The History of Beginning Reading
The History of Beginning Reading
From Teaching by "Sound" to Teaching by "Meaning"
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The puzzling adoption in 1930 of a deaf-mute method for teaching beginning reading to hearing children in America can only be understood when the long history of teaching beginning reading is known. The deaf-mute method adopted almost immediately after 1930 from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans and from Canada to Mexico was the "meaning" approach to teach the reading of alphabetic print instead of the "sound" approach. "Dick and Jane" primers and their clones, which teach beginning reading by meaning instead of by sound are, indeed, the disgraceful source for America’s functional illiteracy problem. The history is an attempt to bring together most historical sources on those primers and on the long teaching of beginning reading itself so that functional illiteracy can be properly understood and successfully corrected.

The elaborately written-out Greek syllabary found in the sands of Egypt shortly before World War II (the Papyrus Gueraud Jouguet discussed by Marrou, mentioned previously) dated from the third century B. C. and proved that children were taught by the syllable method at that time. It should be emphasized again that learning to read by the syllabary in Latin and Greek (or in any alphabet containing vowels) is a relatively easy and rapid process. Since literacy was so easily attainable, it was not beyond the reach of even simple and poor people, who were capable of teaching others, once they themselves knew how to read.

The syllabary method showed up again on a Greek papyrus in the third century A. D., essentially unchanged, which Tuer mentioned on page 387:

"In the State Museum of Antiquities at Leyden there is a Greek Abecedarium of about the third century A.D. on papyrus, in which the vowels and their combinations with consonants in horn-book fashion are in columns...."

...Neither did the ancient practice of beginners' dividing texts into syllables disappear. It showed up on a seventh century A. D. text.

Tuer stated, on page 388:

"In part of an interesting papyrus fragment of the Greek Psalter, probably of the seventh century, lately acquired by the British Museum, the syllables are marked off by dots for the purpose of teaching scholars to read."

The fact that the papyrus was divided into syllables, not words, is clear proof that "sound" and not "meaning" was the method used in teaching reading in Greek in the seventh century A. D. Yet, before the advent of the vowels, which first appeared about 800 B. C. in Greece, as discussed elsewhere in this text, it was not possible to read alphabetic scripts by syllables as "sound" but only by words as "meaning."

The alphabet used by the ancient Jews lacked vowels and so could not construct sound-bearing syllables but only whole meaning-bearing words. As discussed elsewhere, that meant that the right, global-picture side of the brain was probably used instead of the left, sequential-sound side. Scripts lacking vowels correspondingly might be expected to run from right to left, since, as discussed elsewhere, eye movements controlled by the right side of the brain move from right to left, while those controlled by the left side move from left to right.

An article in the New York Times of November 16, 1993 (page 9), implicitly confirmed that ancient alphabets which lacked vowels, such as the one used by the ancient Jews, did produce "word" readers, and not "syllable" readers, and that such alphabets were read by the right, global-picture side of the brain. The article concerned the finding of a foot-high piece of stone, apparently in Israel, dated to the ninth century B. C., in which phonetic letters spelled "House of David." Yet those phonetic letters were not written from left to right, as might be expected if they were to be read by the left, sequential-sound side of the brain which produces eye movements from the left to the right. Instead the letters were written from the right to the left. Furthermore, dots were used to separate the words, further confirming that the script was perceived as a series of meaning-bearing words, and not as a stream of sound.

Therefore, the Jewish alphabet without vowels in about the ninth century B. C. produced a script which ran from right to left, to be read by whole-word "meaning," even though that meaning had to be derived from the sounds of consonants. (A modern example is, "Th cw jmpd vr th mn.") Yet, shortly after the vowels were invented as additions to the developing Greek alphabet about 800 B. C., the direction of script changed, running from left to right which perhaps had never happened before with any script. That is obviously because the addition of the vowels made it possible to read script as a stream of syllable sounds, and streams of syllable sounds are obviously to be read by the left, sequential-sound side of the brain which produces eye movements that go from the left to the right. In changing the direction of their script, the ancient Greeks were simply reacting to that totally unsuspected a "pull" from their own brains.

In obvious contrast to the ancient Jewish text which was divided between words, the ancient Greek Dionysius of Halicarnassus writing about 20 B. C. and the Roman, Quintilian, in the first century A. D. stated that children in those times were taught to read texts by syllables, not words. The fact that children were taught to separate Greek texts into syllables as late as the seventh century A. D., is shown by the surviving fragment of the Greek Psalter from the seventh century A. D., cited by Andrew Tuer, which was mentioned previously.

Children in the ancient world had been taught by simple rules how to divide written texts into syllables, to make them pronounceable. Written texts were run together in the ancient world, with no division between either words or syllables. The same practice showed up on that Greek text of the seventh century A. D., which would also have been run-together, because texts at that time were still not divided into words. Yet the seventh century A. D. Greek children were working with the Psalms, and not the classics. Irish children are known also to have learned to read with the Psalms, but in Latin, from the fifth century. It is obvious that the Irish children also had to learn how to divide the Psalms into syllables, to make them pronounceable, which was actually a very easy thing to do in Latin or Greek.

It should be apparent, however, that there would have been no point to divide a text into syllables if the sounds of the syllables had not been learned first. Certainly, therefore, the seventh century A. D. Greek children must have been given the syllable tables first, just as the third century A. D. children had been, or the exercise of dividing their run-together text into syllables would have been futile. So must the Irish children have been taught the syllable tables first from the fifth century onwards. The first step for these third, fifth, and seventh century A. D. children would therefore have been identical to the first step for the north African children in 300 B.C., who were taught from that papyrus roll from 300 B. C. that was found in the sands of north Africa just before World War II. The ancient Greek syllabary was outlined in full on that papyrus roll from about 300 B. C. Marrou presumed it had been a teacher’s guide, and not a pupil’s text (Un Livre d’Ecolier), which had been the interpretation given by the 1938 title of the book by O. Gueraud and P. Jouguet, Un Livre d'Ecolier du IIIe Siecle Avant Jesus Christ.

Appalled at the reading disabilities in her third-grade classroom in New Jersey, Geraldine E. Rodgers requested a sabbatical leave to observe first-grade reading instruction and to test resultant second-grade oral reading in the United States and Europe. In 1977-78, using a portion of a silent reading test from IEA (International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement), which she had translated commercially into Dutch, Icelandic, Swedish, German, and French, she tested the oral reading of about 900 second graders in their own languages in the United States, Holland, Luxembourg, Sweden, Germany, Austria, and France. She "discovered" that different and opposite types of readers (or mixtures of those types) are developed, depending on the emphasis on "sound" or "meaning" in first-grade. She later stumbled across the fact in a 1912, university of Chicago article that her 1978 "discovery" of different types of readers had already been announced seventy-five years before by a German researcher, Oskar Messmer, in 1903, who labeled the types "objective" (for "sound") or "subjective" (for "meaning"). Since 1978, she has done extensive work at the Library of Congress, the Harvard libraries, the British Library in London, the University of Chicago library, and many other libraries, to try to find out why such facts in the history of reading as the Messmer research have been buried. The History of Beginning Reading: From Teaching by "Sound" to Teaching by "Meaning", reports in depth on her findings.


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