Did you know that phonics was first taught way back in the first century—95 AD?
A very long time ago. An old Greek named Quintilian brought forward rhetorical theory from ancient Greece in his Institutio Oratoria of 95 AD, an exhaustive treatment of rhetoric in twelve books. Here are some of his edited excerpts regarding teaching reading (Parenthetical comments are mine):
“Why, again, since children are capable of moral training, should they not be capable of literary education? I am well aware that during the whole period of which I am speaking we can expect scarcely the same amount of progress that one year will effect afterwards. Still those who disagree with me seem in taking the line to spare the teacher rather than the pupil.
(Begin as soon as possible!)
“What better occupation can a child have so soon as he is able to speak? The boy will be learning something more advanced during that year, in which he would otherwise have been occupied with something more elementary.”
(Teach it early but keep it simple!)
“Small children are better adapted for taking in small things, and just as the body can only be trained to certain flexions of the limbs while it is young and supple, so the acquisition of strength makes the mind offer greater resistance to the acquisition of most subjects of knowledge.”
(Teach letters and sounds simultaneously!)
“It will be best therefore for children to begin by learning their appearance and names together, just as they do with men.”
(Build syllables first, then words, and only then sentences!)
“The syllables once learnt, let him begin to construct words with them and sentences with the words.”
(Keep it short and simple!)
“And at the tender age of which we are now speaking, when originality is impossible, memory is almost the only faculty which can be developed by the teacher.”
(How we learn something the first time sticks!)“It will be worth while, by way of improving the child’s pronunciation and distinctness of utterance, to make him rattle off a selection of names and lines of studied difficulty: they should be formed of a number of syllables which go ill together and should be harsh and rugged in sound: the Greeks call them “gags.” This sounds a trifling matter, but its omission will result in numerous faults of pronunciation, which, unless removed in early years, will become a perverse and incurable habit and persist through life.”
(Teach reading in small steps—only one sound, letter, or spelling at a time!)
“Vessels with narrow mouths will not receive liquids if too much be poured into them at a time, but are easily filled if the liquid is admitted in a gentle stream or, it may be, drop by drop; similarly you must consider how much a child’s mind is capable of receiving: the things which are beyond their grasp will not enter their minds, which have not opened out sufficiently to take them in.”
So what happened? Why aren’t we using these principles today? We are desperately trying all kinds of different methods to teach reading, from whole language to contextual phonics and from using blackboards to high tech—all kinds, that is, except the one approach that works for everyone.
We flop around like fish out of water and find ourselves in an ever-deeper hole . . . but we just keep digging anyway. An old Creole proverb succinctly states,
“The fish trusts the water, and it is in
the water that it is cooked!”