Literacy Methods Over the Past 50 Years: Two Significant Approaches to Support Struggling Readers

Reading Instruction in the 1960s


What did it look like?

Reading instruction in the 1960s had not change significantly since the 1930s.  The look-say approach, which was to “start off with a corpus of high frequency sight words practiced often in highly controlled stories and then teach phonics on the basis of already taught words” (Pearson, 2010, p.8) was the most popular approach to reading instruction in the 1960s.   Sight word and phonics knowledge were the primary focus and believed to be the main tools students needed to “perform the translation process” (Pearson, 2010, p. 8).  The students received this instruction directly from the teachers, and basal reading programs were prevalent in the classrooms.  A story was read, and students would complete a page in a workbook after reading to reinforce certain skills.

A shift in thinking…

Researches began to question the look-say approach, and the Cooperative Research Branch of the United States Office of education funded a collection of “First Grade Studies,” which was meant to compare different approaches to reading instruction. At the same time, educational researcher Jeanne Chall published her first book, “Learning to Read, The Great Debate” in 1967. These two studies changed the way the look-say basal program was viewed, because research found that alternative approaches to reading instruction were more effective and “elicited equal or greater performance on the part of the first graders (and, as it turned out, second graders)” (Pearson, 2010, p. 9).   The study and the book ignited a lot of changes in the basal reading instruction program.  The program changed its approach to teaching phonics and altered the content.  Stories became based on children’s literature rather than focusing primarily on decoding skills.  Despite these advances, there was still one critical thing that did not change. “Teachers…Controlled the learning situation as never before” and reading “was still a fundamentally perceptual process of translating letters into sounds” (Pearson, 2010, p. 11).


The Whole-Language Movement

Other Kinds of Researchers Weigh In…

teachers should be helping, not teaching, children to read (Pearson, 2010, p. 14).

Linguists and pyscholinguists began to research the oral language acquisition of children and how this might play a part in effective reading instruction. Like oral language, researchers began to wonder if reading was something that was learned rather than taught. Therefore, teachers should be helping, not teaching, children to read (Pearson, 2010, p. 14).

Psychologists began to focus on text comprehension and how children process and understand information in stories. The schema theory emerged from this, encouraging teachers to examine “texts from a perspective of the knowledge and cultural background of (the) students in order to evaluate the likely connection that they would be able to make between idea that are in the text and the schema that they would bring to the reading task” (Pearson, 2010, p. 16).

Sociolinguist focused on the role of community in learning and paying attention to the community outside of school to become more effective educators and make better connections with the students. (Pearson, 2010, p. 17)

All of these developments led to reading comprehension taking center stage in the 1980s. Workbook activities at the end of a story were no longer adequate comprehension tools.  Researchers began to develop instructional strategies that emphasized reading comprehension. The 1988 California Reading Framework demanded more challenging and genuine literature for children, and also replaced comprehension questions with more “interpretive, impressionistic response to literature activities” (Pearson , 2010, p. 19).

These ideals spilled over into writing, and in the 1980s, there was a shift to “process writing”, where the emphasis was on the quality of thinking and problem solving in writing, as opposed to a focus on grammar and spelling (Pearson, 2010, p. 20).

A Different Approach to Instruction


The insights of the linguistics, psycholinguistics, cognitive psychology, sociolinguistics, and literary theory sparked the “Whole-Language” movement, which “is grounded in child-centered pedagogy reminiscent of the progressive education movement” (Pearson, 2010, p. 21).   The whole language movement focused on authentic activity, children constructing their own meaning, and integrating the language arts with all subject areas.

Frank Smith, a professor of psychology at the University of Victoria, in British Columbia, and Kenneth Goodman, a professor of education at the University of Arizona, are the founders of whole-language instruction . They present whole-language instruction as:

a joyful, humanistic, intellectually challenging alternative to deadening phoneme drills—one that turns the classroom from a factory floor into a nurturing environment in which children naturally blossom (Lemann, 2003 ).

The whole language movement was prominent in the 1990s and the early 2000s, where reading was “an active participant in creating, not a passive recipient, of the message in a text (Pearson, 2010, p.23). The teacher was a support, not an explicit teacher, of skills.

Strengths of Whole-Language Instruction

  • Emphasis is on real literature
  • Reading is focused primarily on meaning
  • Students are able to work at their own pace and on their own level
  • Authenticity
  • Enjoyment
  • Students create their own learning environment
  • Cultural and community awareness in the classroom

Criticism of Whole-Language Instruction

Criticisms of  whole-language began in late 1990s, where students were sometimes not grasping the skills through immersion of print or listening to stories read aloud. Strategy instruction, structural emphasis, and content area reading were other curricular areas that were not supported by the whole language movement (Pearson, 2010, p 25).   Whole-language also did not take into account that certain students have different learning styles, and may not benefit from the whole-language approach.

To analytic as opposed to global learners, however, the whole language approach can feel disorganized… If the systematic teaching of phonics doesn’t take place, analytic learners can fall behind and fail to develop the tools they need for decoding words (Cromwell, 2016).

Whole-Language instruction also relied heavily on the knowledge and insights of the teacher to create the learning environment and curriculum, but there was a lack of professional development to properly educate the teachers, and the instruction in the classroom could become ineffective (Pearson, 2010, p. 26).

Disadvantages of Whole-Language Instruction

  • Disorganized
  • Only caters to one learning style
  • Little emphasis on phonics and phonemic awareness
  • Lack of professional development for teachers
  • Progress is not measurable


Explicit Instruction

Emphasis on Phonics and Phonemic Awareness….

Questions and debates began to arise, where ideas of what should be “taught” directly and what is “caught” by children, were questioned. The emphasis on the importance of phonemic awareness and the role it has in decoding and reading was brought back to the surface. Marilyn Adams and Connie Juel both concluded that:

children can and should learn the ‘cipher’ through a combination of explicit instruction in phonemic awareness, awareness in letter-sound correspondences, a steady insistence on invented spellings as the route to conventional spelling in writing activities, and many opportunities to read connected texts (Pearson, 2010, p. 27).

Direct Instruction


Direct instruction is a skills oriented program that is teacher-directed.  The teacher can implement the Direct Instruction program either in whole group or small group settings.  A Direct Instruction lesson consists of:

carefully articulated lessons in which cognitive skills are broken down into small units, sequenced deliberately, and taught explicitly (Carnine 2013).

The teacher is able to move at a slow pace, and does not move on until each skill set is completed, and the students complete a variety of assessments to show understanding.  The program is based on steps, and the teacher will not move on until each step is complete.  The program is based on a learning theory that focuses on how “children generalize from present understanding to understanding of new, untaught examples”(Carmine 2013).   Teachers have scripted lessons full of hand signals and prompts, and the students learn to respond in a variety of ways, such as through choral response and hand signals (Carmine 2013).

Video Link: Direct Instruction Lesson

Question for the Reader: 

Based on the video, do you think that direct instruction is an effective way to teach phonics and phonemic awareness to students?   

Strengths of Direct Instruction:

  • Focuses on specific skills
  • Measurable assessment
  • Children master each skill before moving on to the next one
  • Direct phonics and phonemic awareness instruction
  • Very clear, explicit lessons and instruction

Criticisms of Direct Instruction

There is very little opportunity for the teacher to be a creative educator.  He or she is following a scripted lesson and cannot deviate from the text.

The structure of direct teaching can be rigid enough to hinder the creativity of the teacher. There is very little room to improvise because this method follows a step-by-step procedure (Markusic 2012)

Students do not exhibit higher level thinking or really connect with the curriculum.  The call and response method of teaching might work well for some learners, but does not cater to all learning styles.  The classroom environment is teacher-directed and the students are not able to become creative, independent learners.

Disadvantages of Direct Instruction:

  • Rigid curriculum
  • Does not cater to all learning styles
  • Teachers lose their creativity
  • Lack of higher level thinking
  • Does not contribute to the culture and environment of classroom


In Conclusion 

My personal thoughts on best-practice coincides with what P. David Pearson believes is a logical compromise from his article, American Reading Instruction Since 1967.  He believes in creating a hybrid of the two ideas, which is called “the ecology balanced approach” (Pearson, 2010, p. 32).  It seems that having both explicit instruction for phonics and phonemic awareness (not necessarily direct instruction) and a whole-language approach to literature would best serve all students in the classroom.  There is no doubt that mastering the skills of phonics and phonemic awareness are necessary to successfully decode as a reader, but it is equally as important to connect with literature in a meaningful, insightful way.



Carnine, D. (2013, July 29). What is direct instruction? Retrieved from


Cromwell, S. (2016). Whole language and phonics: can they work together?  [Blog]

          Retrieved from

Lemann, N. (1997, November). A tale of two schools.  The Atlantic Monthly, 280,

          128-134.    Retrieved from

Markusic, M. (2012, January 6). Classroom instruction: Pros and cons of direct

          instruction  [Blog]. Retrieved from


Pierce, P. D. (2010). American reading instruction since 1967. In R. M. Bean, N.

          Heisey,  C. M. Roller (Eds.),  Preparing reading professionals (2nd ed., pp. 7-32).

          Newark, NJ:  International Reading Association.


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