Posted by: Kenn Hermann | December 20, 2007

The Art of Teaching Reading in 1660

How difficult is it to teach a child to read? Based on several indicators, it must be very difficult — and very expensive — to teach children to read since we are clearly are not doing it well, despite the millions we now spend on sundry ‘new’ programs. Several threads on this subject have recently come together for me. First, the National Endowment for the Arts recently released a report on the alarming fall-off in reading among young adults over the past decade; I have written a blog, “Reading IS Fundamental,” reflecting on that report.

Second, a student in my “Technology and Society” class this semester wrote a term paper on the expensive computer-based “Success for All” reading program that her school district recently purchased. They spent $175,000 for the initial program. That was just the beginning. The board soon discovered the undisclosed and hidden costs of buying the reading books for each grade level and the trade books required for the lesson plans. Costs to implement other parts of the program have continued to climb. There have been numerous additional cascading unanticipated costs and consequences of purchasing this program. Of course, such an expensive system required an extensive restructuring of the entire school, curriculum, and teachers to insure “success for all.” To date, the program has only managed to raise reading scores minimally across the district.

“Success for All” is only one of many such programs that got in line for the billion dollars that Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” ladled out to school districts to raise reading scores. The qualifying programs were supposed to be rooted in rigorous scientific research that had proven to be effective. I have good news: an effective, rigorous reading program was demonstrated over 350 years ago!

One of the many delights of being an historian and a bookseller is that I often come across old books that still speak to our present concerns. I recently acquired a facsimile copy of Charles Hoole’s A New Discovery of the Old Arte of Teaching Schoole that he wrote in 1660. Hoole, Samuel Hartlib and John Comenius, were pioneers in reforming education in England during the mid-17th century. Hoole’s writings on teaching in petty schools, grammar schools, and Latin schools were widely praised and followed. A petty school taught young boys, beginning as early as four or five, to read, write, and ‘cast accounts.’ Having mastered those skills, they were then ready for grammar school. Hoole believed that children as young as 3 “had great propensity to peep into a book, and then is the most seasonable time . . . for him to begin to learn; . . . though perhaps then he cannot speak so very distinctly . . . .”

Perhaps Hoole has something important to teach us about the simple art of teaching young children to read — if we have ears to listen. No expensive computers, gimmicks, or other bells-and-whistles; just plain, sane, tried-and-true methods that were successfully employed all across England. Literacy rates were exceptionally high throughout England in the 17th century. Similar methods were employed in New England schools in the 17th c.

Hoole’s chapter headings: Chap. I: How a childe may be helped in the first pronunciation of his Letters; Chap. II: How a childe may be taught with delight to know all his letters in a very little time; Chap. III: How to teach a childe to spell distinctly; Chap. IV: How a child may be taught to read any English Book perfectly; Chap. V: Wherein children, when the Latine tongue is thought to be unnecessary, are to be employed after they can read English well. I have scanned the first 28 pages of the text to give you a feel for the simplicity and wisdom of his plan.

It will take you minutes to read through and master his method. After doing so, tell me again why a school district needs to spend over a quarter million dollars for a program that fails to deliver on its promises to dramatically improve reading? How ignorant have we become of the successful educational methods of our ancestors that we believe we have to invent new ones over and over and . . . .? Charles Hoole promised to teach all manner of young children to read well, using nothing more sophisticated than cards, blocks, and other small toys. He actually delivered ‘success for all’ of the thousands of pupils who were taught with his method — 350 years ago.

Given the expense and difficulty of teaching children to read, it is a wonder that I — and millions of other children — learned to read quite well in the 1950s with only Dick and Jane books and the prodding of Mrs. Olson, my first-grade teacher. What did Hoole and Mrs. Olson know that modern reading teachers do not?

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