Leonard Bloomfield

Leonard Bloomfield was a professor of linguistics at Yale University.

His classic 1933 text Language suggested the simplified alphabet and phonics-first technique for teaching reading supported by Rudolf Flesch in his 1955 book Why Johnny Can't Read. Bloomfield wrote...

The chief aim, of course, is literacy. Although our writing is alphabetic, it contains so many deviations from the alphabetic; principle as to present a real problem, whose solution has been indefinitely postponed by our educators’ ignorance of the relation of writing to speech. Nothing could be more discouraging than to read our “educationalists’ ” treatises on methods of teaching children to read. The size of this book does not permit a discussion of their varieties of confusion on this subject. The primers and first reading books which embody these doctrines, present the graphic forms in a mere hodge-podge, with no rational progression. At one extreme, there is the metaphysical doctrine which sets out to connect the graphic symbols directly with “thoughts” or “ ideas" as though these symbols were correlated with objects and situations and not with speech-sounds. At the other extreme are the so-called “phonic” methods, which confuse learning to read and write with learning to speak, and set out to train the child in the production of sounds — an undertaking complicated by the crassest ignorance of elementary phonetics.

Pedagogues must determine how reading and writing are to be taught. Their study of eye-movements is an instance of progress in this direction. On the other hand, they cannot hope for success until they inform themselves as to the nature of writing. The person who learns to read, acquires the habit of responding to the sight of letters by the utterance of phonemes. This does not mean that he is learning to utter phonemes; he can be taught to read only after his phonemic habits are thoroughly established. Of course, he cannot utter phonemes in isolation; to make him respond, say, to the letter b by uttering the phoneme [b], which in the English phonetic pattern cannot be spoken alone, is to create a difficulty. The co-ordination between letters and phonemes, accordingly, has to be established as an analogic process by practice on graphs in which the symbols have a uniform value, such as bat, cat, fat, hat, mat, pat, rat, sat — can, Dan, fan, man, pan, ran, tan, van — bib, fib, rib — and so on. The real factor of difficulty is the host of irregular spellings which will remain, no matter what values are assigned as regular. Two devices obviously demand to be tried. One is to teach children to read a phonetic transcription, and to turn to traditional writing only after the essential reading habit has been set up. The other is to begin with graphs that contain only one phonemic value for each letter — sets such as were illustrated above — and either to postpone other graphs until the elementary habit has been fixed, or else to introduce them, in some rationally planned way, at earlier points.

A decade after his book Language, Bloomfield wrote an essay on teaching children to read for Clarence Barnhart, who hoped to find a publisher who would develop a reading curriculum based on Bloomfield's methods. Many years after Bloomfield's death, Barnhart published Let's Read (1961), inspired by Bloomfield's ideas. Let's Read received critical reviews, e.g., by Henry Smith.

See Bloomfield's Teaching Children to Read.

Also see our simplified alphabet sounds, based on the suggestions of Bloomfield and Rudolf Flesch.

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