A Historical Perspective on Reading Research and Practice
Patricia A. Alexander
At the time the International Reading Association was created in 1956, the reading research community was poised at a new juncture in its history (Monaghan & Saul, 1987). The efforts of researchers during this period gave rise to extensive literature on learners and the learning process that remains an enduring legacy for the domain of reading. Yet, this was not the only period of significant change the reading community has experienced in the past 50 years. In fact, reading has periodically responded to internal and external forces resulting in both gradual and dramatic transformations to the domain— transformations that have altered reading study and practice. Our purpose here is to position those transformations within a historical framework. As with others (e.g., VanSledright, 2002), we hold that such a historical perspective allows for reasoned reflection and a certain wisdom that can be easily lost when one is immersed in ongoing study and practice. That is because a historical perspective broadens the vista on reading and adds a critical dimension to the analysis of present-day events and issues.
To capture this historical perspective, we survey eras in reading research and practice that have unfolded in the past 50 years and that symbolize alternative perspectives on learners and learning. For each era, we describe certain internal and external conditions that helped to frame that period, as well as the views and principles of learning that are characteristic of that era. Moreover, we explore both the prevailing views of learning within those periods and rival stances that existed as educational undercurrents. To bring this historical vista into focus, we highlight exemplary and prototypic works that encapsulate the issues and concerns of the time. Of course, we recognize that the boundaries and distinctions we draw between these eras are approximations of permeable and overlapping periods of reading research and practice. Nonetheless, these eras remain a useful platform from which the subsequent contributions in this volume can be explored.
The Era of Conditioned Learning (1950–1965)
The Conditions for Change
As early as the first decades of the 20th century, during the nascence of psychology, the processes of reading were already of passing interest to educational researchers (e.g., Buswell, 1922; Huey, 1908; Thorndike, 1917). However, it was not until much later in that century that reading became a recognized field of study with systematic programs of research aimed at ascertaining its fundamental nature and the processes of its acquisition. Although reading had long been a basic component of formal schooling in the United States, there was little concerted effort to marry research knowledge and instructional practice until much later in the 20th century. Instigation for that marked change came as a result of a confluence of social, educational, political, and economic factors during the 1950s.
The postwar United States was a fertile ground for transformations in reading research and practice for several reasons. For one, the high birth rate during and immediately following World War II resulted in record numbers of children entering the public school system (Ganley, Lyons, & Sewall, 1993). This baby boom contributed to both quantitative and qualitative changes to the school population. One of the qualitative changes was a seeming rise in the number of children experiencing difficulties in learning to read. Such reading problems, although nothing new to teachers, took on particular significance in the age of Sputnik, as America's ability to compete globally became a defining issue (Allington & McGill-Franzen, 2000, see #1 this volume). The outcome was a growing public pressure on the educational community to find an answer to the “problem” of reading acquisition.
One of the groundbreaking but controversial publications of this period was Why Johnny Can't Read—And What You Can Do About It by Rudolf Flesch (1955). This book exemplified a growing interest in reading research and its relevance to educational practice (Ruddell, 2002). In arguments reminiscent of contemporary debates, Flesch attacked the prevailing look-say method of reading instruction as a contributor to the reading problems experienced by many U.S. students. As the basis for his attack, Flesch referenced research that established the effectiveness of phonics-based techniques over those that relied on a whole-word approach. Before long, books such as The New Fun With Dick and Jane (Gray, Artley, & Arbuthnot, 1951), with their look-say approach, gave way to controlled vocabulary readers and synthetic phonics drill and practice in such approaches as the Lippincott Basic Reading Program, Reading With Phonics, and Phonetic Keys to Reading (Chall, 1967).
Alexander, P.A., & Fox, E. (2004).
A Historical Perspective on Reading Research and Practice.
In R.B. Ruddell, & N.J. Unrau (Eds.), Theoretical Models and Processes of Reading (pp. 33-68). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.