: Stanislas Dehaene's Article "The Massive Impact of Literacy on the Brain and its Consequences for Education," explains how the brain processes at the letters in a "massively parallel architecture" and recommends phonics without sight words.[24]

2014: A version of Noah Webster's 1908 Speller is published by Don Potter. Volunteers from 40L used a version of this Speller to teach dozens of students to read above their current reading grade level, including several inner city remedial elementary students who were able to read the 12th grade level passage by the end of their two month remediation class, using the schedule and methods outlined here.

Note: The reading instruction graph is an estimation from old school textbooks in print and works like those cited below. [1] It is an average of the teaching methods used across all schools. Geraldine Rodgers states on page 475 of The History of Beginning Reading, after showing textbooks used in Arkansas and Virginia, "Note the curious effect of centralized, 'thorough and efficient' standardization in Arkansas [1846] in contrast to decentralized Virginia [1844]. In Arkansas the sight-word primer had become standard, but the Bible and Testament had disappeared!" However, even today with more school consolidation and increasingly centralized control, teachers have a fair amount of control over their classrooms and can use whatever methods they chose, although that may entail spending their own money on textbooks. Teachers in rural areas generally have more autonomy than teachers in large cities. Prior to 1900, rural areas included what Rodgers calls "the independent West," which was removed from the new reading plans centered on the East Coast and later had fair numbers of the 1879 McGuffey Leigh Print Readers. However, even in Boston in 1844, when leading educators in the area were promoting whole word methods, there were at least 31 Schoolmasters who were committed to teaching phonics and speaking out against whole word methods. Also, numerous copies of Websters speller were available in the early 1800's for teachers who wished to continue using phonetic methods. In the 1930's and 1940's, teachers would have had access to their old supplemental phonics material.

1. Rodgers, Geraldine. e-mail interview with author, Feb 2007. Geraldine Rodgers believes the declines after 1826 and 1930 "were absolutely catastrophic, and the sources I found support that--not the least of which is the terrible spelling disability after each drop. So, at the points on your graph at which the switches occured--1826 to 1830--I think the line should plummet to Code 2. Also, from 1930 to 1935--plummet to Code 2."

2. Rodgers, Geraldine. "The History of Beginning Reading," 2001, p. 279 - 280

3. You can see a QuickTime movie showing how to use Webster's syllabary at Don Potter's Education Page. He also has several versions of Webster's Speller available for use. This method is a powerful method of teaching phonics that introduces words of more than one syllable early on, enabling beginning readers to progress to very high reading grade levels after a period of time spent learning the syllabary and some common one syllable words. You can also see an explanation of the power of this method and tips on how to use it on our page called "Webster's Way."

4. Note: Spelling Books in the 1700's and early 1800's were used for both phonics and spelling purposes, and were used to teach children to read. Noah Webster himself explains this in his 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language. The entry for spelling-book reads, "n. A book for teaching children to spell and read."

5. Rodgers, Geraldine. "The History of Beginning Reading," 2001, p. 357, 712 - 713, 311 - 725.

6. Wickersham, James Pyle. "Methods of Instruction," 1865, p. 168, 208 - 234.

7. Barnard, Henry, "Normmal Schools, and Other Institution, Agencies, and Means Designed for the Professional Education of Teachers," 1851.

8. Rodgers, Geraldine. "The History of Beginning Reading," 2001, p. 564

9. Rodgers, Geraldine. "The History of Beginning Reading," 2001, p. 526 - 585, 594, 597-605, 612, 620-626, 632-638, 651, 671, 679-680, 701-702, 706, 709-713, 730, 1267-1273

10. The Addresses and Journal of Proceedings of the National Educational Association, "Pronouncing Orthography," 1873, p. 207 - 219

11. Rodgers, Geraldine. "The History of Beginning Reading," 2001, p. 536 - 538

12. March, Francis A, The Spelling Reform, 1893, p. 7 - 8

13. Rodgers, Geraldine. "The History of Beginning Reading," 2001, p. 73

14. The pdf version of the McGuffey readers show the diacritical markings on the modified Leigh print.

15. Rice, Joseph Mayer, "The Public-school System of the United States," 1893. He describes the word method on page 38, and 94 - 95

16. Rice, Joseph Mayer, "Scientific Management in Education," 1912.

17. Rodgers, Geraldine. "The History of Beginning Reading," 2001, 547 - 548,

18. Rodgers, Geraldine, e-mail interview with author, Feb 2007.

19. Rodgers, Geraldine. "The History of Beginning Reading," 2001, p. 653, 745, 757, 779, 1009, 1037, 1309

20. Hanna, Paul R., Jean S. Hanna, Richard E. Hodges, and Edwin H. Rudorf, Jr, "Phoneme-Grapheme Correspondences as Cues to Spelling Improvement," U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, Office of Education, 1966. The findings of this study are summarized in Hanna's book "Spelling Structure and Strategies," and are compiled in a user friendly format in Bishop's book "The ABCs and All Their Tricks."

21. "Training the Brain to Read," Science Vol. 304, no. 5671, p. 677, 30 April 2004

22. Fletcher, Jack M, Ph.D, "Reading and Response to Intervention: Enhancing Outcomes for all Students," online presentation, 2008. Slide titled "Intervention Normalizes Brain Function" showing the brain before and after phonics tutoring is especially interesting.

23. Dahms, Joel, "Spelling out Dyslexia," Northwest Science & Technology, Fall 2006

24. Dehaene, Stanislas, "
The Massive Impact of Literacy on the Brain and its Consequences for Education," Human Neuroplasticity and Education, 2011, p. 23

Copyright 2016 by 40L. First posted November 2006, last updated February 2017 by Elizabeth Brown.