As recent classical scholarship makes plain, reading is a human, deictic invention. Evidence comes from the evolution of ancient alphabetic writing systems: Sumerian (cuneiform), Akkadian (Gilgamesh), Ugaritic (a fine, delicate script), and Egyptian hieroglyphs. Texts on stone and papyrus proved to be more lasting ways of recalling past events than human memory. Long, long before twentieth-century educators would debate whether reading should be taught by phonics or meaning-based methods, the Sumerians showed their young writers how to make word lists on clay tablets by incorporating elements of both of these pedagogies in their instruction. The later, successful Greek alphabet was made by matching speech sounds with symbols, paying explicit attention to oral language. That is what we still encourage children to do when they learn to read. However, my mental picture of biddable Greek children interpreting meaningful texts was dispelled by this recent note: “Much as we may lament the fact, written language, where it appeared more than 5,000 years ago, is not the creation of poets, but of accountants. It comes into being for economic reasons, to keep stock of facts, of possessions, commercial dealings of purpose and sale” (Manguel 2008).
In his account of how he collected terms for Keywords (1976), Raymond Williams (1983b) explains the limitations of “the great Oxford Dictionary.” For his Keyword vocabulary, he wanted clusters of words. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), with its twenty-four-column entry for “read” and “reading,” was my starting place. The core sense of “read,” as a verb, is “to look at and comprehend the meaning of written matter by mentally interpreting the characters or symbols of which it is composed.” The noun form is expressed in sentences such as “I like a good read.’” The origin of the word is raedan, an Old Saxon or Old High German word related to a Dutch form, raden, to “advise.” The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (Hoad 1986) adds Germanic original meanings of “to inspect or plan,” “taking or giving counsel,” or “explaining something.” Reden is Chaucer’s word for “read,” with the past tense redde or radde.
Reading has other extensions of meaning: to discover information (I like reading newspapers), to discern (She was reading the fear in his eyes), to peruse (He is apt to read all the accounts), to study for exams (What are you reading at Oxford?). The mental-state verbs associate silent reading with thinking. Other glosses include “to interpret, study and give an account of.” As formal acts of reading, the OED offers the recital of a Bill before the UK Parliament, the reading of a will, a lecture, and a social entertainment where the audience listens to a reader. Reading of a non-deliberate kind is part of ordinary social habits associated with the gas meter, cooking recipes, advertisements, magazines, timetables, medicine packaging, and posted letters. Children’s early encounters with these provoke the repeated question: “What does it say?” This is their acknowledgment of meaning. In school, reading becomes a “subject.” Those who look up “reading” in a dictionary already know what it is. The current query “Do you read me?” means “Do you understand?” Only in the OED have I discovered “reading” as the interpretation of musical scores, a matter taken up by Peter Kivy in the essay The Performance of Reading (2006). He reminds us that the origins of read literature are in performed literature: “There are two kinds of reading,” he says, “the one when you do it, the other when someone else does it.” Reading—the word, the text, the act, and our explanations of what we do when we do it—are all at the heart of literature for children. It not only extends their linguistic competences, their cognitive growth, and their cultural belonging, but also changes their views of the world and of other people.
The general agreement is that all children must learn to read. The nature of this obligation is bound up with literacy and the “active social history” examined by Williams. There is no entry for “reading” in Keywords (1976), but in his collection of essays, Writing in Society, we can see him reading Charles Dickens’s Hard Times (1854): “What is being generally described,” Williams writes, “is the uniformity and monotony of the new kind of nineteenth century industrial town and of the new kind of systematic labour process which it embodied” (Williams 1983b). Williams reads Dickens so that the focus is on characters changed by the industrial town and by the events of the narrative. Readers of Williams’s insights are, in turn, given accomplished reading lessons on reading Dickens.
There is no dictionary acknowledgment of children in the exemplified contexts of reading. Perhaps, as Jonathan Culler (1980) wrote, experience excludes young people: “Reading is not an innocent activity, nor a moment of analysable communion between a self and a text. It involves a complex series of operations which ought to be described.” One of these operations is thinking about thinking. What counts, but is rarely counted, is the life experience that each reader brings to making texts mean—an idea that the great eighteenth-century man of letters Samuel Johnson took to heart. He believed that the contents of books should be brought “to the test of real life” (Boswell 1791).
As reading was a way of life for Johnson, he distinguished “professional” from “unprofessional” readers. The latter are those “whose sheer market power would nevertheless be the first most effective form of criticism,” the continuing awareness of all publishers. Johnson read all the languages that were considered either “learned” or “polite” in his time, and upheld “extended critical writing” for which “the foundation must be laid by reading.” However, when he used “reading” to mean literacy, he did not include women or the poor, whose skills he deemed inadequate. He is reported as saying that the Chinese had reading difficulties because their language had no alphabet.
On the matter of reading, Johnson’s view was that a young person (always a boy) should not be discouraged from reading “anything he took a liking to from a notion that it is beyond his reach.” In effect, he had no great sense of children as readers before they had learned the alphabet for writing and spelling. Later he confirmed: “I am always for getting a boy forward. I would let him at first read any English book which happens to engage his attention. I would put a child into a library… and let him read at his choice.” He was adamant that adults should hide from the young all the current ABCs and the manuals of French and Latin used in school. Instead, they should entertain the young with “whole words,” which they would “retain with far more ease.” John Newbery, famous as the first successful publisher of books for mothers to read with their children, was Johnson’s friend and occasional employer. Newbery introduced Mrs. Trimmer (six sons and six daughters; Queen Charlotte called her to Windsor for a consultation about Sunday Schools) to Dr. Johnson: “To confirm a disputed quotation from Paradise Lost for his benefit, she produced a Milton from her pocket; which so pleased the lexicographer that he gave her a copy of The Rambler” (Darton 1932/1982).
Reading flourished during the Enlightenment partly because the publishing industry flourished. Newspaper broadsheets circulated accounts of local events. Flyers, gazettes, and almanacs all increased reading as a middle-class habit. Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Gulliver’s Travels (1726) were the novels that, in their chapbook form, reached thousands of readers. Intense demographic growth, as well as intellectual changes in women’s writing, social roles, and music, brought about the Enlightenment. The essayist Richard Steele summed up his view of the scene: “Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body” (quoted in Fischer 2003). His fellow editor at The Spectator, Joseph Addison, insisted on the importance of reading history, because it “informs understanding by the memory” (quoted in ibid.).
Male commentators on female reading (such as John Bennett, who wrote two volumes of Letters to a Young Lady in 1795) defined women’s reading in ways that kept the female reader in the realms of “taste, fancy and imagination” and excluded them from the realm of acknowledged wisdom and understanding (Bennett 1795). Middle-class wives and mothers, released from certain household duties, were expected to complete the first stage of their children’s learning to read. The boys, at about age seven or eight, went to boarding schools, while girls continued to be taught at home by reading their brothers’ books, sometimes with a governess to promote good manners.
Wherever reading is regarded as a key to educational achievement, it is accompanied by a concern to ensure children’s success in early school learning. In England, class distinction still separates those who are most likely to succeed. Home teaching has increased. Government-backed search for “the best methodology” to be used by all teachers in primary schools continues, with emphasis on synthetic phonics. Children’s reading of their preferred texts, which might include comics and Japanese manga, is rarely considered relevant evidence of their progress. An international study reports that, despite “good reading results in England, many children no longer enjoy reading” ( Twist, Schagen, and Hodgson 2006). At all stages, the multifaceted nature of reading confounds the notion that there could be a single, efficient method for teaching all children. There is also a curious reluctance to admit publicly that good readers read a lot and enjoy it. “Book weeks” and other events urging people to read are supported by the media. The Children’s Laureate has but three years of promotion time in which to make a difference. Very few research inquiries seem to take seriously the influence of what children are expected to read and what they may have already read, but a great deal of fuss is made if test results and standards do not improve.
A highly detailed consideration of these and other language matters is being carried out at the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) in London. Founded in 1970 to promote a new approach to in-service for teachers, it has always regarded classroom experience and teachers’ observations as important evidence of the personal meanings of learners. Current CLPE work in schools, a program called “The Power of Reading,” focuses on the period of time between a young person’s awareness of being helped to read in school and the different feeling of “becoming literate.” The recorded results show clearly the part played by the texts of important children’s books in this transition.
The great reading perplexity is this: reading is best discussed in relation to texts, especially when the implied readers are inexperienced. Never before have books for the young been so imaginative, artful, subtle, subject-extensive, and seriously reviewed for growing readers, and yet, the graded books (called “readers”) for beginners are still used in the belief that they offer the safest instruction for the compulsory tests.
My interactions with children’s books, their authors, and other teachers who read them to good effect are countered by prophetic writing about reading in the imminent electronic age. In his Gutenberg Elegies (1994) Sven Birkerts considered whether the prospects for reading were “dire or merely different.” He decided that the outcome would depend on the readers’ “own values and priorities.” We are already fifteen years into Birkerts’s scene-setting with more books than ever and more attention to reading in general. Think of all those who now read comfortably as the result of their accurate eyeglasses. Children rehearse the shape of things to come in their preferred reading matter. Not many of them know that their keyboards are dependant on the same old Latin letters.
More inspiring than interactive technologies is the progress in effectively understanding how the human brain learns to read, and when it can’t. With the appearance of Maryanne Wolfe’s Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (2008), the problems posed by dyslexia have come under different kinds of scrutiny, particularly in the parts of the brain related to reading. Those who are close to children, parents, and teachers in primary schools now know that they cannot simply assume that the persistent difficulties afflicting young learners will disappear in time. Instead, we are to intervene as soon as possible in ways described and demonstrated. At the end of her scientific exploration of the reading brain comes a fascinating reassurance: Dr. Wolf and her colleagues at the Center for Reading and Language Research in Boston discovered that they were “reinventing a program” with some of the same principles used in the first-known reading pedagogy—that of the Sumerians. As she notes, “Unlike the Sumerians, we also use multiple strategies for fluency and comprehension. Like the Sumerians we want every struggling reader to know as much about a word as possible.” This work seems more optimistic than some other prognostications about the future. For my part, I still have great faith in the practice of reading stories aloud to those who need to know what “reading” is all about.