A Brief History of Learning to Read

reading child.pngLibrarians and educators use the term “early literacy” to refer to the skills that children need to pick up before they are capable of learning to read, and the practices that build those skills. Although different sources list slightly different lists of skills or practices in terms of early literacy, the Every Child Ready to Read initiative is generally treated as the definitive word. The first edition of ECRR came out in 2004, offering a list of six skills: print motivation, print awareness, letter knowledge, vocabulary, narrative skills, and phonological awareness. The second edition, launched in 2011, simplified and summarized its approach by listing five practices that promote early literacy: talking, singing, reading, writing, and playing. The six skills and five practices dovetail nicely, and most public library’s children’s departments make a point of informing parents and caregivers on how to effectively use these practices with children and help build these skills. Of course, ECRR is based on extensive research and is backed by the Public Library Association and Association for Library Service to Children. I intend to write more about early literacy in the future, ­­and in the meantime, if you’re interested in more information, go to www.everychildreadytoread.org or talk to the children’s librarians at your local public library.

This blog post is about something different: history. Because, after all, children were learning how to read long before 2004. Early literacy has existed for as long as literacy has existed, and yet the term wasn’t widely used until relatively recently. Just for fun, I thought I’d explore the various ways in which children have learned to read over the ages.

hieroglyphicsIn the ancient world, many cultures had some form of writing, such as Sumerian cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphics, or various syllabary writing systems. Not everyone had formal education, and only a select few people learned how to read and write. For those who did, it took a number of years. We don’t have a lot of specific information about how literacy was taught in different cultures, how long it took to train to become a scribe, and exactly what proportion of the population was literate. We do know that at least the Sumerians primarily learned to read and write by copying lists of words from one side of their tablet to the other. Certainly, in every culture, memorization was key.

The invention of the alphabet was a major historical turning point. Scholars debate what the first alphabet was, not only because it’s historically uncertain, but because it depends upon how exactly one defines an alphabet. Egyptians began the system of phonetic spelling through their use of symbols for consonants. Slightly later, the Ugarit writing system, used in modern day Syria, took a step closer to a phonetic alphabet. It was derived from the Akkadian cuneiform, which in turn came from the Sumerian writing. The Ugarit writing system was a large influence on the Phoenician alphabet, which in turn influenced the Greek alphabet, which some linguists herald as the first completely phonetic alphabet. Meanwhile, the Hebrews developed an alphabet for consonants only, and they are worth mentioning as a culture that had a particularly high literacy rate.

One advantage to an alphabet system is that it takes far less time to learn than cuneiform, hieroglyphics, or syllabaries. In fact, it relies on entirely different cognitive processes. Prior to phonetic alphabets, reading had to be learned by associating the written word with its meaning, but the phonetic alphabet allows readers to start with individual sounds, form those sounds into syllables and those syllables into words, and suddenly have a the capability of sounding out any word, even if it is unfamiliar. Of course, that’s an oversimplification, and learning to read is still challenging. But young students are now capable of reading whole sentences by the time they’ve had a couple years of formal education. People can become proficient readers earlier in life and can read and write with greater efficiency. Historically, this has had a substantial impact on societies’ rate of innovation, progress, and academic achievement.

However, it resulted in a loss or oral tradition. We now remember the Greeks more for their advances in literacy than for their excellent memory for oral tradition, but many of them would have valued the latter far more. In fact, Socrates opposed the spread of literacy for reasons that are very interesting, but probably best saved for a separate blog post.

In Greek and Roman culture, formal education was usually only available to boys from rich families. These boys usually attended school from about the ages of seven to thirteen. (In Rome, the wealthiest families hired private tutors, at least for students under the age of about nine.) In Sparta, education focused on physical training, and much of the population was illiterate. However, both in Athenian culture and in Roman culture, reading and writing were taught together, starting with letters, then syllables, then words, and finally sentences. Once students were reading longer works, they were expected to memorize and recite literature. In Rome, young scholars were expected to be literate by the time they were about nine, at which time their education focused on literature and rhetoric. They were expected to know both Greek and Latin.

The Roman empire had a relatively high literacy rate, although much ground was lost in that regard in the early middle ages. Once again, education was available only to the most wealthy, although some places had grammar school for even the middle class. Unlike in Rome, where teachers were often slaves, in the middle ages, the clergy was largely responsible for education. After 1179, the church provided free education that covered at least the most basic academic skills. Generally, children would start school at the age of seven. The schoolday lasted from sunup to sundown. Because of the scarcity of parchment, students practiced writing on wax tablets, as in earlier Roman schools.

hornbookBy the end of the fifteenth century, the hornbook was widespread as a tool for teaching children to read and write. A hornbook was a wooden board with a sheet of paper attached to it, covered with a layer of animal horn, thus giving the hornbook its name. The paper had the alphabet and the Lord’s Prayer. Once a student mastered the alphabet, they would move on to a speller, a book that had syllables for the student to read. For example, a young reader would learn ab, eb, and ib before learning to read whole words that contain those syllables. This was in keeping with the Greek and Roman system for learning to read.

literacy chartIn the sixteenth century, formal education became much more common. Not surprisingly, literacy rates rose sharply by the middle of the century, and they have been rising ever since, as demonstrated in this lovely chart by Max Roser. (Go to the website http://ourworldindata.org/data/education-knowledge/literacy/ for the full article and plenty of other relevant and interesting graphics) There were a few other changes to the pedagogy of reading in the sixteenth century. The biggest was that people started to read and write in their native language rather than Latin. Another innovation, at least for the English language, that occurred at the very end of the sixteenth century, was standardized spelling.

Although it certainly was positive to teach people to read in their own language and to standardize spelling, it led indirectly to what we now know as sight words, because it made it possible for the young reader to guess words without the painstaking process of sounding it out. In 1826, the first sight-word primers were published, and within a few years, it was the norm. Although all fluent readers can recognize a word without taking the time to sound it out, it is debatable whether this practice is helpful to the beginning reader.

Many educators and researchers, as early as Joseph Rice in the 1880s, found that students weren’t performing as well as they had under a phonics-based approach. It was around 1900 when spelling began to be taught as a separate subject from reading, largely because of this deterioration in phonetic awareness. A book called “Why Johnny Can’t Read” by Rudolf Flesch, published in 1955, argued for the return of a phonics-based system of teaching children to read. This debate still has not been entirely settled. Although research overwhelmingly shows the benefit of learning to read by phonics, schools still rely on sight words and whole-language approaches.

According to this 2009 article, libraries’ roles in early literacy didn’t really begin until the 1940s, when libraries began offering storytimes to support reading readiness. In 1954, the Newark Public Library in New Jersey put out a list of skills and activities learned in storytimes, including “Enjoying looking at picture books”, “Listening to stories”, “Counting”, “Distinguishing between colors”, and “Practicing the concept of rhythm”, among a number of others. This list is comparable, although not identical, to early literacy skills as promoted by modern public libraries.

Research on literacy and early literacy has moved forward remarkably quickly over the last generation, but most of the activities recommended now have been in practice for a while. For example, songs and rhymes have always been popular with young children and have been used by parents, but we now know that this builds phonological awareness. It is now widely established that even infants can enjoy books and that the number one thing that a parent can do to encourage a love for reading is to expose children to books at a young age, which many parents have done for as long as books have been readily available.


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