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History of Phonics Instruction in the United States

History of Phonics instruction in the United States from 1850 - 2000

Allee Burka

on 15 June 2015

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Transcript of History of Phonics Instruction in the United States

History Of Phonics Instruction in the United States

The following are important events in phonics instruction in the United States from 1850 - 2000. For this timeline, phonics instruction is defined as "a way of teaching reading that stresses the acquisition of letter-sound correspondences and their use in reading and spelling." (Report of the National Reading Panel, 2000) .

"From the time of the ancient Greeks, phonics had been taught to make written language accessible." (Belvins, 1998, p.16). It makes sense then, that in the late 1600s when literacy education began in the Colonies, the main method of reading instruction was phonics. In the late 1600s, the
New England Primer
was published in the Colonies. The literacy instruction in this book was based on phonics. Phonics instruction continued to be the main method of teaching and remained unchallenged until the mid 1800s. (Belivins, 1998).
Phonics Today
1850- 2000
St. Thomas Aquinas
Schools Continue to Move Away from Phonics
In the mid 1950s, educators began to question the effectiveness of the whole word method that was currently being used in literacy education. (Starett, 2007).

Rudolf Flesh wrote his best selling book Why Johnny Can't Read which advocated the use of phonics. (Wood, 1992). He blamed poor literacy rates in America on the lack of phonics instruction in school. (Wood, 1992).

Flesh's book, along with the pressure on the education system from the public who read his book, were some of the factors that caused educators to look closely at the best method to teach reading. (Starett, 2007).

Support for phonics began to resurface after the release of
Why Johnny Can't Read

While the late 1800s showed some ambivalence towards phonics, the 1900s demonstrated a clear movement away from phonics instruction.

In the 1920s, "as progressive education became an influential movement, schools began to switch from phonics to whole-word reading instruction." ( PBS, 2003, p.2).

While schools were using less phonics in literacy instruction, there is no indication that phonics were completely removed from the curriculum. In fact, during the 1920s "every manual that appeared in connection with a basal series of readers during this time period recognized phonics." (Smith, 2002, p.218).

In some schools, while phonics weren't taught to the whole class, they were taught to students having particular trouble learning to read. (Smith, 2002).
1955: Why Johnny Can't Read
1967: Jeanne Chall and
Learning to Read: The Great Debate
Support for Phonics continued to rise in popularity in the1960s.

In 1967, Jeanne Chall wrote the book
Learning to Read: The Great Debate.

Her research "concluded that programs that emphasized systematic instruction in teaching letter sound relationship (phonics) lead to higher achievement." (Starrett, 2007, p.3).

Her research caused educators to begin to rethink about the role of phonics in literacy instruction.
2000: Findings of National Reading Panel
Teaching Children How to Read
In 2000, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) released the report of the national reading panel,
Teaching Children How to Read

The report concluded that systematic phonics instruction, combined with other reading methods, benefits all types of students, both students with and without reading disabilities. (International Reading Association, 2002).

The report also stated that "systematic phonics instruction was significantly more effective in improving low economic status children’s alphabetic knowledge, and word-reading skills than instructional methods that were less focused on phonemic awareness." (Starrett, 2007, p. 5).


Blevins, W. (1998). Phonics from A to Z: a practical guide. New York: Scholastic Professional Books.

History of the Reading Wars. (2003, January 1). PBS. Retrieved July 14, 2014, from http://www.pbs.org/weta/twoschools/thechallenge/history/history_2.html

International Reading Association. Summary of the (U.S.) National Reading Panel Report Teaching Children to Read. International Reading Association.

Monaghan, J., & Barry, A. Writing the Past: Teaching Reading in Colonial America and the United States 1640–1940. The Catalog, 1-44.

Starrett, E. V. (2007). Teaching phonics for balanced reading (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Corwin Press, a Sage Publications Company.

Smith, N. (2002). American Reading Instruction. Newark, Delaware: International Reading Association.

The Role of Phonics in Reading Instruction. (1998). . Retrieved July 23, 2014, from http://www.reading.org/Libraries/position-statements-and-resolutions/ps1018_phonics.pdf

Wood, R. That's Right - They're Wrong.
National Review
, 44,49-52.
1857: The McGuffey Eclectic Reader
In 1857,
the McGuffey Eclectic Reader
was published.

This book "stressed learning-appropriate sight words according to grade levels and an organized plan that controlled sentence length and vocabulary to match the developmental level of the child" (Starrett, 2007, p. 2).

This book was one cause of phonics getting pushed out of education and being replaced by whole word reading instruction. Comprehension was seen as the key to reading and phonics was deleted from the curriculum. This presentation will show that, as a form of reading instruction, phonics has gone in and out of favor with the educational community.
Mid 1800s: Horace Mann's Influence
In the mid 1800s, Horace Mann, the secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education, took the lead on eliminating phonics from literacy instruction.

Horace Mann was so impressed with Prussian education (using the whole word method) that he denounced phonics and supported the whole word method of literacy instruction. (Smith, 2002).

Horrace Mann was also a follower of Johann Pestalozzi, about whom Smith says "there was a close connection between the principles advocated by him and such innovation in reading as the introduction of the word method." (Smith, 2002, p.76).

Horace Mann saw phonics as "detrimental to creating a nation of eager and skilled readers". (Belvins, 1998, p.12). Instead, he advocated teaching the whole word method. (Belvins, 1998).
Horace Mann
1985: Focus back on Phonics
The 1980s were crucial for educators who began to realize that literacy education was most effective when more than one teaching model was applied.

The 1985 publication of
Becoming a Nation of Readers: The Report of the Commission on Reading
was essential in continuing to bring phonics back to the forefront of literacy education in combination with other methods. (Belvins, 1998).

This time period was pivotal as educators and researchers began to realize that no single reading program or method was the solution to literacy. Rather, using multiple methods together was the most effective way to raise literacy rates in the United States. (Belvins, 1998).
The Franklin Third Reader
While phonics was not popular in the mid 1800s, there were those who still believed in the method.

In 1878, Hillard and Campbell's The Franklin Third Reader was published. This reader contained lessons in phonics along with stories about morals in order to create good citizens. (Monhagan & Barry, 1999).

An example of the moral teachings is found in the story
The Boy and the Crow
. "Carl's cheese is stolen by the crow while he is chasing a butterfly. It is a lesson about taking what is not yours" (Monhagan & Barry, 1999, p.21).

The Franklin Reader can be seen as the beginning of balanced literacy, offering a mix of phonics and the whole word method.
Today, the focus on literacy instruction is balanced literacy. The International Reading Association position paper on phonics in the classroom sums things up well: “Rather than engage in debates about whether phonics should or should not be taught, effective teachers of reading and writing ask when, how, how much, and under what circumstances phonics should be taught.” (Starrett, 2007, p.6).
1930s: Dick and Jane Books
[Cover image of McGuffy's Eclectic Readers]
July 21, 2014 from http://venezky.stanford.edu/pre-civil-war/
[Image of Harace Mann]
July 21, 2014 from http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/362466/Horace-Mann
[Cover image of The Franklin Third Reader (1878)]
July 21, 2014 from http://www.amazon.com/Franklin-Reader-George-Stillman-Hillard/dp/1120881900
[Cover image of Why Johnny Can't Read]
July 21, 2014 from http://www.wired.com/2012/10/why-johnny-cant-syndicate/
[Image of Jeanne Chall]
July 21, 2014 from http://www.gse.harvard.edu/news-impact/tag/jeanne-chall-lecture/
Cover image of Dick and Jane]
July 21, 2014 from http://www.wikepedia.com

In the 1930s, Dick and Jane books were introduced to literacy instruction.

These new primers contained characters that children could easily relate to and contained stories about childrens' daily activities. (Belvins, 1998).

The Dick and Jane books continued to show the shift away from phonics. Instead of teaching through phonics, these primers used the whole word method. (Belvins, 1998).

The teacher's guide that accompanied the books encouraged teachers to teach through the whole word method rather than phonics. (Belvins, 1998).
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