History of a Gimmick
 When I wrote my book Why Johnny Can't Read twenty-five years ago, I wrote a chapter on the history of look-and-say, tracing it back to a primer called The New Word Method, published in 1846. I got that information from the book American Reading Instruction by Nila Banton Smith.
It turned out that Professor Smith and I were wrong. In 1966, eleven years after I wrote Why Johnny Can't Read, there appeared Teaching to Read, Historically Considered by Dr. Mitford M. Mathews, the famous linguist and editor of the monumental Dictionary of Americanisms. Dr. Mathews went into the matter with meticulous scholarship and settled it once and for all. The first look-and-say primer was written in 1791 by a German educator, Professor Friedrich Gedike, director of the Kölnische Gymnasium in Berlin.
Herr Professor Gedike was a fervent believer in the educational theories of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He said teaching should follow nature. Nature presented Man with wholes—a flower, a tree, an animal, a mountain. To learn about those wholes, Man had to analyze what they were made of, going from the whole to its parts.
In an essay written in 1779 Gedike applied this idea to the teaching of reading. Reading instruction too, he wrote, should go from the whole—that is, the word—to its parts—the letters.
It took Gedike twelve years, till 1791, to translate this idea into a workable primer. It was called Kinderbuch zur ersten Übung im Lesen ohne ABC und Buchstabieren, which means "Children's Book for the First Practice in Reading without the ABC's and Spelling." He taught his five-year-old daughter with it and had her reading within two months.
 Please note two things about this original look-and-say primer. First of all, it was aimed squarely at the market of affectionate middle-class parents. Ever since the invention of the alphabet 3,500 years ago, parents had been exasperated with the job of teaching their children to read. Small children simply hated to spend months on end in laboriously learning the ABC's, the standard first syllables ba, be, bi, bo, bu, and the seemingly endless drill they had to go through before they were allowed to read their first words. And yet this method had been in use for some 3,000 years simply because nobody had figured out any other way. So Gedike proudly called his primer a book "for the first practice in reading without the ABCs and spelling." Obviously he knew he was onto something.
How did he do it? He did it with a gimmick. Each page of his book had words containing one specific letter of-the alphabet, say m or f or b. Each word was printed so that the letter to be learned stood out, printed in red, with the rest of the letters in black, or vice versa. When the child had learned the words on the page, presumably the featured letter had sunk in and would be remembered. By the end of the book the child had learned a long list of words and incidentally all the letters of the alphabet.
How would the child go on from there? How would he or she learn the rest of the tens of thousands of words in the German language? For this question Professor Gedike had an ingenious answer. "Don't think," he wrote in his preface, "that the child by this method knows only the words he has actually learned. . . . No! Through the mysterious sense of analogy he will increasingly find out words on his own or, if you will, learn to guess. At the same time, he will sense, even more mysteriously, why it must be this word and no other."
There you have it. In the world's first look-and-say book, the method is already exposed as a gimmick. No more torturous learning of the alphabet, no more boring syllable drills, simply teach the child a list of words and he'll "mysteriously" catch on to the sounds the letters stand for and learn to read on his own. Parents, save yourself and your child from unpleasantness and buy my book.
Only of course it turned out the gimmick didn't work. Little Gretchen Gedike (or whatever her name was) may have  learned to read at her learned father's knee, but few other German children did so with his book. It went through three editions and then dropped from sight. Children in Germany and elsewhere kept on being drilled in the ABCs and ba, be, bi, bo, bu.
Some thirty years passed until the next look-and-say educator, Professor Jean Joseph Jacotot, arrived on the scene with La Langue Maternelle ("The Mother Tongue"). Monsieur Jacotot's method wasn't just a gimmick like Gedike's but a monstrosity.
Jacotot was a child prodigy. At nineteen he was appointed professor of Latin at the University of Dijon. He then studied law, practiced for a while, and also studied higher mathematics on the side. Then came the French Revolution. He joined the army, became an artillery captain and fought in the Belgian campaign. After the war he went back to Dijon and taught science, math, and Roman law. For a time he was a member of the French Parlement in Paris. After the Bourbons returned, he emigrated to Belgium and became Professor of French at the University of Louvain.
In 1823 he wrote the book L'Enseignement universel ("Universal Instruction"), which made him famous. One part of it dealt with the teaching of reading. There Jacotot went back to his experience in teaching Flemish-speaking university students how to speak and read French. He'd given them copies of the widely read French novel Les Aventures de Télémaque by Fénelon, in an edition printed in parallel columns, French on the left and Flemish on the right. Pretty soon Jacotot found that his students learned to read French by themselves.
Why not apply this principle to small children learning to read their native language? What Jacotot proposed, unbelievably, was this: Let the teacher read to the children the whole four-hundred-page novel Télémaque, several times if necessary. Then, when they have fully grasped the contents of the novel, start over again on page 1, read aloud the first sentence, and analyze it in detail, first the individual words and then each letter in each word. Once you have done this with every sentence in the book, the children know how to read. Incidentally, the first sentence of Télémaque was: "Calypso was unable to console herself for the departure of Ulysses."
 German educators, always eager to apply new theories, tried the Jacotot method but found it a little cumbersome. Why not just use one sentence instead of a whole novel? they asked, with some justification. So, in 1830, there appeared the first German primer à la Jacotot by a German named Friedrich Weingart. Weingart's first sentence to be read and analyzed by the children was this:
Socrates, the wise son of Sophroniscus, spoke one day in the circle of his students of the all-powerful foresight of divine providence—how it sees everything and hears everything and is present everywhere and takes care of everything, and how a man the more he feels and recognizes it the more he honors it.
Other German educators felt that Weingart's opening sentence was a trifle long, so they came out with primers starting with shorter sentences and finally with primers starting with single words. The children were taught those words and what each letter in each word stood for. This was the beginning of the German "Normal Word method," which soon conquered Germany and all of Europe. In essence, it's what we today call phonics.
Around the time Jacotot made his big splash in Europe, an American, Thomas H. Gallaudet, reinvented the look-and-say method in the United States.
Gallaudet had for many years been working with deaf mutes. He had developed a purely visual method of teaching them to read and felt it could and should also be used in teaching normal children. What he had done was this: he'd put fifty words like horse, dog, cat on little cards, let the children memorize them by sight, and then taught them the letters by analyzing the words. In 1836 he published his invention under the title A Mother's Primer.
Other authors—Josiah Bumstead, John Russell Webb, and Samuel Worcester—also came out with look-and-say primers around the same time. They didn't have such an unusual background but the principle was the same. Each of those primers started with a lengthy list of words to be learned during the first weeks of school before the children were set to work on letters and the alphabet.
 Another author of a new look-and-say primer was Mrs. Mary Peabody Mann, the second wife of the famous educator Horace Mann. Her book didn't mention the alphabet or letters at all, but that didn't stop her husband from giving it a friendly review. "It is a beautiful book," he wrote. "It is prepared on the same general principles with those of Worcester, Gallaudet, and Bumstead; and it contains two or three reading lessons and a few cuts for drawing, in addition to a most attractive selection of words."
In 1843 Mann went with his wife to Europe and spent an hour in a Prussian classroom during a reading lesson. Although he didn't know a word of German, his wife interpreted for him what was happening. Nevertheless, he misunderstood completely what the teacher was doing—he was using the by then standard "normal word method"—and thought this was a demonstration of look-and-say.
When he came back to the United States, Mann wrote his famous Seventh Annual Report to the Massachusetts Board of Education and recommended passionately the use of look-and-say. He wrote about the methods used by Gallaudet, Bumstead, Worcester, his wife, and the Prussian schoolteacher, mixing it all together in a frontal attack on the prevailing method of teaching children with the alphabet and ba, be, bi, bo, bu.
A committee of thirty-one Boston grammar school masters came up with a lengthy answer, insisting that look-and-say produced very poor spellers and anyway didn't work when it came to reading unfamiliar words.
Within a few years after that "great debate" in Massachusetts, the various look-and-say primers went out of fashion and the alphabetic or phonic methods kept on being used in the nation's classrooms.
A quarter century passed. Then, almost unnoticed, look-and-say made a reappearance. In 1881, Mr. George L. Farnham, principal of the State Normal School in Peru, Nebraska, wrote a small book, The Sentence Method of Teaching Reading, Writing, and Spelling. It achieved a certain underground fame and went into three editions.
Farnham went beyond the earlier look-and-say proponents and suggested that children should start their reading and writing lessons with whole sentences. "The teacher goes to the  board," he wrote, "and in a clear bold hand writes a sentence, as: 'I have a knife.' The pupils see the writing, but of course do not know what it means. The teacher will call a pupil and put a knife into his hands, and the pupil in response to the impulse which is the result of previous training will instantly hold up the knife and say 'I have a knife.' "
And so on, until the children "attain great excellence in writing and reading at an early period."
As to the letters, "the teacher will speak of the letters as though they were known to the pupils, showing the size of the m's, t's, /'s etc., and it will soon be discovered that the pupils can distinguish the letters and name them." So much for that.
Far from being ridiculed, Farnham's method was soon widely imitated, and many publishers put out sentence- or story-method primers. One of them was the Elson Readers of the Scott, Foresman Company in Chicago, to which I’ll return a little later.
And now the curtain goes up for the entrance of the great national leader of look-and-say, Colonel Francis Wayland Parker.
Parker was a great big bear of a man with a booming voice, a hearty laugh, and an abiding love for little children. He started as superintendent of public schools in Quincy, Massachusetts, and soon became nationally famous. In 1883 the city of Chicago called him in as principal of the Cook County Normal School.
Parker's ideas on educational reform are explained in his book Talks on Pedagogics. On the subject of reading he said:
From the time the child first enters school, the purpose of the teacher should be to continue in the best possible way the spontaneous activities of the child in the directions which nature has so effectively begun. We will suppose, then, that he has lessons, experiments, observations, and investigations in all the central subjects; that they form the core of the work done by the teacher; that the child's mind, his whole being, is brought face to face with the truth,—the intrinsic knowledge,—and consequently  with intrinsic thought; and that at the moment when the word is required, it is given orally, and at once written rapidly, in a plain, beautiful hand upon the black-board. . . .
It is easy for a skillful teacher to arouse an intense interest in an educative subject. Just at the moment when the interest is at its height, she introduces a word orally, immediately writes it upon the blackboard, erases it, after one glance by her pupils, and says, "Say that with the chalk!" The little ones rush to the board, under a strong desire to express the thought, and quickly reproduce the word.
After some sixteen years of this kind of teaching the Cook County Board of Education had had enough and Parker had to resign his post. But at that critical moment the look-and-say movement was rescued by Mrs. Anita McCormick Blaine.
Mrs. Blaine was the daughter of Cyrus McCormick, inventor of the harvesting machine, and an heiress to the McCormick fortune. She was deeply interested in educational reforms. When her son, Emmons junior, reached the age of six and had to start on his education, she looked carefully for the proper kind of school to send him to. When she heard of Colonel Parker, she visited his school and asked to see one of the reading classes. Parker proudly answered, "We haven't any," and Mrs. Blaine was instantly overwhelmed. When he lost his job a few years later, she contributed a million dollars to set up a new school for him under the wing of the University of Chicago. It became world-famous and attracted pilgrimages from progressive educators everywhere.
But let's go on. The next hero of the look-and-say movement is Edmund Burke Huey, author of The Psychology and Pedagogy of Reading, which appeared in 1908. It instantly became the bible of the movement.
Huey went over the whole history of the alphabet, writing, and reading, and included a complete survey of how reading was taught in America at that time. On the basis of his psychological theory, he came out squarely for look-and-say teaching  à la Parker, only if possible more so. At the end of his book he summed it all up in thirteen "practical pedagogical conclusions." The first four were:
1. The home is the natural place for learning to read, in connection with the child's introduction to literature through story-telling, picture-reading, etc. . . .
2. The school should cease to make primary reading the fetish that it long has been, and should construct a primary course in which reading and writing will be learned secondarily, and only as they serve a purpose felt as such by the pupil, the reading being always for meaning.
3. The technique of reading should not appear in the early years, and the very little early work that should be tolerated in phonics should be entirely distinct from reading.
4. The child should never be permitted to read for the sake of reading, as a formal process or end in itself. The reading should always be for the intrinsic interest or value of what is read, reading never being done or thought of as "an exercise." Word-pronouncing will therefore always be secondary to getting whole sentence-meanings, and this from the very first.
On the question of what the children are supposed to read, point 13 contained an illuminating sentence:
The literature of Teutonic feudalism and chivalry and of medieval romanticism seems especially suited to the nature and interests of adolescents.
Having unburdened himself of this strange new gospel on how to teach reading, Huey turned away from the field and went back to his first love, work with the mentally deficient. He spent the next five years preparing a book on that subject, but the manuscript was completely destroyed by fire. He died at the age of forty-three in 1913.
What with the fame of the Parker school and the wide influence of Huey's book, look-and-say now began to come into its own. More and more private schools adopted the system, and an ever-increasing number of publishers brought out texts to serve the movement. In New York City, Columbia University  Teachers College embraced look-and-say together with progressive education, and the University of Chicago and other institutions followed suit.
The two foremost leaders were Professor Arthur I. Gates of Columbia and Professor William S. Gray at Chicago. In 1929 the Scott, Foresman Company invited Professor Gray to revamp their Elson Readers, and this marked the birth of Dick and Jane. A year later, Professor Gates joined up with Macmillan and produced a look-and-say series for them. Gradually most major textbook houses fell in line and the "Dismal Dozen" of basal readers came into being.
By the middle thirties look-and-say had completely swept the field. Virtually all leading academics in the primary reading field were now authors of basal reader series and collected fat royalties. They had inherited the kingdom of American education.
Inevitably that huge bonanza created problems. Look-and-say, after all, was still essentially a gimmick with no scientific foundations whatever. As it had for 150 years, it produced children who couldn't accurately read unfamiliar words. From the fourth grade up, textbooks in all subjects had to be "dumbed down" to accommodate them. Grade promotions had to be based on age rather than achievement. High school diplomas were given to functional illiterates. Colleges had to adjust to an influx of students who couldn't read. The national illiteracy rate climbed year after year after year.
The educational Establishment, with primary reading at its core, became a beleaguered fortress. In 1956 the International Reading Association was founded, and began to function as a look-and-say defense league. It now has over 65,000 members and publishes three journals, The Reading Teacher, The Journal of Reading and The Reading Research Quarterly. They're filled with articles defending the indefensible system of teaching reading.
This national tragedy was followed by high comedy. In the early sixties, after the original standard-bearers of look-and-say had died or retired, a new generation of academics took over. Look-and-say became "psycholinguistics" and reading mistakes became "miscues." Professor Frank Smith and Professors Kenneth and Yetta Goodman invented a new science to  clothe shabby old look-and-say in shiny new garments.
Let's first have a look at Professors Kenneth and Yetta Goodman. They are husband and wife; he's now senior author of the Scott, Foresman series, having inherited the mantle of William S. Gray.
Professor Kenneth Goodman defines reading as "a psycholinguistic process by which the reader reconstructs, as best he can, a message which has been encoded by a writer as a graphic display."
Note the words "as best he can." Goodman, surrounded by two generations of look-and-say-trained Americans, assumes as a matter of course that everybody makes mistakes all the time. These mistakes he calls miscues—"in order to avoid value implications," as he puts it.
You'd think the fact that most Americans no longer can read accurately is deplorable. But the Goodmans don't feel that way. They first started a Reading Miscue Center at Wayne State University in Detroit, and then produced a brand-new, highly expensive, diagnostic reading test, The Miscue Reading Inventory—to be given to individual children orally. Naturally, this takes vastly more time and money than conventional written tests given to groups, but this is considered unimportant.
Educational journals are full of studies of how to apply the Miscue Reading Inventory. For instance, in the April 1978 issue of Reading Teacher, Professor Dixie Lee Spiegel writes:
The development of confidence and risk-taking strategies within children can only evolve in a climate of acceptance and encouragement in which the students are rewarded for a good try. Children should be encouraged to take a risk and to make a good guess, using all the data that are available and that they know how to use. They should receive praise for a good guess even though it is not completely accurate. For example, if a child reads "I like to eat carrots" as "I like to eat cake," praise should be given for supplying a word that makes sense and follows at least some of the phonic cues. The teacher may also choose to supply the correct response in an offhand and uncritical manner. If the child read the sentence as  "I like to eat cars," the teacher should remind the reader that that does not make sense.
I could easily fill this book with similar examples of current scholarship in the field of reading instruction, but this will give you a good idea of what's going on. For the look-and-say educators reading is now a matter of "guessing," "cues," "strategies"—never of simply looking at what's on the page and, if necessary, sounding out the words. Professor Kenneth Goodman even wrote a paper called "Reading: A Psycholinguistic Guessing Game," which was reprinted several times in college anthologies.
Not long ago, in the November 1979 issue of the magazine Learning, a Goodman disciple summed it all up. Mr. Barry Sherman, a reading consultant in private practice, offered the following advice to students:
Always try to make sense of everything you read.
When you come to a word or phrase you don't know, guess that it is a word or phrase that looks like the one in the text and that has the meaning called for in the sentence.
If you can't think of a word or phrase that looks like the one in the text, choose something that has the meaning you seem to need and read on.
If you must skip a word, say "blank" and go on reading.
When you come to an unfamiliar name of a person, recognize what kind of word it is, then choose a substitute name for the character and stick to it.
When you come to phrases that tell who is talking, such as "she whispered," "he exclaimed" and "they replied," you can always use the word said in place of whispered, exclaimed and replied. The important thing is to keep reading.
If you cannot figure out the meaning of a word, try to decide if it is a name of something or if it tells what something is, has or does; then keep reading.
On July 9, 1973, Professor Kenneth Goodman made his miscue theory nationally famous by giving an interview to the  New York Times. The interviewer asked him: "A student learning to read comes upon the sentence 'The boy jumped on the horse and rode off.' But instead of saying 'horse,' the student substitutes 'pony.' Should the teacher correct him?
Professor Goodman's answer was a firm no.
"The child clearly understands the meaning," he said. "This is what reading is all about."
What Professor Goodman apparently didn't know is that the Merck Manual, the standard reference source for doctors, lists as one of the symptoms of dyslexia—also called "congenital word blindness" or "primary reading disability"— the "tendency to substitute words for those he cannot read."
And now, to finish this chapter, let me introduce you to the apostle of psycholinguistics, Professor Frank Smith. Smith is a charismatic leader in the direct line of Parker and Huey. He has written three books, Understanding Reading (1971), Psycholinguistics and Reading (1973), and Reading Without Nonsense (1979). They all preach the same gospel, but as the years went by and Smith acquired a fanatic following, his books became less textbooky and more inspirational. Reading Without Nonsense no longer has any footnotes, bibliography, or other customary scholarly apparatus. It's pure Smith, one glittering paradox after another. Listen:
Skill in reading depends on using the eyes as little as possible. (page 9)
Meaning is not something that a reader or listener gets from language, but something that is brought to language. (page 9)
If you are not making errors when you read, you are probably not reading efficiently. (page 33)
When we identify meaning in text, it is not necessary to identify individual words. (page 117)
However, the most amusing passage in Smith's book is not one of those paradoxes, but the following (from pages 51-52):
The Fallacy of Phonics: The issue concerns the number and nature of the correspondence between the letters of the written language and the sounds of speech. There would be a perfect "one-to-one correspondence" between  the two aspects of language if every letter stood for just one sound and every sound was represented by just one letter. Then indeed we might help children to read by getting them to learn the rules of spelling-to-sound correspondence. In the same mechanical way we could also employ computers to convert written language into speech to the great advantage of the blind. . . . The reason phonics does not work for children or for computers is that the links between the letters and sounds cannot be specified. . . . They are too complex."
This would be a splendid argument against phonics except for the awkward fact that the first Kurzweil Reading Machine was publicly demonstrated on January 13, 1976. It used a phonics-based program fed into a computer. There are now two hundred such machines in use in forty-eight states, England, Australia, and Canada.
The other day I listened to a Kurzweil machine in New York City read a page or two from a book on American history. It has an indefinable, vaguely foreign-sounding accent, but that only adds to the sheer awe-inspiring magic of its performance.
Chapter 2: History of a Gimmick
15 Mathews, Mitford M. Teaching to Read, Historically Considered. University of Chicago Press, 1966.
19 Farnham, George L. The Sentence Method of Teaching Reading, Writing, and Spelling. (2nd ed.) Syracuse, N.Y., 1887.
20 Parker, Francis W. Talks on Pedagogics. New York, A. S. Barnes, 1894.
21 Harrison, Gilbert A. A Timeless Affair: The Life of Anita McCormick Blaine. University of Chicago Press, 1979.
21 Huey, Edmund Burke. The Psychology and Pedagogy of Reading. New York, Macmillan, 1908.
24 Goodman, Kenneth. "Reading: A Psycholinguistic Guessing Game." In Singer, Harry, and Ruddell, Robert B., eds., Theoretical Models and Processes of Reading. (2nd ed.) Newark, Del., International Reading Association, 1976, Pp. 497-508.
24 Spiegel, Dixie L. "Meaning-Seeking Strategies for the Beginning Reader." Reading Teacher, April 1978, pp. 772776.
25 Sherman, Barry. "Reading for Meaning." Learning, November 1979, pp. 41-44.
26 Fiske, Edward B. "Approach to Reading Rethought" (interview with Kenneth Goodman). New York Times, July 9, 1973.
26 Smith, Frank. Understanding Reading. New York, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1971.
26 —. Psycholinguistics and Reading. New York, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1973.
26 ___ . Reading Without Nonsense. New York, Teachers College Press, 1979.