History of Reading Education in the U.S.

In colonial times, reading instruction was simple and straightforward: teach children the code and then let them read. At that time, reading material was not specially written for children but consisted primarily of the Bible and some patriotic essays; the most influential early textbook was The New England Primer, published late 1680s. There was little consideration for how best to teach children to read or how to assess reading comprehension.

Not until the mid-19th century did this approach change significantly. Educators, in particular Horace Mann, began to advocate changes in reading instructional methods. He observed that children were bored and "death-like" at school, and that instruction needed to engage children's interest in the reading material by teaching them to read whole words. The McGuffey Readers (1836) were the most popular of these more engaging graded readers. In the mid-19th century, Rebecca Smith Pollard developed a sequential reading program of intensive synthetic phonics, complete with a separate teacher's manual and spelling and reading books.

From the 1890s to at least 1910, A. L. Burt of New York and other publishing companies published series of books aimed at young readers, using simple language to retell longer classics. Mrs J. C. Gorham produced three such works, Gulliver's Travels in words of one syllable (1896), Alice's Adventures in Wonderland retold in words of one syllable (1905), and Black Beauty retold in words of one syllable (1905). In the UK, Routledge published a similar series between 1900 and 1910.

The meaning-based curriculum did not dominate reading instruction until the second quarter of the 20th century. Beginning in the 1930s and 1940s, reading programs became very focused on comprehension and taught children to read whole words by sight. Phonics was not to be taught except sparingly and as a tool to be used as a last resort.

In the 1950s Rudolf Flesch wrote a book called Why Johnny Can't Read, a passionate argument in favor of teaching children to read using phonics. Addressed to the mothers and fathers of America, he also hurled severe criticism at publishers' decisions that he claimed were motivated by profit, and he questioned the honesty and intelligence of experts, schools, and teachers. The book was on the bestseller list for 30 weeks and spurred a hue and cry in general population. It also polarized the reading debate among educators, researchers, and parents.

This polarization continues to the present time. In the 1970s an instructional philosophy called whole language (which explicitly de-emphasizes teaching phonics) was introduced, and it became the primary method of reading instruction in the 1980s and 1990s. During this time, researchers (such as the National Institute of Health) conducted studies showing that early reading acquisition depends on the understanding of the connection between sounds and letters.