The Missouri Reader Vol. 41, Issue 2 - Page 23


of young teachers looked up, wide-eyed with disbelief, and said, “Do you mean read what isn’t even on their level?” If that weren’t so scary, it would be funny. When did we get to the point where motivation to read doesn’t count as much as reading at a level where an assessment indicates that we should read? I would certainly hate for someone to tell me to put down the mystery I am reading for pleasure because I’m capable of reading a physics book written at a higher reading level, even if I am not interested in physics.

Maybe we can learn a bit from history. Are we so sure that all of our ideas about reading are newer, better ideas about how to teach? In the classic book American Reading Instruction by Nila Banton Smith (Smith, 1965), Dr. Smith traces the way literacy was taught in the United States from colonial times through the 1960’s. Smith, who was president of The International Literacy Association and a well-respected researcher, discusses motivation to read in different decades and the methods that teachers used to create readers. Reading about these early methods reminded me of the methods we still use to teach reading today, and for good reason. Primers (think: early basal readers) were used in American by the late 1600’s. In the 1700’s. The New England Primer taught children to read with columns of two-letter syllables, which quickly increased to five-letter syllables and words (think: using phonics, prefixes, suffixes, etc.). The alphabetical method was all that was known at that time. In addition, oral reading played a large part in the homes of people who could read. Since people were encouraged to memorize parts of the Bible, it stands to reason that many of them would naturally look at words in passages they had memorized, and learn the word from sight. Sight words, which used to be called the “look-say” method, are still a staple of most primary classrooms. In addition, all good readers at any age very quickly develop a sight word vocabulary after they have read an unknown word several times, even if they had to “sound it out” the first time. Sight words are still important, as they increase fluency if one does not have to sound out each word in a sentence.

In those days of heavy immigration to America, one can see how European teaching methods popped up in the United States as well, and how those early methods can quickly be tied to many of the same methods we use today. For example, a German educator of the eighteenth century used “The Gingerbread Method” to teach letters to children. (Smith, 1965). He shaped the dough into letters, and the children felt, played with, and ate the letters as they learned their names. This is practically a mirror of what many teachers of young children, and also of children in special education, do today to create a senses-based way to remember letter shape. These days we call it VAKT (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, tactile approach).

What Was Old is New Again: Teaching New Dogs Old Tricks

Over my years in education, I have experienced the “reading wars” and decades of reading education as it shifted, and continues to shift emphasis in a search for what works best for most children. When I began teaching, phonics was the name of the game. As I began my master’s and later my doctoral work I was exposed to the concept of ‘whole language.” I learned about the contributions from the father of that reading movement, Kenneth Goodman (1973), and later many others including Jerome Harste (1989) and more recently Regie Routman (1997). I became a devotee of whole language methods, which have a major focus on comprehension. After the reading wars subsided , the term, “balanced reading” began to float through the air of every classroom in the country. Today, we seemingly have an obsession with standards to the point of sometimes forgetting that we are trying to develop readers who love to read. The ubiquitous “phonics mania” seems to be back as well, not only in the United States, but across most of the English-speaking world. The point of this diatribe is that all methods are needed, and that children often learn differently from one another, so they need exposure to a variety of methods of instruction. The difference


The point of this diatribe is that all methods are needed, and that children often learn differently from one another, so they need exposure to a variety of methods of instruction.