The History of Teaching Review Research Paper

September 21, 2021 by Essay Writer

For decades, literacy teachers have argued about the best methods and approaches for teaching reading. Some of them were found ineffective and, therefore, were discarded, while others proved to be more effective and underwent further development. To understand the state of literacy in the United States nowadays, it is necessary to look back at the past. It appears that some methods suggested over 100 years ago parallel many of those recommended nowadays. This fact demonstrates that the search for the most efficient approaches to teaching reading has preoccupied educators for a long time.

In colonial times, reading material for children was based on Christian, Protestant, and Puritan values. The earliest reader was the Horn Book, a printed introduction to Christianity for children, made of wood with the transparent horn used to protect the alphabet and verses (Barry, 2008). The Horn Book offered an oral, spelling approach to reading, called “the alphabet method.” This method was the primary approach applied to reading instruction until about 1820. It was focused on “knowledge of the alphabet, recitation, spelling bees, oral reading, elocution and memorization of Bible verses” (Shearer, Carr, & Vogt, 2018, p. 10). Shortly before 1690, the New England Primer was designed and published. Along with the alphabet, the textbook included verses, rhymes, and stories, which were still religious and developmentally inappropriate for young children.

In the second half of the 19th century, the need for educated people increased as the result of the Civil War, Gold Rush, and the Industrial Revolution. Educators, Horace Mann in particular, criticized incomprehensible words and tedious topics of essays (Barry, 2008). Thus, the approach towards teaching literacy was gradually changed, and a new type of readers was created. In 1841, the Eclectic series of William Holmes McGuffey was published. It consisted of 55 lessons with pre-reading activities, stories for children, and comprehension questions. The readers “were focused on alphabet knowledge, phonics, syllables, and sight words, and stories were written at increasingly difficult reading levels” (Shearer et al., 2018, p. 11). The stories spread cultural and religious values. However, some of them contained information about history, biology, astronomy, and so on.

Around the time of the Civil War, “phonic” readers started to appear. They emphasized the sounds that letters made instead of merely their names. These readers used an approach that transformed letters into sounds and then blended the sounds (Barry, 2008). By the end of the 1800s, educators developed synthetic phonics approaches, which are widely applied in the 21st century. Such readers followed a certain sequence: first, using pictures, teach the letter names and their sounds; second, sound out and blend words; third, orally read sentences and stories containing words with the letters and sounds learned (Barry, 2008). At about this time, the material also changed, and reading series commonly included a primer and five or six graded readers.

The first female author, whose series of books were widely sold, was Ellen Cyr. Her books represented changes both of methods and of cultural values they spread. She introduced silent-reading comprehension activities and instruction. Since Cyr’s primer was much longer than those of her contemporaries, children could practice new words in context long enough before additional words were given. Regarding cultural changes, the main characters of her stories were also women and girls who took action, which was unusual for that time.

In the first half of the 20th century, the support of federal and state legislatures facilitated universal education in the United States. Nevertheless, immigrants, descendants of former slaves, children of the poor still had little access to formal education. Gradually, reading for religious purposes was replaced by reading for information and commerce. When the United States entered the First World War, the armed forces had to identify men who demonstrated leadership (Shearer et al., 2018). It led to the introduction of the first large-scale testing program in the country and the development of instruments, some of which underwent certain modifications and are in use nowadays.

Educators introduced new approaches to the content development of readers. Topics started to change from fairy tales to more realistic stories about children’s life. The grade-level reading materials influenced the work of researchers, who analyzed and identified the words most frequently used in books. As a result, readers included stories based on lists of thoroughly controlled vocabulary and sight words that were frequently repeated so that a child eventually learned to read them (Shearer et al., 2018). At the beginning of the 20th century, the teaching of reading became a separate professional field, and there appeared professional literature for literacy teachers.

From the mid- 1930s to until the 1980s, teachers throughout the country used Foresman’s Basic Readers for teaching reading, generally known as the “Dick and Jane” series (Barry, 2008). These books were usually centered on a “typical” white, middle-class American family and their pets, who lived in the suburbs, although later versions of the series had illustrations of children of different ethnicities. The textbooks included teachers’ guides together with scripted lessons, supplementary materials, and word lists in the back of each book. This series was predominantly based on whole-word approach.

In 1955, Rudolf Flesch published his book Why Johnny Can’t Read and What You Can Do About It, in which he aggressively criticized the whole-word method and advocated the phonics method (Barry, 2008). This publication initiated a decades-long phenomenon called “The Reading Wars.” The book Learning to Read: The Great Debate, written in 1967, divided educators into those who supported synthetic phonics and those who preferred holistic and analytic methods of phonics instruction (Shearer et al., 2018). As a result, new approaches appeared, and the idea of these methods was to “provide beginning readers with consistency, explicit instruction, a great deal of practice in decoding, and the gradual introduction of texts that contained the specific linguistic elements that were being taught” (Shearer et al., 2018, p. 14). Later, as professionals noticed that phonics and decoding were overemphasized, they focused on developing exercises which helped students to improve comprehension skills such as finding the main idea, identifying cause-effect relationships, sequencing, etc.

After the two world wars, there was a time of growing nationalism, and the concept of the United States as a sociological melting pot promoted cultural and linguistic assimilation. As the country entered the Cold War, millions of dollars were invested to reform science, mathematics, and reading programs in schools. Despite the announcement of “education for all,” the rich and the poor had unequal opportunities for quality education, especially in racially segregated schools. According to Barry (2008), a significant change took place in 1965 when a minority family appeared in a reading program. A focus on the difference in skin color caused a shift in values across a century of reading materials. The emphasis altered from “virtue, honesty, obedience, and purity” to “good self-concept, appreciation of difference and regard for nature” (Barry, 2008, p. 44). At that time, school reading programs were called basal reading programs and consisted of graded-level textbooks and workbooks with phonics activities and comprehension skill practice. Teachers got thoroughly structured guides with lesson plans for low, average, and high group levels.

In the 1980s and 1990s, psychologists, linguists, and educators got interested in how readers think about text, how they connect information during reading, and finally construct meaning. Earlier, experts were focused only on finite skills that learners develop, but then they started to discuss “how to build students’ backgrounds, promote concept formation, instill joy and delight in reading” (Shearer et al., 2018, p. 15), as well as how to connect the language processes of reading, writing, listening, and speaking.

At the beginning of the 21st century, teachers got more autonomy, which meant that approaches to reading and writing became more dynamic and process-oriented. New methods were also better adapted to the changing student population. Literature circles gained in popularity as teachers noticed that student-to-student interaction was useful for comprehension improvement and development of critical language skills. New approaches were based on authentic texts and explicit skill instruction. Teachers found different ways to work with students; at times they worked with the whole class or formed groups for work on a particular skill or strategy. Since No Child Left Behind was signed into law in 2002, some new changes took place (Shearer et al., 2018). For instance, teachers were supposed to systematically assess children’s phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension. States were required to establish the performance level which students needed to reach to be identified as “proficient.” The percentage of proficient students was expected to increase so that all students reached proficiency by the year 2014 (Shearer et al., 2018). In 2009 and 2010, the federal government implemented the Race to the Top initiative (Shearer et al., 2018). Its main goal was to guarantee that all graduates would be prepared to meet the requirement of college or careers. In December 2015, the US Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) (Shearer et al., 2018). It gave more autonomy to states and emphasized the importance of quality teacher education.

Despite all the achievements in teaching literacy, there are still over 30 million people in the United States with limited reading skills. At the same time, there are debates about issues such as professional standards, reaching all students, helping close an achievement gap, promoting cultural and linguistic diversity. Therefore, it is necessary to remain focused on finding increasingly efficient ways to improve the educational system.


Barry, A. (2008). Reading the past: Historical antecedents to contemporary reading methods and materials. A Journal of Literacy and Language Arts, 49(1). Web.

Shearer, B. A., Carr, D. A., & Vogt, M. (2018). Reading specialists and literacy coaches in the real world: Fourth edition. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, Inc.

Read more