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The analyzing of syllables into their constituent sounds, and the representing

of each of these sounds by a separate character, marks the fifth and final stage

in the evolution of the alphabet.



An Overview of Reading  Scripts & Signs


Background for the  Psychology  of Reading


By William Henry Gray

New York: Prentice Hall, Inc. 1938


The practice of reading appears to be as old as civilization. Written records, discovered in Babylonia and Egypt, have been proved to be no less than six or seven thousand years old. The existence of these records indicates that reading and civilization were then by no means in their infancy.

The evolution of the alphabet.1 A study of written records preserved from remote ages indicates that, although various peoples and tribes on every continent have developed systems of writing independently, each system, in so far as it has evolved, resembles almost every other in the general lines of its development. The evolution of reading and writing as we know them today appears to have gone through the pictograph stage, the ideograph stage, the phonogram stage, the rebus-phonogram stage, and the alphabet stage.

In the early pictograph stage, pictures were drawn in pantomime and read as fast as drawn. They constituted a gesture language. The transition from fashioning pictures in the air to drawing them in sand, on trees, rocks, bark, and other materials must have been easily accomplished. At first the pictures were sketches directly portraying objects to be found in the environment and were made to represent some event in the life of the producer. For example, a hunter out of food might scratch upon a stick the picture-story of his destitution and thrust the stick in the ground on the trail nearest his dwelling.

In the ideograph stage, pictures began to be employed to represent not merely objects of sense, but emotions, ideas, and feelings. For example, among the American Indians the idea of combat came to be symbolized by two spearheads pointed against each other; peace, by a pipe; and war, by a tomahawk.

In the phonogram stage, pictures took on more and more abstract meaning. Among the Egyptians, for example, the ostrich feather came to serve as the symbol for justice, a roll of papyrus came to mean knowledge, the figure of a calf running towards water meant thirst, and a brandished whip was the symbol of power.

The fourth, or rebus-phonogram, stage occurred when words and phrases began to be expressed by pictures of objects whose names resemble the words or syllables of which they are composed. For example, a word of several syllables could be represented by a succession of characters, each of which represented one of the syllables. Thus, in Egyptian, a figure on a seat, hes, with the character for eye, iri, stood for Hesiri, the name of one of their gods. This rebus-phonogram stage, as it is called, can be made to represent sentences as well as words by a series of pictures, each of which stands for one word of the sentence.

Thus, pictures of an eye, a saw, a boy, a swallow, a goose, and a berry may represent the sentence, "I saw a boy swallow a gooseberry." The analyzing of syllables into their constituent sounds, and the representing of each of these sounds by a separate character, marks the fifth and final stage in the evolution of the alphabet. Many peoples carried their development of writing no further than the rebus-phonogram stage, but the Egyptians went further, and analyzed the syllable into letter sounds-into vowels and consonants.

At first they [the Egyptians] had an alphabet of 45 characters, sometimes having two or three characters for the same sound. Later there was further simplification, until the Egyptian alphabet consisted of but 25 letters. The Egyptians, however, never did away with the use of ideographs and syllabic signs. Words were spelled out alphabetically and a needless syllabic sign was added, followed by an unnecessary ideogram.

From the alphabet of the Egyptians and that of the early Greek civilization, the Phoenicians fashioned their alphabet, changing and perhaps borrowing characters as needed. The Phoenician alphabet was adopted by the later Greek civilization and was further modified so that superfluous characters were given new uses and the vowel sounds were represented by separate letters. The Romans adopted a form of the Greek alphabet, and, after certain modifications, the Roman alphabet became the vehicle of culture throughout western Europe. The English printers borrowed a beautiful script from the Italians, which, in a modified form, gives to us a set of symbols that are easier to read and more convenient to use than any other forms.

The evolution of the printed page.2 In the earliest stages of pictography there was no fixed order of reading, but, as picture writing developed and became more definite, it took on a serial order. This serial order came to have habitual directions which tended to become fixed for any given system. The Egyptian hieroglyphics were sometimes arranged in horizontal lines, and sometimes in vertical columns. The order of reading was in the opposite direction to that in which the heads of the animals pointed. There was no fixed rule as to the direction in which the symbols were to be written.

The Hittites read from right to left, returning from left to right. The Semitic writing, in general, was from right to left. Early Greek reading was from right to left in each line. Later their reading came to be in the same order as that of the Hittites, and the characters faced in the direction in which the reading was to be done. Still later their reading came to be from left to right in the first line, returning from right to left. Finally the habit prevailed of writing and reading all lines from left to right. This order was followed by the Romans and, as a result, was adopted in our own language.

For many centuries after writing had first been used there was nothing to indicate the pauses, or to divide a book into sentences. No attempt to punctuate is apparent in the earlier manuscripts and inscriptions of the Greeks. It was in Alexandria that punctuation originated, when that city was the center of ancient learning. The open space to the left of a line, which indicates the beginning of a paragraph, made its appearance on papyri at Alexandria.

The early signs intended for punctuation were used at first in poetry only, to enable readers to comprehend the meaning hidden in obsolete words and in involved and difficult verses. It was not until after the ninth century A. D. that the division of written material by period, colon, and semicolon marks took place. The comma was the same as today; a large dot or double dot indicated the full stop, and a high dot stood for a colon or semicolon.

The modern book had its beginnings in the wooden, wax-coated tablets which were used from the earliest times in Greece and Rome for literary composition, school exercises, accounts, and the like. Two or more tablets would be fastened together by ring hinges at the side, the raised margins of the tablet protecting the writing from being erased. Little booklets of tablets, called codices, came into very general use by the Romans for correspondence, legal documents, and the like.

These were later replaced by codices composed of vellum sheets. Later still, papyrus was used as well as vellum. Paper, although known to the Chinese at a very remote date, was not introduced into Europe until the eighth century, and came from the Arabs. It was not until the fifteenth century, however, that paper gradually replaced vellum.

The early books were, of course, made and written by hand. The Chinese were the first printers. Printing from blocks and clay tablets was practiced in China as early as 50 B. C.; printing from movable type was first done by Pi Sheng in China in the years 1041 to 1049. In printing from blocks, all the words on the page of a book were cut by hand on a solid block of wood.

The great discovery was that of forming every letter or character of the alphabet separately, so as to be able to rearrange and form in succession all the words, lines, and pages of a work, thereby avoiding the labor of cutting new blocks for every page. There is no certainty as to the actual date of the European invention of printmg from movable type, which was independent of the discovery of the principle by the Chinese, but it is assumed that it was produced about 1440.

As the result of the invention of printing and the general use of paper, reading matter increased greatly, and reading and the reading habit have become practically universal in all civilized countries.

Aims in teaching reading.3 The religious motive was the one that controlled reading instruction when our early colonists migrated to America. Many of the colonies were established through the zeal of those who sought freedom of religious worship. The religious motive was the all-controlling force in colonists' lives; hence it is quite natural that one should find it permeating and directing the instruction in their schools.

By the latter part of the eighteenth century the vivid-ness of the early strife for religious freedom had been replaced by the new struggle for political freedom, and reading content now had several new functions to perform: that of purifying the American language; that of developing loyalty to the new nation; and that of inculcating the high ideals of virtue and of moral behavior which were considered so necessary a part of the general program for building good citizenship.

By 1850, owing to the Pestalozzian principles of education which were invading our system, we find reading being taught as a means of obtaining general information. Educators came to realize that the success of the new democracy depended not so largely upon instilling patriotic sentiment as upon developing the intelligence of the great mass of common people whose ballots were to choose the leaders and determine the policies of this democracy.

Sometime around the 1880's a new movement began in the field of reading instruction. This movement was the result of an emphasis upon the use of reading as a medium for awakening permanent interest in literary materials which would be a cultural asset to the individual in adult life. This emphasis was largely the result of the Herbartian principles of education, which were invading America at that time.

From about 1918 to 1925 the aim in teaching reading was largely utilitarian. Silent reading was more and more emphasized, and there was an ever-increasing attention toward comprehension. This was a period of experimental investigation; and objective evidence, coupled with the testing movement, led school people generally to set up the goal of definitely teaching children to become more effective silent readers, in order that they might cope with the great mass of practical materials with which they found themselves surrounded.

At the present time we have emerged into another era in which we recognize that children have occasion to read for many different purposes in doing their class work, and that adults read for a wide variety of purposes in connection with their life activities. This many-sided conception of the purpose of reading is clearly set forth by the National Society for the Study of Education.4 The Society states that the primary purpose of reading in school is to extend the experiences of boys and girls, to stimulate their thinking powers, and to elevate their tastes; in other words, to give them a rich and varied experience through reading.

A second purpose is to develop strong motives for and permanent interests in reading, so that the individual may develop keen interests in life--in the world and its people. This involves a desire to keep posted concerning current events and social problems and the habit of reading systematically for recreation and intellectual stimulation. The third purpose, as set forth by the society, is to develop the attitudes, habits, and skills that are essential in the various types of reading activities ill which children and adults should engage.

This last purpose involves, first, the building-up of habits common to most reading situations, such as the recognition of sentences as units of thought and the anticipation of the sequence of ideas in different types of sentences, the recognition of words and groups of words, and the recognition and interpretation of such typographical devices as punctuation, paragraphing, and the like; second, it involves habits of intelligent interpretation in silent reading; in the third place, it develops effective oral interpretation of selections read to others; and in the fourth place, it results in the skillful use of books, libraries, and sources of information.

The content of reading. The religious motive for teaching reading affected the reading material of colonial times. Colonial reading material consisted largely of the Lord's Prayer, the Ten Commandments, the Apostles' Creed, the Catechism, certain passages of Scripture, and religious admonitions and verses. During the nationalistic period (1776-1840) reading material was largely of the oratorical type, colored with a strongly patriotic tone. The reading books of the period 1840 to 1880 reflected the Pestalozzian emphasis upon the use of reading as a means of obtaining information. Hence the upper-grade readers were given over to a wide range of informational subjects having to do with science, history, art, philosophy, economics, and politics.

Nature stories occupied a large proportion of primers and first readers. Graded series of readers appeared during the period and these readers contained an increasing number of pictures dealing with objects and experiences familiar to child life. Between 1880 and 1918 the content of school readers was made up largely of literary selections. Elocutionary rules disappeared, moralistic materials lost their foothold, and informational selections in upper-grade texts were replaced by literary selections.

Mother Goose rhymes and folk tales were used largely in primary readers. The silent-reading emphasis of 1918 to 1925 gave rise to the inclusion in school readers of factual and informational selections similar to the material met in practical life reading. Series of exercises and questions also appeared for the testing of comprehension. The emphasis at the present time is upon a broad reading program. This broad reading program is largely the result of the many studies which have appeared in regard to the reading interests of children. Only a few of the more recent of these studies are discussed.


1 Adapted from Huey, Edward Burke, The History and Pedagogy of Reading. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1915; and O'Brien John Anthony, Reading: Its Psychology and Pedagogy. New York: D. Appleton-Century Company, 1926.

2 Huey, op. cit., pp. 4~51; "Punctuation, "The Encyclopedia Americana, XXIII (1936), p. 16; "Printing," The Encyclopedia Americana, XXII (1936), pp. 588590; and "Printing," Encyclopaedia Britannica, XVIII (14th edition), pp.499-500.

3 Smith, Nila Banton, "Successive Emphases in American Reading Instruction," Teachers College Record, xxxiv (December, I~32), pp. 158203.

4"Essential Objectives of Instruction in Reading," Twenty- fourth Yearbook, Part I, National Society for the Study of Education, pp.19, 925.

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By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

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As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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