A Brief History of the Code – Part 3

With the printing of the King James Bible literacy began to spread. As it did, reading teachers began to realize that the letter-sound relationships in the code made learning to read English difficult. Phonics was born in the 16th century as an attempt to train the reader to process the unruly code. Over a century later the whole word method (originally developed for the hearing-impaired) began being used as an alternate to the ‘tedious’ ‘rote’ work of phonics.

Paralleling the battle between these two teaching around the code polarities, another movement began which focused on reforming the code itself. The story of our attempts to change the code is fascinating and understanding these attempts, and why they failed, sheds important light on the social, political, institutional, and even scientific inertia that limits our understanding of the challenges involved in learning to read.


“The heart of our trouble is with our foolish alphabet. It doesn’t know how to spell and can’t be taught.” – Mark Twain

“Delay in the plan here proposed may be fatal… the minds of men may again sink into indolence; a national acquiescence in error will follow, and posterity be doomed to struggle with difficulties which time and accident will perpetually multiply”. – Noah Webster

“People are more likely to change their religion than change their writing system.” – Charles Hockett, Anthropological Linguist

“…as every letter ought to be, confin’d to one; the same is to be oberv’d in all the Letters, Vowels and Consonants, that wherever they are met with, or in whatever Company, their Sound is always the same.” – Benjamin Franklin”

The second great obstacle is our absurd spelling, which scholars agree is the worst on the planet. In trying to learn this, two or three years are worse than waster” – Melvile Dewey (Dewey decimal system – champion of simplified spelling).