The History of Phonics: The Oldest Argument in the World

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Written by Bill Schnarr

Did you know that one of the most politicized debates going on right now across the country isn't security, the war on terror, or even the abortion debate?

This debate has caused the death of many political careers while at the same time launched others into the stratosphere. As you read this, there are people in just about every corner of the country taking up arms for the side they believe in.

So just what is it that has everyone so angry and polarized? What could be so important that millions of people are ready and willing to tirelessly fight for their side?

It's children's literacy.


Children's literacy, and more importantly the Phonics Vs. Whole Word debate, is one of the most politically charged campaign platforms a politician can use. In their quest for votes, more than a few politicians have become casualties in what has been dubbed the “Reading Wars”.

Even as surprising as this revelation in, it may surprise you even more to learn that the phonics reading comprehension debate started almost 500 years ago, and it started with the Catholic Church and an angry priest named Martin Luther.

The Phonics Reformation

When Martin Luther decided he’d had enough of the pope and the Catholic Church in the 16th century, he figured it was time for a change. His disagreements were part metaphysical, but he also had problems with the way the church conducted itself.

Part of Luther’s anger stemmed from the fact the Church conducted all of its services in Latin. The Catholic Church believed that Latin was a pure language, and the only one fit for worshipping God.

This left the everyday common folk out of the loop, so to speak. The largely illiterate masses of Eastern Europe could hardly be expected to read and write Latin if they could barely master their native tongues. This was simply another sign to Luther that the Catholic Church had lost touch with the common man.

In anger, he caused a split in the Catholic Church at its fundamental level—a branch in another direction. Both sides were angry, and both sides accused the other of Heresy. Nevertheless, the deed had been done, and the Catholic Church had its first competitor for the souls of good Christians everywhere.

Martin Luther's protest would have been impossible were it not for the advent of the printing press. He used propaganda to great effect, printing slanderous pictures of the pope and the Catholic Church and putting them anywhere people might see them. A loyal following quickly formed around him, and he was all set for his new church.

One of the first things Luther and his followers did was to go about transcribing the Bible and several other holy texts from Latin to English. He began to teach all of his sermons in English, and taught the people the proper Latin prayers in English, so they could be understood.

There was still the problem with illiteracy, however, and Luther saw that his work was useless unless he could somehow be teaching reading of the newly translated books. Always up for a challenge, he and his men set about developing an easy, singular way of learning to read the English Language.

In other words, Luther and his followers invented Phonics.

200 Years of Boring Drills

For the next 200 years or so, the phonics system of learning remained basically unchanged. There were many attempts to improve it, but the core ideas remained essentially the same—constant repetition of alphabetic code training, syllable memorization, and finally decoding words by "sounding them out".

The first step was memorization of the Alphabetic Code. Every letter is assigned a sound, and some (such as “c” or vowel letters) have soft and hard versions. Children were taught to memorize these sounds, or phonemes through drilling. Often, these drills were said aloud, in a chorus, or as kids games as the children went through all of the letters.

Next, they were taught the 44 distinct sounds of the English language. Of course, some of these overlap with the single letter sounds of the alphabetic code training. Generally, these were single syllable nonsense sounds that could be strung together to form small three and four letter words.

When the children had progressed to the point where they could identify single words, they were given the task of simple sentences. Naturally, this progressed to the point where they were reading regular text from books and playing card & board games.

In every case, the importance of phonic training is the memorization of sounds and words. This can make for an interesting situation where a child can read a word properly yet has no idea what the word means.

Nonetheless, the point of phonics is reading, not comprehension. Educators of the time felt that comprehension would come with time, as long as the student kept working on their phonic training. In other words, read enough, and eventually it will all make sense.

19th Century Changes

In the 19th Century several developments occurred in the way phonics were taught that changed the system forever. Additionally, several new forms of literacy training arrived on the scene.

McGuffey’s Eclectic Reader for Young Children produced phonics-work for schools and parents from the 1830’s to the 1920s. What made these books important was that they contained a modified “phonic” alphabet that included all of the digraphs.

Digraphs are the two-letter combinations in the English language such as “ch”, “th”, and “sh”. The digraphs were specially marked for easier recognition. This form of phonic instruction immediately became popular, and its use has continued to this day.

In the 1840s the Oswego method of learning was developed. The Oswego method did away with boring, repetitive phonics drills altogether and instead focused on stories for phonetic learning.

Later, in the 1880s, a man named F.W. Parker devised a system where children did away with phonics learning altogether. Parker’s belief was that “reading is thinking”, and developed a system where children learned how to read and write by writing their own books.

According to experts, he claimed at one point to have a personal library of over 10,000 books all written by children. It was his belief that the more children were exposed to the relationships of words in regards to one another, the more they would understand about how the English language worked.

Some people believe that this formula would prove to be the grandfather of Whole Word Learning, the arch-enemy of the phonic system of learning.

Can You Spell Pinko?

The development of whole word learning began to split the education sector as early as the 1920s. On one side were traditionalists, who favoured the phonic method of code-emphasis, and on the other side were more holistic-minded whole word supporters, who favoured the meaning-emphasis method.

As time progressed, this separation became more pronounced. Study after study was done for both sides, each having the desired effect of polarizing the two groups even more. The, during the 1950s, a series of articles were written that turned the learning debate into a political one, and the Great Reading Wars officially began.

Rudolf Flesch’s novel, “Why Johnny Can’t Read”, was published in 1955 and became one of first strikes of the now right-wing phonics stable against the whole word supporters on the left wing. The novel oversimplified the argument, hinted at left-wing conspiracies within the education system, and eluded to communist plots that would “dumb-down” the children of America.

Obviously, supporters of whole word learning were outraged. They struck back by likening phonics drills to military brainwashing, something that would drive all sense of individuality out of children and create mindless automatons dedicated to the government.

With both sides now howling and eager for blood, it was a perfect place for election-minded politicians to catch root. The reading war became a political platform, with politicians on both sides rallying to the cause of their constituents.

Today, this war continues. There seems little hope for either side to give up their fight. In almost every school board in North America this debate continues. In some places, code-emphasis is preferred as the “proper” way for literacy and reading fluency training, while in others it’s the meaning-emphasis method. The result has been a mosaic of education systems across the country where a curriculum can vary greatly from one county to the next.

Hope for the Future

It is into this political minefield that a new concept has recently wandered.

Known as a Balanced Approach to reading and writing, it is actually a combination of word-memorization and phonics training mixed into a single learning style. This type of education uses a strong background of phonics training but does away with many of the old phonics laws in favour of the holistic reading and meaning-emphasis of whole word learning.

This method is slowly winning support from both sides, although critics claim it is merely an effort to stop the reading debates and its results are mostly unfounded.

Of course, there are many studies coming out now that say the balanced approach is the best way to go. Only time will tell if these studies are right.

Looking back to the beginning of the Phonics method, it is hard to believe that Martin Luther and his followers could possible have believed that their method of teaching prayers and the Bible to illiterate farmers would be at the root of one of the most highly debated topics in education today.

Of course, one could also go back to one of the great minds of the Enlightenment Era, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. On a much deeper level, this argument is really about what is better for mankind: discipline or freedom.

The Discipline Vs. Freedom argument is as old and basic as time itself. There will always be people on both sides of that fence.

Unfortunately, the Phonics Vs. Whole Word debate seems to be destined for that same fate.


About The Author

Bill Schnarr is a successful freelance copywriter providing valuable tips and advice for consumers purchasing reading lesson plans, how children learn to read and teaching reading to children. His numerous articles offer moneysaving tips and valuable insight on typically confusing topics.

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