Literacy in the early and mid 20th Century

The challenge’s of phonics are not new ones.  Read this excerpt from Reading Kingdom’s book entitled, “The Reading Remedy” to learn about the modern history of phonics in the last 30 years and how to overcome its shortfalls.


In our last Reading Kingdom post Reading Kingdom wrote about literacy instruction in the early and mid 20th Century. Now she continues this fascinating history of how our children have been taught to read.

Let’s move  now to the 1970s. Phonics once again holds sway, and to everyone’s dismay, the failure continues. Once again there is a call for reform. This time, rushing in to fill the gap is whole language—a new movement based on a seductive argument –  abandon the tedium and dreariness of phonics. Instead, cater to children’s imagination by providing complete, integrated, appealing books that represent “authentic” experiences and make reading meaningful and rewarding.

The only problem is that like whole word teaching, whole language teaching causes reading scores to fall even further. So once again, decades later, history repeats itself as educational leaders push for a return to phonics as the remedy for the “new” reading crisis.

A key difference this time is that the great debate has morphed into the great accommodation. No longer are two techniques being pitted against one another for the purpose of declaring a winner and loser. Instead, in a spirit of reconciliation, the two methods—phonics and whole language—have been joined, on the grounds that each supplements the other. The end result is that many if not most children today, under the rubric of a comprehensive approach or balanced teaching, receive reading instruction that combines phonics and whole language.

Nevertheless, with its stronger techniques and longer history, phonics is almost always the dominant member of the partnership. It has been, and continues to be, the backbone of teaching kids their ABCs. In fact it is so widely taught that it has almost become a synonym for reading instruction. This is in part why the first thing parents typically do when trying to help their youngsters read a word is to say, “Well, let’s sound it out. What sound does this letter make?” They do so because that is the way they were taught. Why, then, are so many children still experiencing such difficulty in learning how to read? It certainly is not from a lack of attention. Seen as critical, reading dominates the school day for the first three to four years of a child’s education. What is taught in this time, however, is plagued with problems. The remedies that have been tried over the years have been restricted to variants of methods that simply do not work for a large percentage of the children. No matter how they are repackaged, these techniques don’t work. The current problems with reading education are not the fault of the children; they are due to the incomplete methods being used to teach them.