The History of Teaching Reading

Literacy has had a pivotal role in the development and success of most civilizations, so teaching reading has been one of educators’ main preoccupations for centuries. Early on, everything revolved around the alphabet and letter recognition. Students were required to memorise Biblical verses, poems, and entire passages, in order to recite them fluently. Initial purpose of reading was to be able to interpret religious texts, hence literacy had been primarily reserved for members of the clergy.

The story of more widespread reading instruction begins later on, in the 19th century when reading gained a completely new, informational dimension due to fast-paced industrial development. Reading instruction needed to keep up with the times, and in the early 20th century, the whole-word method was popularised, whereby students, instead of focusing on letters and sounds, relied on memorisation of entire words.

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The whole-word method was there to stay and from it sprung new approaches, such as the basal reading program which involved the use of levelled texts, followed by text-dependent comprehension questions. The 1960s were a decade of change, and reading instruction was not far behind. It saw the rise of phonics-focused instruction referred to as the ‘code-emphasis approach’ since the students were taught ‘the code’ or letter-sound relations (McIntyre 2). Afterwards, it was discovered that readers rely on a number of cues in order to derive meaning from text, and focus shifted to the role of motivation and interest. Hence teachers turned back to the classics, and based their teaching on reading and analysis of literature, which marked a turning point in reading instruction called ‘whole language’ since it was the most holistic approach at the time.

            Whole-language instruction lacked in skill instruction, phonics suffered in particular, which resulted in the replacement of whole-language approach with balanced literacy in the mid-1990s. Balanced literacy combined meaning-centred reading with explicit skill instruction, however, the results hadn’t been entirely satisfactory yet.

            Finally, out of all the abovementioned developments we eventually got what we nowadays know as ‘research-based reading instruction’ which addresses the five key areas: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary, and that strategies used to address these areas needed to be research-based, which means that the effectiveness of these strategies has been supported by a strong research base. Nowadays, since the world is undergoing a further change in terms of demographics, reading instruction is again keeping pace and evolving further in terms of its cultural responsiveness, and that will be discussed in greater detail in the next post.


McIntyre, Ellen, et al. Reading Instruction for Diverse Classrooms. New York, The Guilford Press, 2011.

© 2019 Erna Grcic

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