The April 1984 issue of the Journal of Learning Disabilities includes a review paper about how kids learn to read. The author, Joanna Williams from Columbia University, outlined the history of an idea: that children who have trouble learning to read also have trouble with phonemes, or the sounds that make up words. Teaching children to read, she argued, should begin by teaching them how to sound out words.
The theory is fairly mainstream today. But in the 1980s and 90s educators were loudly debating which reading methods work best. (Remember all of those annoying “Hooked on Phonics worked for me!” commercials? You’re welcome.)
In her 1984 review, Williams argued that research had long focused on visual rather than auditory aspects of reading. She dates the earliest work on phonemes to 1963, when two Russian psychologists published papers “in very sparse detail.” No other research happened until the 1970s, and even then it wasn’t much, Williams wrote. “To a great extent this is still an experimental idea.”
That was true — in the West. But in Russia, phonemes were old news, as I learned in a fascinating review published last month, also in the Journal of Learning Disabilities. Beginning in the 1930s, phonemic instruction became popular all across Russia, thanks in large part to the work of a woman who was never mentioned in Williams’s paper, nor in dozens of similar reviews that have appeared since. Her name was Roza Levina.