William S. Gray

William S. Gray graduated from University of Chicago in 1913. He then studied at Teachers College of Columbia University (rather than Teachers College at Chicago). His teachers were Edward Thorndike and Charles Judd, followers of pragmatists like William James and John Dewey.

He returned to the University of Chicago to earn a Ph.D. on Reading in 1916. He stayed at Chicago, becoming Director of Research in Reading at the Graduate School of Education until 1945. He was the first president of the International Reading Association.

In 1929 he went to work at the educational publisher Scott, Foresman, famous for the basal reader series Dick and Jane using the "look-say" method. With William H. Elson he co-authored the Elson-Gray basal readers. "Dick" and "Jane" appeared in 1930 but were at their height of popularity in the 1950s when Rudolf Flesch famously attacked their "look-say" method in his book Why Johnny Can't Read.

In 1960 Gray wrote On Their Own in Reading: How to Give Children Independence in Analyzing New Words.

The Dick and Jane series was retired in 1965, about the time Harvard Professor of Education Jeanne Chall was finding that early training in phonics was superior to "look-say" and other "whole word" methods.

Gray did a four-year study for UNESCO resulting in the 1969 book The teaching of reading and writing: An international survey. In the section on Methods of Teaching Reading, Gray defined the two approaches which correspond to the poles in the "reading wars" since the middle of the nineteenth century...

Many authorities classify most, if not all, methods of teaching reading into two broad groups on the basis of the psychological processes involved : ‘synthetic methods’’ and ‘analytic methods’. A third group is often included-namely, ‘analytic-synthetic methods’-which combines certain elements of the first two...

This may be readily explained. Some interpreted the terms, ‘analytic’ and ‘synthetic’ according to particular philosophies. As defined by the authors of the report, however, the term, ‘synthetic’, referred to the mental process of combining the detailed elements of language (the sounds of letters and of syllables) into larger units (words, phrases and sentences), and the term, ‘analytic’, referred to the mental process of breaking down these larger units into their constituent elements. If restricted definitions are accepted and strictly adhered to, these two terms can be used to advantage.

Gray promoted the "analytic" or "whole word" method of teaching reading supported by attention to context, configuration, structural and graphophonemic cues. He said that children began by memorizing a few words by sight, then developed the sight-word correspondence by using these known words as reference points. Whole-word methods were developed further into "whole language" by Frank Smith and Ken Goodman.

Chall cited Gray as the leading expert on reading in the first half of the 20th century.

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