A History of Reading Instruction – Vic Charlton – Alberta, Canada

The History of Reading & Reading Recovery

Vic Charlton, Alberta, Canada


It is not without some apprehension, indeed diffidence, that I embarked on a journey into the cloistered world of reading research—to say nothing of broaching the hallowed halls of Alberta Education—in an effort to understand two simple truths: first, why, with one of the best educational systems in the world, do we have so many functional illiterates; second, why is the preponderance of these troubled readers, boys?

Though these simple truths are expressed dichotomously, this division is misleading. While some girls do have trouble reading, boys comprise the significant majority in all remedial classrooms. The two questions may be synthesized as: why aren’t schools effective in teaching boys to read?

Axiomatically, then, reading instruction—and reading research—should focus on what works for boys. (Recent reading research has shown that what works for boys, works equally well for girls. E.g., The Effects of Synthetic Phonics – A Seven Year Longitudinal Study. Rhona Johnston and Joyce Watson.)

Understanding the truth of functional illiteracy—to say nothing of the costs to society—becomes one of knowing the optimal method, in a classroom environment, of teaching boys how to read. This method (not methods—more on learning styles later), as the research will show, is not to the detriment of girls’ learning; rather, their learning is also enhanced; it’s mutually beneficial.

Though my research revolves around Reading Recovery™, as with any research, I am reminded of Muir’s Law, which states, “Whenever you try to look at something by itself, you find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” Now, because Reading Recovery™ is aimed at the (typically) lowest 20% of beginning readers, among this 20% will be identified those with dyslexia, ADHD or other purported phonological inhibitors to learning to read. As I will show, from the research, these inhibitors also have an ameliorative, common denominator in the optimal method for teaching children how to read. It should also be understood that though the lowest 20% of beginning readers are more readily identifiable doesn’t mean that the remaining 80% will become functionally literate and therefore can be neglected for receiving this method of instruction. Canada’s 42% functional illiteracy rate for adults 16 to 65 speaks to the need to address this 80% as well.

In the contents of this report, rather than narrow the discussion to specifics around Reading Recovery™, I provide a historical context for some of the “modern” theories of how children learn to read that have influenced Reading Recovery. The names or attributes of these theories may have changed with time but their atavistic legacy remains.


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