Huey begins the second half of his book with a brief history of reading and, unavoidably, of writing. He proffers the recapitulation theory of writing, that the human child recapitulates the various stages of the human species in developing writing (from pictures to logograms to syllables to sounds). Within this discussion, Huey tacitly assumes that the trajectory of that development (child or species) is necessarily toward alphabetic writing, and that alphabetic writing is somehow an apex to which all orthography aspires.
At times, this assumed trajectory comes off as silly, and even a little racist. On page 211, Huey cites Taylor: “The fact that during more than a thousand years it should never have occurred to a people so ingenious and inventive as the Japanese to develop their syllabary into an alphabet may suffice to show that the discovery of the alphabetic principle of writing is not such an easy or obvious matter as might be supposed.” The way I see things, perhaps it may suffice to show that an alphabetic principle itself is not such an easy or obvious, or even desirable, facet of an orthography. Huey himself supposes that it’s only a matter of time before the Japanese are won over by reason and come to write alphabetically. In the meantime, Huey’s psycho-pedagogical heirs are still extolling the virtues of the alphabetic principle (see the works of Louisa Moats, Barbara Foorman, and the National Reading Panel Report, for example).
The Japanese are not the lone recipients of Huey’s disapproval; the Chinese, too, labor under “the difficulty of learning [their] syllabary.” (236). In fact, he claims, only “one out of ten Chinamen can read.” Turn-of-the-Century racism aside, this statement belies the assumed superiority of an alphabetic system. He does not, contrariwise, blame the Latin alphabet for the fact that “during the Middle ages readers were very few indeed” (237). For the limited literacy in ancient Greece and Rome, as well as in Medieval Europe, Huey blames the sheer cost of reading materials. I wonder how many Chinamen could afford books in 1908?
Even without the racist inflections, however, the supposition that one writing system is superior to or more evolved than another bears interrogation. Nineteenth and early twentieth linguists thought of some spoken languages as primitive, or incapable of expressing everything that a sophisticated and evolved language like English could express. Such perspectives are risible nowadays; every spoken language, even dialects and vernaculars, is viewed as functionally equal to any other.
Why, then, do we persist in judging, as Huey did, an alphabetic system as better that a logo-syllabary? Even within alphabetic circles, there’s a tacit hierarchy: languages like Italian and Spanish and Finnish, with very regular and shallow phoneme-grapheme correspondences, are somehow believed to be better orthographies than the tedious and irrational English spelling system. It would be quaint to see Huey’s century-old affinity for spelling reform if its legacy were not still lurking in the bowels of modern day reading — and especially spelling — education. The notion that a phonologically-driven writing system is superior abideth still, and so does the progeny it begets: the belief that English orthography is deeply flawed, fickle and irregular.
This raises, for me, the question of what it means to be literate. Surely even when a population has not had high rates of literary literacy, a good many people have still had enough basic literacy skills to mark their name, to write a receipt or track an inventory. Even in this detailed study of reading, Huey slides easily into assuming reading to be a single thing, binary, something one either can or cannot do. If, however, we can recognize levels of literacy among the ancient Chinese — or even early 20th century Chinese — why, then can we not accept that some individuals (like this writer) can have very deep levels of understanding the writing system, while most people who are considered literate have enough skills to get by (whatever that means).
Recognizing that reading (and writing) is different to different people, that it is rather than a single function or skill, a set of functions and skills, calls upon us to consider what that means for teaching and learning literacy.
Finally, amidst Huey’s support for spelling reform and his discussion of phonograms and phonics instruction I experience my same exasperation with the lack of linguistic knowledge applied in written language instruction. I am discouraged not because Huey, 100 years ago, failed to acknowledge the very different linguistic roles of such ‘letter combinations’ as ight, ly, un and ble; I am discouraged because the modern use of the concept of phonogram continues to blur the difference between morphemes, graphemes, clips and rimes. So, on the one hand, we have a bias toward an alphabetic system where letters have the job of representing sounds, and then on the other hand we expect children to internalize such muddied patterns as ight with no further explanation as to why these four letters do not yield four sounds.
Huey, like his modern-day heirs, confounds the concepts of alphabet and orthography. Bemoaning the irregularities of English, he reders to the “persistent deficiencies of our alphabet” (222). But it’s the same alphabet that’s used in such allegedly superior (phono-graphemically shallow) writing systems like Spanish, Italian or Finnish. It’s not the alphabet that’s ‘deficient’; it’s the orthography: what we do with the alphabet to spell our language.
Ultimately, two central, recurring thoughts surface from my reading of Huey: (1) After some 8 or 9 millennia of literacy, there’s really nothing new in reading education; and (2) People will consider *everything* that goes into reading — vision, neurology, finger use, text, font size, speed — everything *except* language. Huey’s perspectives are woefully ill-informed about the structure and purpose of a writing system, but what’s even more disheartening is that so many of the same linguistic misapprehensions continue today