Learning in and from the past

In an earlier post I mentioned that my students are working on a primary sources assignment. At least one student is writing about a document found in a recently posted digital history collection of material from Madison schools stretching from the 1880s to the mid 1970s. The project is a “cooperative effort between the Madison School & Community Education Library (MSCEL), the UW School of Education and the University of Wisconsin Digital Collections Center (UWDCC). ” It contains over 17,000 pages of material. I’ve only looked at 100 or so, but have found it fascinating.

Here are a couple of choice excerpts from Superintendent Phillip Falk’s 1949 Learning to Read in the Madison Public Schools.

Problems of Long Standing

One of the most common misunderstandings in recent years is the belief that a startling new technique of teaching reading is being used which lacks some of the sterling virtues of the old techniques. Usually the implication is that either the old “alphabet” method, which began with the a b c’s, or the phonic method, which emphasized the sounds of letters, is the logical way to teach beginning reading. Any change in procedure today is looked upon as the cause of every deficiency, from inability to read well orally to poor spelling.

Few adults can remember the method by which they learned to read. Records show that the a b c method was discarded in Madison as early as 1871. In his short report for that year Superintendent B. M. Reynolds stated, “During the year the teachers in the Primary grades have discarded the Alphabetic Method of teaching reading, and have adopted what is called the ‘Word-Method’.”

By 1889 the phonic method, too, was losing ground. In December of that year Isabella Lamont, a primary teacher in Madison’s Second Ward school, read a paper before the state teachers’ convention in which she stated, “In the teaching of reading (which is the key to every other study and is therefore of the first importance) there is the a b c method, the word method, the sentence method, and the phonic method. None of these methods is wrong, but all are incomplete … ” One may well ask how new is new,or how old is old.

And (describing the practices of 1949)

There is no one “best” method of teaching children to read. Almost every known method, technique, or device is utilized as needed – experience, phonetic, word, sentence, story, meaningful drill or practice – not in isolation, but in an approach to a particular problem of a particular group or of a particular child.

Makes sense to me.

Thomas J. Mertz

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