Community Learning Center Blog

How Dr. William Gray Ruined Reading Instruction

Sharon Hillestad with Let's Read books -croppedAn excerpt from the book The Reading War

Written by Sharon Hillestad, Director of Tutoring

There happened an event that had a devastating impact on our nation. It was not loud and bloody; it was quiet and covert. This is a true story:

In the 1920’s, a boy was about to fail first grade. He felt stupid and didn’t want to read, because he couldn’t. His father was Leonard Bloomfield, a famous linguist, an expert on languages. Dr. Bloomfield decided to help his son learn how to read by creating 72 lists of words based on their structure (phonics).

Dr. Bloomfield created word lists starting with CAT, HAT, RAT, etc and gradually his boy was able to read and spell words like PICTURE, LECTURE, CREATURE, ADVENTURE, and FURNITURE. After a while, he could read thousands of words and he loved reading books, because he could.

Dr. Bloomfield was overjoyed at the success of the reading lessons and gave the word lists to his old friend, Clarence Barnhart, who wrote and published dictionaries. Mr. Barnhart taught his son to read using the word lists. Then other New York families successfully taught their children from the lists of words based on the phonetic structure of words.

Mr. Barnhart and Dr. Bloomfield wanted to make the process of teaching reading easier for all teachers. They tried to get the colleges to show the word lists to students training to be teachers, but no college would do so.  

However, in 1940 the Chicago Catholic school system agreed to pilot this efficient method of teaching children to read. One thousand first graders, mostly children of Polish immigrants, were assigned to teachers who were newly trained to teach reading with 72 phonic patterns of written English. The children had the same teachers for two years. All those children learned to read in only two years. There was not one child who failed to learn to read. Most of them were reading at 3rd grade level and above.

One thousand children learned to read and they loved reading books because they could.

Dr. William Gray, of the University of Chicago, was invited to tour the schools since he would be training teachers and writing reading programs. One thousand children had thoroughly mastered the first step in reading – they could duplicate the pronunciation of thousands of words. Dr. Gray saw second graders reading very well. He even heard second graders read the newspaper and perfectly pronounce words they couldn’t comprehend.

The students would need to master the comprehension of those words. It was time to study grammar and learn to use the dictionary. At least that is how those teachers and Bloomfield looked at reading education.

It was a different story with Dr. Gray. He was actually upset when he witnessed a second grader read words that were not in his vocabulary. He became critical of the program and the teachers who taught it. He withheld valuable information from other teachers and school officials about the 1000 immigrant children who learned to read well in two years.

Dr. Gray promoted the memorization of words rather than sounding them out. He trained teachers and influenced school officials. He was a paid consultant for Scott-Foresman and supervised the development of the Dick and Jane books for elementary schools. The whole-word reading programs were never piloted before being sold to schools. They have made millions of dollars for publishers and are now referred to as whole-language programs.

The fact that this occurred is not broadly known. Dr. Gray was the person who made the decision regarding the basic philosophy on how reading should be taught. The choice was between Bloomfield’s system (based on word structure where the first words learned would be CAT, HAT, FAT, etc), or the whole-word system where the first words students would learn were based on meaning such as DICK, JANE, UP, COME, etc. He made a huge error when he did not acknowledge the greatest scientist in the field of the English language – Leonard Bloomfield. Of course, Dr. Gray had a vested interest in the Scott-Foresman’s Dick and Jane books.

Children don’t read books because they have been improperly taught.

Continuing to do the wrong thing does not make it right or make it work for all students. Millions of Americans are functionally illiterate, reading below fourth grade level. Millions more cannot read well and will not read books. Fully understanding the causes of the downward spiral of illiteracy makes it possible for us to do something about it. You will find out what has already been accomplished and also what you can do about it in later blog posts.

Let's Read -cropped


Kristen HarperHow Dr. William Gray Ruined Reading Instruction