The Pendulum of Reading Instruction
“Once you learn to read, you will forever be free.” This simple and profound quote from Frederick Douglass emphasizes the freedom one achieves through reading and literature. In contrast to this simple quote on the benefits of literacy, teaching a child to read is not quite so elementary. Reading Instruction in America has historically consisted of a pendulum-like swing between phonics instruction and whole-word instruction. One thing that has remained consistent throughout, however, is the teaching of alphabetic print. The difference in teaching methods from this starting point consists of whether to teach said alphabetic print by sound or by meaning.
Beginning in the 1600s, children were taught the alphabet using a hornbook. From the 1700s through the mid-1800s, children were taught to read through the memorization of the alphabet using phonics, or letter-sound correspondence and spelling lists. Continuing on in the mid-1800s, educators began to move from the phonics approach to the meaning-based approach, or whole-word approach. Around the 1930s through the 1970s, the whole-word approach was used and was exemplified in the Dick and Jane reading series. Rudolph Flesch published his best-selling book Why Johnny Can’t Read in 1957, urging educators to return to phonics instruction. In 1967, Jeanne Chall wrote a book, Learning to Read: The Great Debate, where Chall continues to advocate the use of direct phonics instruction. In the early 1970s, the pendulum began to swing toward the whole language philosophy which promotes a meaning-based approach to learning to read. This approach lasted a couple of decades when in the mid 1990s, a study released by the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development indicated that children with reading difficulties benefited the most from explicit phonics instruction. This