Historical Background


Since projections show that schools will continue to become more diverse, it is important to learn how teachers can provide equitable education to all groups of students. One important way to do this is to look at the historical experiences of diverse peoples within the schooling system in America that may affect the way a cultural group views public schooling. The following is a brief history of reading instruction in America, as well as a look at the experiences of diverse peoples in the American schooling system, which can help us understand how cultural groups as a whole may view schooling in light of their historical experiences. Also discussed is the historical promotion or devaluation of different languages and dialects, the use of multicultural literature in the history of the American school system, and a history of differentiation in relation to races and cultures.

Reading Instruction in the United States

“Puritan influence on the schools in New England … endowed American schools with many of the values incorporated even today in the nations schools” (Klug and Whitfield, 2003, p.30). There has been a history of using schooling to strip students of their native culture in order to create one unified culture in America. Ethnicity and culture have not been seen as resources, but something to change into the dominant Anglo Saxon Protestant way of living, from the time of colonization by the Europeans.

In many situations throughout the history of schooling in America, minority students have been forced to study with racist or stereotypical material, left out of the curriculum, and pushed to try to succeed in a system that is geared toward the needs of the majority, in America’s case White Anglo Saxon Protestants.

In general, most minority cultures have been put through subtractive schooling, a process in which the aspects of their cultures are taken away rather than used as resources in their education. Their cultural and linguistic abilities have not been valued or nurtured by schools. In many ways, there has been an attempt to eliminate these resources (Valenzuela, 1999, p.26). Spring (2005) called this deculturalization, detailing how Anglo Americans attempted to destroy the unique culture of Native Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans, and immigrants from other Latin American, European, and Asian countries. He summed up this phenomenon saying the hidden message in all this was “be like us… and we might accept you” (p.183).

In Colonial America, people thought that in order to achieve salvation, one must be able to read the Bible (Monaghan, Hartman, and Monaghan, 2002). The first law requiring reading to be taught was in Massachusetts in 1642. In 1647, another law was passed in Massachusetts requiring towns over 50 families to pay for a public school teacher. These early schools used the alphabet method to teach reading orally. It was a part to whole approach in which the students read each letter sound, each syllable, and then the entire word. The New England Primer and the Bible were the most common books used for instruction during the time period (Monaghan et al., p. 224-25).

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After the Revolutionary War, America was a new nation with many different cultures coming together as one. Post revolutionary leaders “rejected the idea of a multicultural society and advocated the creation of a unified American culture” (Spring, 2005, p.44). Anglo Saxon Protestant traditions took the dominant role in this unified society. Schools reflected this trend, in effect pushing cultural minority students to assimilate to a unified American culture.

An example of this press for the use of Anglo Saxon Protestant values as the general American culture can be seen in the schooling controversies in Pennsylvania in the late 1700s over language and culture in the schools (Spring, 2005). Many Anglo Saxon Protestants were concerned over the high numbers of German immigrants in the area. There was an effort by Benjamin Franklin and others to make English the official language of schools. Charity schools were established, in which English was required as the language of instruction, even though two thirds of the students spoke German.

Though there was a large uproar from the German community that caused these schools to fail, this attempt to Anglicize cultural minorities foreshadowed attempts to normalize the cultures of other groups in the country’s future.

During this period, Noah Webster penned the first American literacy textbooks that included a speller, a grammar, and a reader. The reader’s were for older children who could already read. It was not until later that simplified texts were provided for young children to read. These early basal readers had subscripts to indicate vowel pronunciations, the intention being to generate a national pronunciation. By eliminating regional pronunciations, Webster hoped to unify the new country with a national dialect (Monaghan et al., 2002, p 225).

The Common School movement (1830s and 40s) had many purposes, but one of the main goals was to ensure the unification of the country through a common culture based on Protestant Anglo Saxon values. The moral power of the school was based in the Protestant Bible, though the morals of different religions and cultures were not represented, and so possibly devalued, in schools. The movement, “was, in part, an attempt to halt the drift toward a multicultural society” (Spring, 2005, p.102).

Despite the shift toward acceptance of a multicultural society America has made since the country’s early years, recent legislation has moved us back toward the unified culture the common school strove for. The No Child Left Behind act of 2001 mandated that bilingual education be used only as a transition into English. What was formerly named the Office of Bilingual Education was changed to Office of English Language Acquisition, Language enhancement, and Academic Achievement for Limited English Proficient (Spring, 2005, p.462). The goal here was to provide for learning English without consideration of how to help the child maintain their first language. By requiring standardized tests, the law also ensured that curriculum is generalized for mainstream students, helping “to ensure that a single culture would dominate the school” (Spring, p.461).

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In the mid 1800s reforms to the traditional forms of instruction started popping up.  Johann Pestalozzi, a Swiss educator, believed that learning occurred through concrete experiences, and promoted moving away from rote learning. His theories influenced those in the American education field. Spelling books were also rejected for the fact that they contained words students could not understand or use. The readers used in schools were attacked for their adult themes and wording. All the reformers promoted a stronger emphasis on meaning (Monaghan et al., 2002). Instead of memorizing words and pronunciations, the emphasis was shifting to making meaning of writing rather than just decoding the words.

The McGuffey Eclectic Readers were a series of textbooks created in this time period to teach children reading. These books were now being used with all levels of readers, not just the students with more advanced ability to read. The stories still had a religious, moralizing overtone. By the end of the century, the moralizing became less blatant than it had been in the past, but still was present in most texts used for school. The most popular themes included “honesty, courage, hard work, self reliance, patriotism, and temperance”( Monaghan et al., 2002, p. 226). It was common for these books to contain the gender stereotypes of the time.

Starting in the 1870s and through 1940, the progressive education movement moved toward the word method of reading instruction, where whole meaningful words were taught rather than the letter components (Monaghan et al., 2002). Reading for meaning was encouraged, and fairy tales and myths were used for lower level readers. These were chosen for their representation of the beliefs of so called primitive peoples. This was a move away from the patriotic writings and bible stories found in earlier reading texts that portrayed mostly Anglo Saxon Protestant ideologies. During this time there was also a move toward more silent reading by children and the beginning of testing in reading.

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In the 1940s, the intrinsic phonics method was used, in which phoneme grapheme correspondence was learned by inferring the relationship from previously known sight words (Monaghan et al., 2002). We see this in William S. Gray’s Dick and Jane series. Controlled, repetitive vocabulary gave children a chance to learn sight words, and phonic knowledge was derived from these words. Meaning was of primary importance at the time, and children relied on context and illustrations to comprehend the stories. The content of reading texts also moved toward realistic family settings, though the content consisted of “…beautifully illustrated stories…filled with white, middle-class, suburban families, mothers in aprons, foolish little sisters, and problem-solving older brothers” (Monaghan et al., p. 228). Though the content may have been real life to some children, for the most part gender stereotypes were common place in these stories, and content excluded depictions of people in poverty or children of different races.

In the 1955, the professional consensus on the word method was attacked by Rudolf Flesch in his book Why Johnny Can’t Read—and What You can Do About It. He claimed that the phonics approach was more effective, though the professional community did not agree. Even over the professional community’s objections, reading texts started moving toward systematic phonics approaches (Monaghan et al., 2002). In 1964, Bond and Dykstra tried to find the best method for reading instruction, “…and concluded that there was more variation within methods than between them and that no one method was superior” for teaching reading (Monaghan et al., p. 229).

In the late 1980s, the whole language approach appeared, positing that reading acquisition both occurred naturally when a child was surrounded by authentic materials, the language arts were integrated into other curriculum, and the child was able to use their imagination and individual abilities to their fullest extent (Monaghan et al., 2002). This approach made the reading textbooks less desired and promoted a more extensive publishing of trade books for children.

The embedded phonics approach of this method upset parents, who viewed it as anti-phonics since the instruction was not explicit. The political climate shifted and some states started passing laws that required teachers to use systematic and explicit phonics instruction. The Right to Read organization and many parents have pushed for more systematic approach to teaching phonics, which is the current climate in many schools (Monaghan et al., 2002). In 2000, sixty three percent of kindergarten and first grade teachers surveyed said they thought phonics instruction should be taught systematically and explicitly to beginning readers (Morrow et al., 2002).