The teaching of reading and writing

When Stow refers disparagingly to the ‘ab, eb, ib, ob, ub’ method of teaching reading he reveals an authentic understanding of the problems of learning the phoneme-grapheme relationship which he recognised as essential to independent reading.  No doubt he is drawing on his own experience of elementary education alongside the debates which must have been considered in the Sabbath Schools.  Most present authorities would accept that, as here, the short vowel should be introduced first: indeed, the Edgeworths 1suggested diacritical marks to help children distinguish between the short and long vowel sound.  He may also be critical of the blending approach whereby the vowel is attached to the final consonant causing the eye to read from left to right and then return to the initial consonant: connecting the initial consonant with the vowel enables a smoother progress to the remainder of the word. However, his main criticism is the rote learning of meaningless sounds out of context, an approach which continued until the early 1970’s. 2His instructions to trainers to begin with the children’s own names; with the sounds (which he terms ‘powers’) rather than names of letters; and with phonically regular words, where appropriate, 3combined with a phonic approach to spelling are all helpful 4Furthermore, the insistence on basing the child’s reading vocabulary on her/his oral vocabulary is well made: unless the sequence of graphemes, which we call print, can be meaningfully related to a mental image, reading is literally senseless.5

His knowledge of just some of the issues in the teaching of reading, may begin to explain Stow’s apparent reluctance to teach reading, at least to very young children. Obviously, he knew that the ability to read was an essential skill for further education, job opportunities and, for Stow, a personal knowledge of the Bible.  He was also aware that parental expectations of schooling primarily centred on the teaching of reading. Why then should he advocate delaying the process?

At least part of the problem lay not only in the very poor teacher:child ratio but in the wide age-range within each school sector and the even greater differentiation in the children’s previous experience of school.  Whilst children, limited in some degree by age-range and educational background, could at least listen to ‘lessons’ taught orally by one trainer, the use of reading to acquire knowledge necessitated segregation by reading ability, a costly process. ‘Under The Training System’, he writes, ‘three-fourths of the information received by the scholars passes to them direct from the master, without the intervention of books’.6

Unfortunately, his solution to this problem continued well into the 1960s. Firstly, the trainer was taught to enunciate words very distinctly, particularly those unknown to the children: indeed, training was given in elocution to ensure the correct placement of teeth and tongue. (This process also emphasised a standardised accent which Stow felt was beneficial to the children and minimized the variety of trainers’ pronunciations.)7Rightly, particular attention was to be given to conjunctions and prepositions which, being abstract, are less-easily matched to a mental image. Thus, with a clear diction, the trainer read a sentence to the children, pausing between each word, initially at length and then with a reduction in the amount of time between each word, until the whole sentence could be read at either a conversational or declamatory pace depending on the context. The trainer and children then read simultaneously. Finally, the trainer selected individual pupils to repeat the sentence. This laborious process came perilously close to the rote learning he despised; must have bored to frustration those who learned quickly; and humiliated those who were pounced upon to read individually.

These problems aside, the emphasis on oral work has a distinctly fresh appeal. Stow persuasively argues that the oral interaction between trainer and pupil is more effective than that mediated through the means of print (books, work cards, work sheets etc.). Moreover, speaking so self-evidently precedes reading that the emphasis both in time in class and over the years should be on listening and speaking rather than reading. From the time a child answers a question, he argues, s/he should learn to speak out confidently and clearly.  Even for most adults, he maintained, the ability either to converse openly and/or articulate intelligently was, initially at least, more likely to attract attention than the ability to read itself.8And while personal reading for the acquisition of knowledge was important, reading for communication and to convey information was more so, especially in an age when many could not read accurately for themselves. Thus, for Stow, learning to speak (or elocution) was as important as learning to read.

This said, Stow recognised that to be fully educated inevitably necessitated an ability to read. Published textbooks were used; as they grew older, children were grouped around a reading post, according to age, to be taught often by student-trainers rather than the master in the gallery; both the Glasgow Infant and Educational Societies published magazines which parents could purchase to use at home; and ‘a taste for private reading’ 9was encouraged. Stow’s definition of the good reader nicely illustrates his understanding of genre, characterisation, awareness of audience, fluency, the necessity to read with energy rather than speed, and to be articulate without histrionics.  ‘To read well, then, is as it were, to personate the author, enter into his feelings, and make the impression on the audience which his words ought naturally to convey: to be distinct and yet not discontinuous, impressive and yet not dramatic, varied and yet not affected.’10

 The teaching of writing

By the time children reached the age of six, on transfer to the Junior School, the teaching of phonics was extended to the spelling of phonetically-regular words.  An archetypal ‘First-Spelling Book’11was produced consisting, generally, of familiar, monosyllabic words used in easily-illustrated sentences. Again, Stow’s acknowledgement of the frequency of irregular words bears out the authenticity of his advice: trainers should supply the non-phonically regular words so that the gist of the sentence is maintained.  Unfortunately, he reversed this argument concerning the importance of the sentence by suggesting that letter formation began with lines (straight, diagonal, circular), then letters, then words and then sentences – a process which appears logical to the trainer but meaningless to the child. He is on happier ground in relating the shape of each letter to a familiar object – a boy’s hoop (circle), a girl’s skipping rope (semicircle), school pillars (straight lines) – an approach which is still widely used.  The teaching of the sounds (or ‘powers’) of the letter rather than the name is also now regarded as standard along with the practice, as we have seen, of forming distinct sounds with the teeth, lips and tongue.

The ‘First Spelling Book’ appears, from the extracts quoted in ‘The Training System’, to  have provided a series of sequential, developmental lessons accompanied by useful collections of words exemplifying the spelling rule, for example ‘vigour, clamour, fervour, rumour’. 12Trainers were advised to ‘picture out’ every tenth or twelfth word to save time, but not, inevitably, the tediousness which came to be associated with this approach.

As the skill of writing progressed, children were to be given the necessary skills  – how to sit, use blotting paper, and keep between the lines. His description of how to hold a pen is arguably a model of the old adage of ‘automating the hand to liberate the mind’:

‘We recommend, that the pen be held so that the knuckles point perpendicularly to the ceiling. We believe this secures the greatest uniformity of style of any other position, the little and ring finger resting easily on the paper, not merely on the tip of the little one; left arm nearly close to the side, as a rest for the chest, and right elbow angled outwards (not in, as of old); shoulders and spine pretty nearly erect. The old method of the right elbow being kept close to the side, naturally tended to form curved or divergent lines, instead of parallel ones. A bold, round hand at the commencement is of course the best security for acquiring a distinct legible current hand, and the mode of sitting and holding the pen now recommended, we believe, easily secures this.’ 13

 Writing, of course, involved the learning of grammatical rules in which Stow followed the general practice of introducing nouns, adjectives, the definite and indefinite article and verbs – always by picturing out the meaning through reference to familiar objects. Since his list of grammatical terms included ‘relative, demonstrative, nominative and objective’ perhaps his concluding comment that, ‘not being clearly understood this branch of education is uninteresting’ 14was more apt than he intended.

Spelling, grammar and etymology preceded composition, an activity so well established that Stow did not feel the need to expound the process in detail. His main deviation from the norm was the emphasis on oral composition before written. While this approach is commendable, the general tenor of his advice raises issues of relevance, interest and differentiation. Children, even in the Senior Department, must have found the approach pedantic and tedious:

    1. Read the material along the principles already stated.
    2. Picture out the general meaning.
    3. Spell the sentence progressively, each child by turn or simultaneously.
    4. Parse it.
    5. Fix upon one or more etymological roots.
    6. Then form sentences as described under the heading ‘Mental Composition’.

Then, and only then, could the children turn to written composition.