Massachusetts during the Colonial period and the early days of the Republic was probably the most literate society that the world had ever seen. According to the census of 1840, only 1.1% of adults in Massachusetts were illiterate. Literacy among native‐born English speakers in Massachusetts was probably far higher in 1840 than it is today. The high rate of literacy in Massachusetts was no accident.
- Parents were required by law to ensure that their children learned to read.
- Local governments were required to provide schooling.
- The early schools used an effective phonetic method of teaching reading.
The main purpose of the schools in Massachusetts was to teach children how to read, so that they could learn to read the Bible and the laws of the Commonwealth. Because of this emphasis on literacy, the people of Massachusetts used a highly effective method of teaching children to read. They taught children to sound out the words letter by letter. Today, this approach is called phonics. To make this method easy, a book that was called the New England Primer was first published in the 1680s. The New England Primer started off with teaching the alphabet. Then it showed how those letters are combined into syllables and how those syllables are combined into words. You can see the 1843 edition of the New England Primer here. As you can see, it was intended to teach a Calvinist form of Christianity as much as it was intended to teach reading.
At the end of the Revolutionary War, Noah Webster published a grammar book, a spelling book, and a reading textbook. The spelling book, popularly known as the Blue Backed Speller, was enormously popular and was used to teach the majority of students in the United States during the republic’s first hundred years.
From the earliest days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, children between the ages of 5 and 7 were expected to learn to read. By the end of the 19th century, however, some educational theorists decided that it would be bad for children to learn to read before they are 10 years old.
These same “experts” also advocated a method of reading instruction that doesn’t work very well. Instead of teaching children to sound out the words letter by letter, these “experts” expected children to learn whole words. Instead of learning a code that would enable them to decipher the vast majority of English words, children had to memorize words one by one through endless repetition. The result of using such an idiotic approach to teaching reading was predictably bad. Epidemics of dyslexia and other “learning disabilities” cropped up, and there was suddenly a need for remedial reading classes.
Of course, a child’s failure to learn is seldom blamed on the method of instruction. It is blamed on the child him‐ or herself. Children who fail to learn to read are given diagnoses of dyslexia and other learning disabilities. Children whose confusion or frustration leads to impatience are given diagnoses of attention‐deficit disorder or hyperactivity. Children who become so frustrated and angry that they lose all respect for adults are given a diagnosis of oppositional defiant disorder or conduct disorder. I honestly wonder how many children are being given psychiatric diagnoses and powerful prescription medicines to control problems that are actually a result of improper teaching methods.