Two Books and a Blackboard

By: Linda Schrock Taylor - June 20, 2005

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THEN…two books used to teach spelling, vocabulary comprehension, and reading, (as well as character development), up through the level of such words as: reciprocity, legerdemain, perspicacity, impenetrability, portmanteau, Neapolitans…

Left: The New England Primer, Boston, 1777

Right: The American Spelling Book by Noah Webster, Esq. 1824

(Note on cover: Containing The Rudiments of the English Language for the Use of Schools in the United States.)

"The Rudiments of the English Language…"! If the above vocabulary words are considered the rudiments of our language, at what language development level are teachers presently instructing — babbling??

America was once a nation of literate, thinking, people. This level of education was brought about, despite the fact that there was (fortunately) a dearth of huge textbook publishing houses selling instructional materials that level a population down — while economically thriving by impoverishing taxpayers through repeat purchases of continually rewritten, updated, ineffective, expensive, aligned to standards and benchmarks, containing more colorful and current photos that will soon cause the new editions to look as outdated as the former editions so that taxpayers must buy yet more books from huge textbook publishing houses. (Whew! And we once thought that being hijacked on the merry-go-round by a group of boys intent on whirling us until we became physically ill was the worst thing that could happen at school!)

When America had a literate population, schools used books that had proven their merit, generation after generation, by successfully providing children with the information and strategies necessary for learning to read, write and spell at very accomplished levels.

Such seemingly simple books were used so effectively that average Americans could skillfully read, contemplate, and express opinions on such as The Federalist Papers and the writings of thinkers like Thomas Paine. Even then, as explained in this essay by Geraldine E. Rodgers, the move towards whole-word dumbing down began early in America, much to the dismay of Webster, the author of the Blue-Backed Speller.


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SOME…of the reading materials from one reading series…teacher manuals plus most, but not all, of the materials to teach one child through the first half of third grade

Here pictured are books from Open Court, a company that I do respect, although I much prefer their series from the late 80's/early 90's. My now-grown deaf students still remember and love those books, especially the basal reader, From Sea to Shining Sea.

I was surprised to see, after being out of elementary schools for nine years to teach high school special ed, that Open Court had grown so unbelievably bulky and labor-intensive. I know teachers who are being forced to use this new series with directives to follow every word list and every script — to the letter. These teachers are very unhappy to have their unique and effective teaching styles discounted and compromised by representatives of the company, and I don't blame these teachers at all.

This forcing of every teacher to march lockstep appears to be the order of the day. The key words are there in the various offerings — scripted, direct instruction, decodable text, phonemic awareness, alphabetic principle, fluency…but the interest in teaching, and in learning, are being destroyed. After a year of watching my students deal with the above materials plus the shallow stories that teachers must photocopy and staple into little booklets, I found myself thinking that I was quite lucky to have learned to read with the old Dick & Jane books:

See Puff Go

Come here, Dick.
Come and see Puff.
See Puff play.
See Puff jump.
Puff can jump and play.
Oh, Mother. Mother.
Come and look.
See Puff jump and play.

(Scott Foresman and Company, 1951)

Of course, the problem with the Look-Say methods, as with so many in use today, is that (to quote my Mother), "The children who do learn to read manage to accomplish that feat in spite of the teaching." Too right. I learned to read because I was ready to read, and because I had been read to a great deal at home, and because I was intuitive and thus figured out most of the Code in which English is written on my own through trial and error. (I never became a great speller, though, until I began using the Spalding Reading Method and learned the complete Code and how it is used to record Speech to Print.)

Noah Webster knew how to put together a group of lessons that would methodically teach spelling, and thus reading. His organization is superb with no superfluous worksheets or stapled booklets.

Analysis of sounds in the English language
The Alphabet
Double letters
Words of one syllable
Formation of the plural from the singular
Easy words of two syllables, accented on the first
Easy words of two syllables, accented on the second
Easy words of three syllables; the full accent on the first, and a weak accent on the third

(Students were working with three syllable words plus accenting by the 10th page after the introduction of the Alphabet!)

Step-by-careful-step, Webster's American Spelling Book instructed students in how to methodically spell and read English words. By this 10th page, children would be reading and spelling words that included: abdomen, arrogant, barrister, rudiment, drollery, drapery, lunacy, notary, cruelty, Crucifix, simony (Definition: buying or selling of a church office.)

Since those words seem quite challenging for a child who would be in the early spelling lessons, I decided to look them up in the Children's Writer's Word Book. Abdomen is a 6th grade word. Arrogant is a 6th grade word. Drape is a 5th grade word, so drapery must be rated higher than that. Lunatic is a 6th grade word, and probably lunacy is ranked higher than that. Cruel is a 5th grade word, but Webster presents the word, cruelty. The other words are not in the Word Book, which only lists words through the 6th grade level.

Well, no wonder that Americans in that era could read and discuss The Federalist Papers! Why wouldn't they when even children were being gifted with such opportunities to rapidly develop a challenging vocabulary base? Why are we not providing the children of today with rapid opportunities to become successful readers? Why aren't the children of today, with all of the technology and resources now available, learning to read faster and better than the children of the late 1700's and early 1800's?

If children would be taught to read rapidly so that their interest doesn't wane, and their enthusiasm die, their ambitions in life would change and they would see the sky as the only limiting factor in life. Too many children today fail to even see in hope in life.

img missingBesides…what a financial savings for taxpayers! We could return those basal reading series then use a fraction of the $change$ to buy each teacher a blackboard and a couple blue books.

June 20, 2005


Copyright © 2005- Linda Schrock Taylor All Rights Reserved.