Why Is Learning to Read So Difficult? A Bit of History

How did our children learn to read 100 years ago?  The American Book Company printed McGuffey’s Eclectic Primer in 1896 (first published, 1881, by Van Antwerp, Bragg & Co. and later by Henry H. Vail in 1909). The primer begins with a listing of the A-B-C’s in uppercase and lowercase letters, and then introduces a few simple words.  The first sentence in Lesson 2 reads:  “The cat has a rat.”(1)

The introduction to McGuffey’s Eclectic Primer informs the teacher that only a few words will be introduced in each lesson so that the youngest readers will be successful.  The preferred phonics-based reading method was to teach the alphabet and the sounds of the letters; then students would begin to read.  Each lesson listed the letters that would be used for the first time, and the new words that would appear in the lesson.  This was followed by a few sentences.  From time to time a few sentences even appeared in a simple cursive text.

This is how students were taught to read until the early 20th century. Post WWI the “experts” began to develop new materials with a “meaning emphasis” that downplayed teaching phonics and emphasized repetition.  The result was the publication of the Dick and Jane stories (which have recently resurged in popularity).

This new method of teaching reading was first called “look-say” and came to be known as “sight reading” or the “whole word method,” and later on as “whole language” reading.  This method of teaching reading emphasized repetition of words, using pictures to get the meaning and de-emphasized teaching phonics.  By the late ‘50’s and early ‘60’s this method was proving to be troublesome and a push to return to phonics resulted (2).  However, the new methods of teaching reading were deeply entrenched and its advocates were firmly against repeated phonics practice.

Fast forward to the present and we are still finding it difficult to teach our children to read.  An amazing 68% of American children cannot read at a proficient level and 34% cannot read at even a basic level (3).  But there is hope and you can teach your students to read.  Next time we’ll talk about what a good reading program should include.

You can teach anyone to read!

Works Cited:

1-McGuffey’s Eclectic Primer, Revised Edition, Van Nostrand Reinhold, N.Y.



Further reading: