Lessons from the History of Teaching Reading

It is now unorthodox or even heretical – except among those for whom it is not – to claim that the simple view of reading is fallible. I noticed recently a University lecturer being taken to task for “pedalling tripe” by suggesting he was going to read Davis’ critique of systematic synthetic phonics. We live in a time where vitriol is easily poured out – whether on those heartless fascists who espouse a top-down model of teaching or those careless, loveless airheads who think that children should find it all out for themselves. Such, at any rate, would be the Martian judgement (for “Martian” see the work of Eric Berne as shorthand for a commentator completely outside the system). No matter how important they seem to the protagonists, Single Issue Politics -whether at national or staff-room level – can get very nasty very quickly.

So let’s just have a look at  a few sources:

The ‘simple view’ shows that, to become proficient readers and writers, children must develop both word recognition and language comprehension. Letters and Sounds is fully compatible with the wider, language-rich early years curriculum. It will help practitioners and teachers adapt their teaching to  the range of children’s developing abilities that is common in most settings and primary classes.  The aim is to make sure that all children make progress at a pace that befits their enlarging capacities.

Yes, Letters and Sounds.


It is teachers themselves who will ensure our target is met. This Framework for Teaching [sc the National Literacy Strategy] is a practical tool to help teachers do precisely that.  All teachers know that pupils become successful readers by learning to use a range of strategies to get at the meaning of a text…As with reading, it is important that pupils learn to write independently from an early age.

The first NLS Framework.


That to this day our Crop answers not our Seed; that our Childrens Attainments come not to our just, and Rational Expectations, is so stabbing an Experience, that it ought not to be mentioned without a Flood of Tears.  The grand reason why you hear Children so much, and yet teach them so little, is because you hear them so confusedly. Put therefore as many of them into one form, as you judg [sic] to be of an equal capacity, or at least no great difference between them…Let an hour every day be solemnly spent in sounding and spelling those words, which you find in the Two last Chapters which contain most, if not all the difficulties are usually met with in the whole English Tongue.

Nathaniel Strong, England’s Perfect Schoolmaster, 1699


However, my concern in this post is not about the veracity of any of these claims, but the “truthiness” behind them, the forcibly put assertion that “this is the way.” We are used, now, to Secretaries of State being, claiming to be (or even overtly supplanting) experts, so this language is very familiar. It could be argued – for the first two, at least, that this is the Government showing leadership.

I am not so sure: the displeasure and downright unpleasantness shown in these arguments by this side or that seem much more to be connected with a who-shouts-loudest demagoguery than with a willingness to listen to various aspects of the argument, and this, if nothing else, is the critical job of higher education research: to read, mark, inwardly digest, rather than simply support the shrill.

Our Education Studies students (and others of the undergraduate programme taking the year 1 module on Introduction to the Study of Education) please note: education systems that demand compliance, over-loud claims for odd pieces of research, (even) jocular and plausible lecturers are there for you to sift much more than to be believed.




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