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1964-2004: A retrospective on reading instruction (Highlights and Lowlights)


Susanne I. Lapp

          Florida Atlantic University   

Jerry Johns

          Northern Illinois University, Emeritus

Terry Bullock

          Univerisity of Cincinnati

Richard Telfer

          University of Wisconsin, Whitewater

Laurie Elish-Piper

          Northern Illinois University


At the 2004 American Reading Forum Conference at Marco Island, Florida several educators, whose experiences in the field of literacy span over four decades, came together to identify and discuss highlights and lowlights of reading education. Panelists consisted of individuals from a number of universities throughout the United States. Each panelist was responsible for a specific decade and together, with audience participation, created a list of highlights and lowlights in reading education for their particular decade. As a culminating activity, each group was asked to identify any future trends, issues, and concerns which might affect the field of literacy in the 21st century. The following paper summarizes the comments made during the presentation and provides educators with insights into the future of reading education.


1960s: The Age of Educational Idealism

The 1960s presented significant challenges to the citizens of the United States. Americans were embroiled in political and social challenges which threatened the stability of the nation. On the national scene Americans struggled with issues of poverty and civil rights. Internationally, the United States was involved in the war in Vietnam. These significant events spawned public outcry and Americans found themselves involved in protests and riots throughout the country. Americans were also haunted by events from the previous decade. In 1957 the Soviet Union launched its first unmanned rocket, Sputnik, into space. Americans feared that they were falling behind in the space race and believed that national security would be compromised if American education failed to respond to these disturbing national and international trends.

In 1958 Congress passed the National Defense Education Act. The $1-billion law paid for college student loans, scholarships, and scientific equipment for public and private schools. The act emphasized the study of math, science, and foreign languages and fueled the movement for curriculum reform in other areas of education. The Sputnik crisis also provided academics with an opportunity to contribute to education policy and curriculum. Suddenly, academic institutions were eagerly sponsoring research which focused on updating teaching methods, and understanding of the complexities of the learning processes (20th Century Education, 2005).


Armed with the initiatives passed in Congress in the late fifties, educators and politicians began to tackle the political, economic and social challenges of the 1960s. One of the highlights of the 1960s political agenda of the United States was the effort made to eliminate the disturbing trends of poverty which plagued the United States. In 1965 Congress approved the Elementary and Secondary Act (ESEA). A portion of ESEA funding went to support the Title One program which funneled money to high-poverty communities by targeting extra resources to districts with the highest concentration of poverty. These districts generally had the lowest academic performances among their students and had the greatest number of obstacles to raising that performance.


The War on Poverty and its ensuing focus on humanitarian initiatives encouraged educational researchers to search for the best methods to reach and teach children. An explosion of research emerged during the 1960s which examined whether meaning-centered or skills-based reading instruction was the most beneficial method for teaching children to read and write.


The Great Debate of 1967


Jeanne Chall, a psychologist at Harvard University, conducted research in classrooms and interviewed teachers and textbook publishers. Based on her extensive research, she published her findings in Learning to Read: The Great Debate (1967). In this publication, Chall compared the difference in Phonics and the Look Say methods. Phonics was known for its emphasis on code and consisted of teaching sounds associated with particular symbols (letters of the alphabet). Children learned to read by sounding out new words, one at a time. The Look Say method emphasized a meaning-centered approach and consisted of teaching whole words using flash cards. Students learned to recognize the entire word by sight without breaking the word into parts.


Chall’s findings suggested that learning to read was a developmental process and that phonics was a more effective method. Children, who were taught only holistic methods, appeared to do better in the early years, but fell behind their peers because they lacked the skills needed to transition into independent reading. Reading programs that advocated ‘consistent and substantial systematic phonics’ instruction and used reading programs with stories that used highly controlled vocabulary had the greatest level of success with children. The phonics approach claimed that once children mastered sound-letter relationships, they would able to focus on comprehension tasks (Snow, Burns, and Griffin, 1998).


Text and the reader


Louise Rosenblatt was Professor Emeritus of English Education at New York University. Although her career spanned several decades, she is most closely associated with the research which she conducted on the role of teaching literature with a focus on the relationship between the reader and the text (Rosenblatt 1964, 1968). Rosenblatt’s approach to reading rejected the New Criticism of the late 1930s through the 1950s which asserted that texts themselves were central to literature instruction and that teachers were to teach students how to analyze texts while discouraging students from expressing their individual responses to the text.


Rosenblatt challenged this notion and advocated a paradigm shift in the teaching of literature away from viewing the text as authority to a view that focused on the reader's relationship with text (Rosenblatt, 1964, 1968). The focus of Rosenblatt’s research on reading was referred to as Reader Response Theory. According to Rosenblatt, readers were encouraged to incorporate their personality traits and experiences as they sought to understand and respond to the text which they were reading. As the reader reads, he or she will derive a personal understanding of the text based on his or her individual reactions to the words and images presented in the text. The transaction between the reader and the text highlighted the special meaning that these words and images had for the individual reader and determined what that work communicated to the reader. The transaction between the reader and the text became known as Transactional Theory (1969). Rather than emphasize formal analysis of a text, the primary goal of instruction from a transactional perspective was to foster students’ trust in the expression of their individual experience with the text (Church, 1997).


1970s: Educational Pioneering


Rosenblatt continued to pursue reading research into the 1970s with her second significant work, The Reader, The Text, The Poem (1978) in which she outlined the differences between the two opposing modes of experiencing a text: efferent and aesthetic. Readers who focused on efferent reading were motivated by specific needs to acquire information. Readers concentrated on the context of the material rather than form. When readers attended to aesthetic reading, they considered their own lived-through experiences or engagement with the text. According to Rosenblatt, it was the responsibility of teachers to help students understand and discover the pleasure and satisfaction of both modes of reading.




Much of literature instruction which took place in the schools in the early 1970s focused on applying the ‘correct answer’ to worksheets, tests and textbook questions. As a result, students were often left to cultivate an understanding of efferent rather than aesthetic reading. Teachers stressed reading accuracy over enjoyment. To gain greater understanding of text, teachers often initiated round robin reading activities in their reading classrooms. In round robin reading the reader is expected to take full responsibility for a small section of the text by reading that portion out loud.


Round robin reading mislead teachers into believing that they were able to monitor a child’s oral reading, however, they soon encountered problems with this instructional approach.  During round robin reading, students found it difficult to attend to the features of text which could aid their understanding of the text. Instead of developing students’ understanding of the text, round robin reading had the reverse effect by further reducing students’ motivation to read (Ediger, 2000). Although round robin reading proved to be an unsuccessful attempt at improving students’ reading experiences, researchers continued to pursue more effective means for reading instruction and began to pay closer attention to the reading activities which took place in the schools.




As researchers examined reading instruction in the schools, they discovered that students spent minimal time participating in independent reading activities. To facilitate more opportunities to develop efferent and aesthetic reading skills, researchers called for more independent reading opportunities for students. Durkin (1979) found that the amount of time which teachers dedicated towards independent reading was an essential ingredient in an effective reading program. Durkin found that teachers were spending too much time on activities that did not promote growth in reading. Students spent as much as 70% of the time allotted to reading instruction doing ‘seat work’ which usually consisted of completing workbooks or worksheet exercises that were found to be completely unrelated to growth in reading. Teachers spent large amounts of time asking questions that had little or no instructional value and did not promote reading comprehension. In order to create an educational environment that would develop and sustain improved reading development, teachers needed to spend more time focusing on authentic reading and writing opportunities which ultimately lead to improved reading achievement.


The increased focus on authentic reading and writing opportunities supported the popularity of the whole language movement which became popular in the late 1970s with the work by Goodman (1980) and Smith (1988). Whole language proponents claimed that the most effective method for teaching children to read occurred when they were immersed in real reading and writing. According to whole language supporters, readers rely more on the structure and meaning of language rather than on the graphic information from the text. Reading and writing was viewed as a process in which both reader and writer were active participants in the construction of meaning as they interacted with the text. The holistic approach to reading and writing development set the tone for reading research in the 1980s through the early 1990s.


1980s: Time of Transition

During the 1980s, American education found itself in a time of transition. Just as whole language was becoming more visible in literacy classrooms, American education came increasingly under fire by politicians and business leaders. In response to increasing skepticism of American public schools, Secretary of Education, T. H. Bell formed a commission comprised of 18 members including a former governor, political and business leaders, several University Presidents, school board members, principals, superintendents, and one Teacher of the Year to present a report on the quality of education in America.  In April of 1983 the National Commission on Excellence in Education published their report, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. The purpose of this document was to warn Americans that our preeminence in international commerce, industry, science and technology was being overtaken by competitors outside the United States. To keep our competitive edge, we needed to reform our educational system for the benefit of all. There was a pervasive fear in society that the foundation of American society was being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that permeated the American school system.


Publication of the document, A Nation at Risk (1983) served as an important landmark for the American education system. The documents grim predications suggested that individuals who did not possess high levels of literacy would be disenfranchised in the future. The document further asserted that 23 million American adults were functionally illiterate and that many 17 year olds did not possess higher order intellectual skills.

Political, business and educational experts began to search for solutions to the educational crisis. At the local and state levels, stakeholders began to call for education reforms which placed tougher academic standards on schools, teachers and students. State and local levels of government enacted comprehensive education-reform legislation by adding to graduation requirements, decreasing the average class size, and requiring students to pass standardized tests. Demands were placed on teachers to take and pass literacy and other content area exams and teacher education programs had to redesign their programs to reflect new, teacher-licensing requirements.

Individuals like E.D. Hirsch, Jr. and William Bennett advocated a return to the classics for college students and back to the basics for public school students. As the 1980s saw an increased level of accountability and outside influence of education, it was, ironically, a time when whole language flourished and literature based instruction and process writing took hold in many schools.



As Whole Language began to take center stage in the United States as a movement in the 1980s, it challenged the conventional wisdom of educational curriculum. Prior to the 1980s, basal textbooks stressed early code emphasis that was popular from the 1960s to the early 1980s. Suddenly, coding was no longer the focus of reading education. Instead, reading research established meaning as the core, not the residual outcome, of reading (Goodman, 1980). Although complete consensus and agreement among reading experts was difficult to achieve, Whole Language supporters tended to believe that skills were better taught in the act of reading and writing genuine texts for authentic purposes than taught directly and explicitly by teachers. Many reading teachers believed that young readers would have to learn the alphabetic principle by sheer immersion in print.


The 1980s saw an emphasis on process rather than product in professional publications. Prior to the 1980s, qualitative research had very little visibility within the reading research community. By the 1980s and 1990s researchers began to see the merits of qualitative research. Research articles in leading reading journals eagerly included qualitative research designs. The notion of Teacher Researcher also gained popularity during the 1980s. Teacher research provided valuable information to other teachers since it encouraged teachers to daily observe and gather data about their students in various learning situations. Based on this data, teachers were encouraged to adjust their instruction to best meet the student’s needs and empowered teachers to think and act like professionals. Towards the close of the decade, the whole language movement was facing increased scrutiny. Increased emphasis on accountability and skills-based assessment did not take into account instruction that supported meaning-centered curriculum. Increased debate among educators arose when these complex, rich teaching approaches did not lend themselves to easy measurement on tests (Pearson, 2004).


1990s: Age of Accountability


The 1990s ushered in the age of accountability with increasing legislative control regarding reading instruction and research. By the 1990s reading research had experimented with a wide range of reading approaches from skills-based to meaning-centered. It appeared that reading researchers were attempting to compromise their positions by embracing a balanced approach to reading. Balanced reading combined the best of phonics instruction and the whole language approach to teach both skills and meaning and to meet the reading needs of individual children.




Balanced Reading. Researchers (Snow et al., 1998) suggested that the best way to teach reading was to expose students to solid skills instruction, including phonics and phonemic awareness with embedded reading and writing experiences in whole texts. The combination of both skills-based and meaning-centered instruction helped students see the relevance of phonics for themselves in their own reading and writing and helped students facilitate the construction of meaning.




Balanced Reading. As reading researchers were beginning to understand the ramifications of balanced literacy, they found themselves confronting a new challenge in the classroom, adapting balanced literacy to the increasing number of English Language Learning (ELL) students in American classrooms. Data from the Adult Literacy Services (as cited in Lapp, S., and Braunius, M. 2001) suggested that 32 million people in the United States spoke a language other than English, a 38 percent increase since 1980. Approximately 19.8 million immigrants enter the United States each year and 1.7 million of those who are aged 25 and older have less than a 5th grade education. Eighty percent of the adults who are illiterate in English are also illiterate in their native language (Adult Literacy Services, 1999). Many teachers were not adequately prepared to deal with ELL students in their classrooms. Teachers were unfamiliar with ELL students’ language and cultural backgrounds and were frequently overwhelmed by the demands of teaching the curriculum to students who were unable to speak English (Whelan-Ariza, 2006).




Bilingual Education. The large number of immigrants to the United States had a significant effect on the schools. States began to consider how they could meet the demands of educating a population of non-English speaking children. One solution that presented itself was the creation of bilingual educational programs. Bilingual education in the United States had traditionally been implemented as a remedial program for language minority students to learn English. More successful bilingual programs, however, stressed the importance of biliteracy for both English and non-English speaking students. In two-way bilingual immersion or dual language programs language minority and language majority students are integrated throughout the school day as they learn content through the languages rather than spending time on explicit language instruction (Ramirez, Yuen, & Ramey, 1991; Thomas and Collier, 1998). These programs strived to combine the best of immersion and bilingual education and offered language majority and minority students the opportunity to become bilingual and biliterate (Genesee, 1985; Swain, 1984)




Bilingual Education. Bilingual education faced harsh criticism in the 1990s. In states like California, legislation (Proposition 187) was introduced to make illegal aliens ineligible for public social services, public health care services and public school at the elementary, secondary and post-secondary levels. According to Proposition 187 teachers were required to report anyone whom they thought to be illegally in the United States.  The proposition was found to be unconstitutional by the courts, however, in June 1998 Proposition 227 passed in the California legislature. According to the proposition, all children in California public schools shall be taught in English. All children were placed in English language classrooms and were to be temporarily educated through sheltered English immersion during a transition period not normally intended to exceed one year. Once English learners acquired a good working knowledge of English, they were transferred to English language mainstream classrooms.


Technology. The 1990s also witnessed the infusion of technology into the schools. The goal of technology was to have computer-related activities woven into the daily fabric of classroom routines through planned activities such as teacher interactive demonstrations, thematic integration and innovation, diverse collaboration and addressing the special needs student population.

Children used technology in their classrooms to complete a variety of tasks including keeping classroom calendars, composing and printing out notes, and making to-do lists. Ultimately, these simple tasks lead to more academically collaborative writing activities where children used technology to enhance their writing, thinking, learning and communicating.


Researchers cautioned that schools must commit to supporting children and teachers as they prepared to handle the changes and demands of technology. Teachers must also be informed and given the opportunity to learn more about infusing technology into their classroom.


2000s: Age of Resilience


The 1990s experienced increased external challenges to education, however, the 2000s witnessed even more stringent external control placed on schools, students, teachers and educational research. Despite the heavy burden of these controls, educators appeared to be even more resilient and determined to meet the educational needs of their students.




The twenty-first century witnessed a phenomenal amount of external control in the classroom. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) (2001) ushered in standards-driven reform in the schools. According to the NCLB guidelines states are required to implement standards and assessments aligned to those standards. Children in grades three to eight are to be annually assessed in reading and math and are required to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) towards meeting those goals. Failure to make AYP may result in a number of progressive interventions including providing students with vouchers to attend schools of their choice, curriculum and staff changes, schools restructuring and possible state takeover.


With the NCLB policies in place, school districts are forced to set aside a portion of their Title 1 funds to pay for supplemental education services for their low achieving, disadvantaged students. School districts must also provide funding and other resources to increase parent involvement in education. Schools with over 40% poverty population can apply for Title 1 funds for school wide programs to strengthen the entire school (National PTA, 2002).




As the reading community learns to deal with the stringent demands on No Child Left Behind, educators remain dedicated to their professional responsibilities to prepare children to become good readers and writers. Effective preparation does not simply consist of children understanding the rules of a language or the skills necessary to read a sentence, but they must possess the desire to read or write.


As professionals, we need to rise above the reading debates and controversy and focus our attention on encouraging children to enjoy reading and writing and consider how to create stimulating learning environments where students are exposed to meaningful print and an abundance of reading and writing materials that are accessible for students.


To foster a love of books, teachers need to talk about books and relate them to the lives of their students and most importantly, teachers need to have high expectations of students’ success. High expectations are a motivating factor that can help students academically succeed (Mandel-Morrow, 2004).


Viewing the field of literacy instruction and research, it has become clear that reading has faced many challenges in the past forty years. As a profession, we continue to face many of the same challenges of the past. During the past months of 2004, there has been a lot of anxiety over politics and policies effecting reading instruction. Problem areas include the harsh realities of testing requirements, instructional mandates that don’t meet the needs of students and shrinking state and local resources for education. At the same time, there has never been such widespread public and political support for increasing reading performance for all children and eliminating the achievement gap. Society is showing a genuine interest in improving reading outcomes for all learners (Farstrup, 2004).


Clearly, reading professionals need to examine their roles in the twenty-first century. Educators need to ask important questions like, ‘Who should be making programmatic and instructional decisions: policymakers who are outside the classroom or expert teachers and reading specialists?’ The educators of 2004 continue to maintain the same high level of professional responsibility to teach children to read and write as they did forty years ago, yet if teachers and schools are to be held accountable for students’ academic performance, then they need to be given the resources, professional development support and professional discretion to make those decisions.



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