Displacing Method(s)? Historical Perspective in the Teaching of Reading

Article excerpt

Introduction

At the present time, the International Reading Association is calling for. a scaling down of 'the reading wars' and, like Allan Luke (1998), is reminding both sides of the debate that reading pedagogy is much more than adherence to a particular reading 'method'. Claiming that it's 'time to turn down the heat', and arguing that the reading community needs to 'respect divergent views' about how best to teach reading, the IRA position indicates that it is appropriate for teachers to 'get over method'. What teachers of reading must do, instead, is 'get on' with high-quality reading pedagogy, aimed at improving the reading experience and achievements of children in classrooms (Farstrup, 2003, p. 15). In this paper we argue in support of this position, by presenting an account of some of the history of debates about particular methods for the teaching of reading in Australia. Our account is contextualised by findings from a larger curriculum-historical study of English teaching, teacher education and public schooling in the first half of the twentieth century (Green, Cormack & Reid, 2000; Green & Reid, 2002). Like the so-called 'New Times' (Hall, 1989) in which we now live and work, this early twentieth century period was characterised by large-scale economic and social reformation. It was also a time, in Australia as elsewhere, when English curriculum was constituted as central to the task of shaping future citizens for a changing nation. We use our historical analysis to help us to rethink current conceptions of English and literacy in schools--when radical social and cultural change has raised new questions about the school curriculum, teacher education, and the purposes of schooling.

In dialogue with earlier work in this field of inquiry (Michael, 1987; Patterson, 1997; Rennie, 2000; Reeves, 1996; Soler, 2000), we seek to show how teacher 'casualties' of what is now a 'Hundred Years War' over reading have lurched along behind the experts. They have often sought 'hand outs' from an educational publishing industry that has fed off the anxieties of these teachers (and parents) who understandably do not want to fail their children by having them fail at literacy. The 'newest' successful reading method has always been of great interest to teachers on this account. Our current educational climate of reliance on measurable outcomes for certifying success in literacy, though, has extended the range of interest and influence of the latest 'methods' into both the home and the pre-school setting. As Peter Freebody (2001, p. 1) warns, we are now facing a 'growing diversity of literacy-education practices' within both the public and private realms of education. There is 'increasingly heated debate' about the merits of a range of instructional packages sold to parents and teachers for the teaching of reading at home and in school settings (Freebody, 2001, p.1).

We begin by contextualising the question of Method in an historical and sociological framework, situating the debate over reading methods within the larger framework of English curriculum (Green & Reid, 2001). We then focus on a particular instance of the teaching profession's embrace of an apparently successful method in our research period. This is the 'Jones Method', as it was known in the 1920s, and we use it as a case-study of the kind of methodological fixation that characterises the historical scene of reading pedagogy, now as much as ever. Our aim is to harness the capacity of an historical perspective to enhance understanding and to enable teachers to better see present circumstances as effects of particular discursive traditions that are not (and never have been) fixed, immutable or offering us a 'right answer'. Liberated in the knowledge that there is no one right way to teach all children to read, we are far more likely to look to the needs and circumstances of the particular children we are charged to teach, and work with them, rather than relying on or looking for any single reading method. …