Do We Care If Johnny Can Read?

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This method, however, called the words-to-letters method, was really just a modification of the traditional method of teaching children to read; only about fifty words were taught before the child’s attention was directed to the alphabet, which still had to be memorized. Radical change had to wait for the development of the words-to-reading method, most forcefully advocated by the controversial Francis Wayland Parker, who was superintendent of schools in the town of Quincy, Massachusetts, in the 1870’s. Parker abandoned the teaching of the alphabet altogether; children were “learning how to read, “wrote Charles Francis Adams, Jr., ”…exactly as they had before learned how to speak, not by rule and rote and by piecemeal, but altogether and by practice.…” Parker was never entirely clear about exactly how this was done, but apparently it involved sounding out words and sentences as the child read them, a method which is now called the “look-and-say” method. Parker moved to Chicago after his stay in Quincy and there founded the Chicago Institute, which eventually became part of the School of Education at the University of Chicago. John Dewey came under the influence of his ideas there; Dewey called Parker the father of progressive education. The subsequent triumph of progressive education in twentieth-century America also meant the triumph of the look-and-say method of teaching children to read.

It was by no means an easy victory; the old method of teaching children to read died very hard. Webster’s elementary spelling book (Ole Blueback, as it was called), the principal “text” of the traditional ABC method, sold throughout the nineteenth century in numbers which one scholar claims “must have approached the hundred million mark.” Even more popular were the McGuffey readers, also based on the old method; sales of those reached 122,000,000. The public had been raised on this standard fare and was familiar with it, so reformers had to contend with this public conservatism as well as the entrenched skepticism of teachers who had been using the old method all their lives. Even the relatively modest reform involved in the words-to-letters method was stoutly resisted; Horace Mann, who campaigned for it throughout his tenure as secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education in the 1840’s, was never able to get it adopted in the Massachusetts school system. One critic said of the words-to-letters method, “The letters … have to be learned eventually. If any success attends the child’s learning of words, the teacher may be sure of encountering added resistance when she endeavors to teach letters to a child who is succeeding already without knowing them.”

The critic also complained that the new method, by, in effect, eliminating the alphabet, reduced English to the status of Chinese, and, most important, that it made “spelling, a grievous burden at best, still more difficult.” The same complaints were made later about the words-to-reading or look-and-say method, and in the 1870’s the state administered a statewide spelling test to compare the spelling abilities of Francis Parker’s Quincy students with those of other Massachusetts students. The results were not very encouraging to the proponents of either method: “In their written work, pupils in the primary grades spelled whose in 108 different ways; which in 58; depot in 52, and scholar in a grand total of 221.” Parker’s Quincy students performed better, on the average, than those in the rest of the state, but evidently few students anywhere performed very well.

It has yet to be conclusively demonstrated that look-and-say is a real improvement on the old ABC method, for spelling or for anything else. By about the 1940’s look-and-say had become the standard method of teaching children to read in American schools, but many critics claim that it is precisely look-and-say that is responsible for the current literacy problem. The criticisms are much the same as those voiced in the nineteenth century: look-and-say makes English an ideographic language, like Chinese; children emerge from it not knowing how to spell or to “sound out” new words; their vocabulary grows much more slowly than that of children taught from the beginning by the phonics method, which is essentially an updating of the ABC method. One critic, Selma Fraiberg, notes that by the fourth grade an American child is expected to have built a vocabulary of between eighteen and twenty-five hundred words, while a Soviet child of the same age, taught by the phonics method, will have a vocabulary of ten thousand words and already will have been reading complete, uncut stories by Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Gorky, and poems by Nekrasov and Pushkin. The American child will still be reading about Dick and Jane. Fraiberg thinks that the American reliance on look-and-say is a major cause of this large “reading gap.”