Introduction

From: Let’s Read

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Introduction Cynthia A. Barnhart and Robert K. Barnhart A Short History When Wayne State University Press first published Let’s Read in 1961, the Bloomfield System, as the method was often referred to, already had accumulated a history. Developed by the eminent American linguist Leonard Bloomfield (1887–1949) in the 1920s, in its first form Bloomfield’s program was essentially a series of lists from which the learner was taught to read by learning the basic spelling patterns of English. Bloomfield had concluded that, from the linguist’s point of view, the majority of school reading programs were illogical and unnecessarily difficult. His conclusion was based on an analysis of the underlying principles and organization of these programs. At that time, reading texts could be roughly described—and might still be described—as based on either the concept of sight-to-sense (visual recognition) or sound-to-sense (phonics), sense here meaning comprehension. Sight-based, or look-say, programs rely upon the pupil’s memorization of a limited collection of vocabulary words that serve as an introduction to reading. Early sight-based texts were frequently composed of familiar biblical passages that a pupil memorized. After having “learned” them, the pupil was able to read, largely by analogy.1 In later and more sophisticated look-say reading texts, the vocabulary was chosen because students were familiar with it through usage, but the words themselves were unrelated| 3 1. This method is also used by children who teach themselves to read. Essentially, they memorize words from favorite stories that have been read to them often and then transfer their recognition of these words to the same combination of letters in other contexts. By analogy they break the code. c y n t h i a a . b a r n h a rt a n d r o b e rt k . b a r n h a rt 4 | to each other in orthographic structure, or how their sounds are represented by letters. All such reading programs assume that by reading and rereading, writing and rewriting a particular and limited vocabulary, the pupil gradually will come to infer the phonetic system of written English. In other words, over time the pupil will utilize the vocabulary already learned (or memorized) to form an idea of how written English translates into the language we speak. Sound-based, or phonics, programs have long been available as well. Early phonics texts were simply lists of rhyming words, some including pronunciation keys. Sound-based approaches recognize that written English has an alphabetic structure, and they attempt to apply that understanding of its phonetic structure to reading instruction. The difficulty of teaching reading by means of phonics only is that it assigns to individual letters a particular sound, or often many individual sounds, with rules explaining why pronunciations of certain combinations of letters are not consistent in actual spoken language. Phonics, in a sense, sets up a conflict between individual pronunciation systems and a synthetic (idealized) representation of actual language, which quite naturally can complicate learning to read. Bloomfield recognized that while these approaches differed in how they introduced reading to the pupil (either by looking or by sound), they both drew on vocabulary that was not representative of the alphabetic structure of English spelling. They also shared a patchy record of success in teaching large numbers of children and adults to read. Nevertheless, contemporary reading texts continue to embrace these methodologies. Although today’s phonics- and sight-based texts pay more attention to word structure and spelling patterns, they remain largely interest-based; that is, they try to capture the pupil’s attention through attractive designs and a selection of familiar vocabulary embedded in simple reading that deals with familiar situations. Bloomfield looked at the task of learning to read differently. He viewed written language as a code and therefore decipherable. Contrary to the belief held at the time (and still prevalent today), that the English spelling system is chaotic, Bloomfield’s analysis showed that English spelling is at least 80 percent predictable or alphabetic. This regularity allowed him to design a method that capitalizes on the alphabetic nature of written English. He believed that if there were greater emphasis upon teaching the phonemic sound-letter correlations of English—how the alphabet is used to represent various sound patterns in the language—the pupil would have a much easier road toward mastery of the code. He...