History of Teaching Children to Read

“The almost exclusively scientific orientation of current reading policy and pedagogy is profoundly limited”, argues Professor of Education at Charles Sturt University, Bill Green. “It needs to be supplemented by a more critical, cultural, historical perspective.  One which takes account of more than a so-called best practice or the singular method”.

Head and shoulders photo of Bill Green

Professor Bill Green

Professor Green, along with Research Associate Professor Phil Cormack (University of South Australia) and Professor Annette Patterson (Queensland University of Technology) have done the research to support these statements.  Over the last few years these three professors of education have undertaken a significant study of the history of how children were taught to read in Australia from early settlement to 1939.  Funding for the Teaching Reading in Australia project came from an Australian Research Council grant.  I was fortunate enough to observe their work at close quarters as I was employed as a research assistant for the project.

Now that the archival research has been completed we would like to share with you some of the findings of this work and the resources we have found.  On this blog I will also give you a ‘behind the scenes’ glimpse of the work we did to uncover this history.

We have created a website for the project which gives a broad overview of Teaching Reading in Australia, a bibliography of useful references and a list of key archives researchers can consult.  I give a more detailed overview of the website and how it can be used on the Teaching Reading in Australia page on this blog. Alternatively click here to go directly to the project’s website.

This week I asked the professors a few questions about the project for this blog.

Photo of Annette Patterson

Professor Annette Patterson

Firstly I asked about the value of this historical research.  Professor Patterson could not have been clearer. “It should inform policy on reading pedagogy by providing reminders of where we’ve been and what we’ve tried previously”, she asserted.  This reflects a concern of some education experts that historical amnesia is creeping into education policy and curriculum development.  Professor of Education at University of Sydney, Peter Freebody, has noted, “[i]t is perhaps the singular achievement of research on literacy, as it has recently been brought to bear on policy and practice in education, to have almost entirely purged itself of any interest in its own history…” (Literacy Education in School, 2007, p. 65).

Head and shoulders Phil Cormack

Associate Professor Phil Cormack

The past is littered by the implementation and abandonment of old and new methods of teaching reading.  The Teaching Reading in Australia researchers argue that the historical record shows that the context in which a child is placed is an important factor in their success at learning to read.  “It is the nature of the relations between the child, the material to be read, and the teacher, that is key to the success of the reading lesson”, observed Associate Professor Cormack.

The Teaching Reading in Australia project demonstrates that an exclusive focus on the method of teaching children to read is not adequate if we are to improve the effectiveness of our reading instruction.  The broader context in which the learning child is situated is critical, particularly the relationship between the child, the material they are reading and the teacher.

What else did the research team learn from this extensive study?  “The teaching of reading has always involved much more than skills acquisition”, argued Cormack.  “It has also focussed on ethical/moral outcomes”.

This becomes obvious when anyone opens a book used to teach beginner readers in the nineteenth century.  These books are filled with exhortations about how to behave.  Yet the moral component of the reading lesson has not died with the expiry of the nineteenth century.  The professors recently observed:

The combination of ‘skills acquisition’, with a focus maintained by the teacher on moral and ethical issues related to the person of the reader has remained a trademark of beginning reading instruction through to the present day.

Patterson, A., P. Cormack and B. Green, ‘The child, the text and the teacher: Reading primers and reading instruction’, Paedagogica Historica, 48(2) 2012, p. 196.

They give the example of messages about cultural diversity and gender equity that have been absorbed by children in their reading lessons in the latter part of the twentieth century.

This research is not just relevant to Australians. “Reading pedagogy, and indeed literacy pedagogy, is a worldwide phenomenon”, observed Green. This suggests that the learning emerging from the Teaching Reading in Australia study about the importance of the relationship between the child, the teacher and the reading material is a principle that may be applicable irrespective of the language of instruction.

The history that was uncovered in this project reveals the exchange of knowledge beyond colonial/national borders. “There are intriguing connections among Britain’s nineteenth century colonies and former colonies”, remarked Professor Patterson.  While reading nineteenth century royal commissions I noticed that Australian teachers and administrators of education were not only interested in practices emanating from English-speaking places.  They were also curious about developments taking place in the German-speaking regions of Europe, in Sweden, France and Switzerland to name but a few.

This post gives just a glance at an extensive study of the history of teaching reading in Australia.  I encourage you to find out more by delving into the wealth of material available on the Teaching Reading in Australia website.  This is the first in a series of posts that will appear on this blog about the history of teaching children to read.  In future posts I will introduce you to some of the wonderful archives that I have worked in for Teaching Reading in Australia.  For an overview of my particular research interest that I have been able to develop through this project, you can read my post, The Transformation of a Word.

What interests you about this history and the history of education generally?

3 thoughts on “History of Teaching Children to Read

  1. So, is the present day literacy problems related to a lack of common values from which to work with the child? I’ll read the website, but what do you glean?


    • Our research noted that the reading lesson has always had a moral or ethical component, but we did not seek to suggest what should be in the content of the lesson, nor what was lacking in the moral framework of the reading lessons of the near or more distant past. We concluded that for policy and curriculum development to be effective the relations between the child, the material being read and the teacher should be understood as key components in effective literacy education.


      • On of the other reasons I raise it is the theory that the Finland and Japan do so well in literacy and math in part because the monocultures (common values) create easier behavioural management in schools and therefore less learning downtime. The Fins seem less stressed about testing the student and therefore have less desk time overall. Well the discussion could go off in all sorts of directions.


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