Charles A. (Charles Alexander) McMurry.

Special Method in Primary Reading and Oral Work with Stories online

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Set up and electrotyped July, 1903; reprinted
April, 1905.


This book attempts the discussion of two very important problems in
primary education. First, the oral work in the handling of stories, and
second, the introduction to the art of reading in the earliest school
work. The very close relation between the oral work in stories and the
exercises in reading in the first three years in school is quite fully
explained. The oral work in story-telling has gained a great importance
in recent years, but has not received much discussion from writers of
books on method.

Following this "Special Method in Primary Reading," a second volume,
called the "Special Method in the Reading of Complete English Classics
in the Grades of the Common School," completes the discussion of reading
and literature in the intermediate and grammar grades.

Both of the books of Special Method are an application of the ideas
discussed in "The Principles of General Method" and "The Method of the

Still other volumes of Special Method in Geography, History, and Natural
Science furnish the outlines of the courses of study in these subjects,
and also a full discussion of the value of the material selected and of
the method of treatment.

At the close of each chapter and at the end of the book a somewhat
complete graded list of books, for the use of both pupils and teachers,
is given. The same plan is followed in all the books of this series, so
that teachers may be able to supply themselves with the best helps with
as little trouble as possible.














The telling and reading of stories to children in early years, before
they have mastered the art of reading, is of such importance as to
awaken the serious thought of parents and teachers. To older people it
is a source of constant surprise - the attentive interest which children
bestow upon stories. Almost any kind of a story will command their
wide-awake thought. But the tale which they can fully understand and
enjoy has a unique power to concentrate their mental energy. There is an
undivided, unalloyed absorption of mind in good stories which augurs
well for all phases of later effort. To get children into this habit of
undivided mental energy, of singleness of purpose in study, is most
promising. In primary grades, the fluttering, scatter-brained truancy of
thought is the chronic obstacle to success in study.

The telling or reading of stories to children naturally begins at home,
before the little ones are old enough for school. The mother and father,
the aunts and uncles, and any older person who delights in children,
find true comfort and entertainment in rehearsing the famous stories to
children. The Mother Goose, the fables, the fairy tales, the "Arabian
Nights," Eugene Field's and Stevenson's poems of child life, the Bible
stories, the myths, and some of the old ballads have untold treasures
for children. If one has a voice for singing the old melodies, the charm
of music intensifies the effect. Little ones quickly memorize what
delights them, and not seldom, after two or three readings, children of
three and four years will be heard repeating whole poems or large parts
of them. The repetition of the songs and stories till they become
thoroughly familiar gives them their full educative effect. They become
a part of the permanent furniture of the mind. If the things which the
children learn in early years have been well selected from the real
treasures of the past (of which there is a goodly store), the seeds of
true culture have been deeply sown in their affections.

The opportunities of the home for good story-telling are almost
boundless. Parents who perceive its worth and are willing to take time
for it, find in this early period greater opportunity to mould the lives
of children and put them into sympathetic touch with things of beauty
and value than at any other time. At this age children are well-nigh
wholly at the mercy of their elders. They will take what we give them
and take it at its full worth or worthlessness. They absorb these things
as the tender plant absorbs rain and sunshine.

The kindergarten has naturally found in the story one of its chief means
of effectiveness. Stories, songs, and occupations are its staples.
Dealing with this same period of early childhood, before the more taxing
work of the school begins, it finds that the children's minds move with
that same freedom and spontaneity in these stories with which their
bodies and physical energies disport themselves in games and

It is fortunate for childhood that we have such wholesome and healthful
material, which is fitted to give a child's mental action a well-rounded
completeness. His will, his sensibility, and his knowing faculty, all in
one harmonious whole, are brought into full action. In short, not a
fragment but the whole child is focussed and concentrated upon one
absorbing object of thought.

The value of the oral treatment of stories is found in the greater
clearness and interest with which they can be presented orally. There is
a keener realism, a closer approximation to experimental facts, to the
situations, the hardships, to the sorrows and triumphs of persons. The
feelings and impulses of the actors in the story are felt more sharply.
The reality of the surrounding conditions and difficulties is presented
so that a child transports himself by the power of sympathy and
imagination into the scenes described.

There is no way by which this result can be accomplished in early years
except by the oral presentation of stories. Until the children have
learned to read and have acquired sufficient mastery of the art of
reading so that it is easy and fluent, there is no way by which they can
get at good stories for themselves. Average children require about three
years to acquire this mastery of the reading art. Not many children read
stories from books, with enjoyment and appreciation, till they are nine
or ten years old; but from the age of four to ten they are capable of
receiving an infinite amount of instruction and mental stimulus from
hearing good stories. In fact, many of the best stories ever produced in
the history of the world can be thoroughly enjoyed by children before
they have learned to read. This is true of Grimm's and Andersen's
stories, of the myths of Hiawatha and Norseland, and of the early
Greeks, of the Bible stories, the "Arabian Nights," "Robin Hood,"
besides many other stories, poems, ballads, and biographies which are
among the best things in our literature.

In these early years the minds of children may be enriched with a
furnishment of ideas of much value for all their future use, a sort of
capital well invested, which will bring rich returns. Minds early
fertilized with this variety of thought material become more flexible,
productive, and acquisitive.

For many years, and even centuries, it was supposed that early education
could furnish children with little except the forms and instruments of
knowledge, the tools of acquisition, such as ability to read, spell, and
write, and to use simple numbers. But the susceptibility of younger
children to the powerful culture influence of story, poem, and nature
study, was overlooked.

We now have good reason to believe that there is no period when the
educative and refining influences of good literature in the form of
poems and story can be made so effective as in this early period from
four to ten years. That period which has been long almost wholly devoted
to the dry formalities and mechanics of knowledge, to the dull and
oftentimes benumbing drills of alphabets, spelling, and arithmetical
tables, is found to be capable of a fruitful study of stories, fables,
and myths, and an indefinite extension of ideas and experiences in
nature observation.

But the approach to these sunny fields of varied and vivid experience is
not through books, except as the teacher's mind has assimilated their
materials and prepared them for lively presentation.

The oral speech through which the stories are given to children is
completely familiar to them, so that they, unencumbered by the forms of
language, can give their undivided thought to the story. Oral speech is,
therefore, the natural channel through which stories should come in
early years. The book is at first wholly foreign to them, and it takes
them three years or more of greater or less painful effort to get such
easy mastery of printed forms as to gain ready access to thought in
books. A book, when first put into the hands of a child, is a complete
obstruction to thought. The oral story, on the contrary, is a perfectly
transparent medium of thought. A child can see the meaning of a story
through oral speech as one sees a landscape through a clear window-pane.
If a child, therefore, up to the age of ten, is to get many and
delightsome views into the fruitful fields of story-land, this miniature
world of all realities, this repository of race ideas, it must be
through oral speech which he has already acquired in the years of

It is an interesting blunder of teachers, and one that shows their
unreflecting acceptance of traditional customs, to assume that the
all-absorbing problem of primary instruction is the acquisition of a new
book language (the learning to read), and to ignore that rich mother
tongue, already abundantly familiar, as an avenue of acquisition and
culture. But we are now well convinced that the ability to read is an
instrument of culture, not culture itself, and primarily the great
object of education is to inoculate the children with the ideas of our
civilization. The forms of expression are also of great value, but they
are secondary and incidental as compared with the world of ideas.

There is an intimate connection between learning to read and the oral
treatment of stories in primary schools which is very interesting and
suggestive to the teacher. Routine teachers may think it a waste of time
to stop for the oral presentation of stories. But the more thoughtful
and sympathetic teacher will think it better to stimulate the child's
mind than to cram his memory. The young mind fertilized by ideas is
quicker to learn the printed forms than a mind barren of thought. Yet
this proposition needs to be seen and illustrated in many forms.

Children should doubtless make much progress in learning to read in the
first year of school. But coincident with these exercises in primary
reading, and, as a general thing, preliminary to them, is a lively and
interested acquaintance with the best stories. It is a fine piece of
educative work to cultivate in children, at the beginning of school
life, a real appreciation and enjoyment of a few good stories. These
stories, thus rendered familiar, and others of similar tone and quality,
may serve well as a part of the reading lessons. It is hardly possible
to cultivate this literary taste in the reading books alone, unrelieved
by oral work. The primers and first readers, when examined, will give
ample proof of this statement. In spite of the utmost effort of skilled
primary teachers to make attractive books for primary children, our
primers and first readers show unmistakable signs of their formal and
mechanical character. They are essentially drill books.

It seems well, therefore, to have in primary schools two kinds of work
in connection with story and reading, the oral work in story-telling,
reproduction, expression, etc., and the drill exercises in learning to
read. The former will keep up a wide-awake interest in the best thought
materials suitable for children, the latter will gradually acquaint them
with the necessary forms of written and printed language. Moreover, the
interest aroused in the stories is constantly transferring itself to the
reading lessons and giving greater spirit and vitality even to the
primary efforts at learning to read. In discussing the method of primary
reading we shall have occasion to mention the varied devices of games,
activities, drawings, dramatic action, blackboard exercises, and picture
work, by which an alert primary teacher puts life and motive into early
reading work, but fully as important as all these things put together is
the growing insight and appreciation for good stories. When a child
makes the discovery, as Hugh Miller said, "that learning to read is
learning to get stories out of books" he has struck the chord that
should vibrate through all his future life. The real motive for reading
is to get something worth the effort of reading. Even if it takes longer
to accomplish the result in this way, the result when accomplished is in
all respects more valuable. But it is probable that children will learn
to read fully as soon who spend a good share of their time in oral story

In discussing the literary materials used in the first four grades, we
suggest the following grading of certain large groups of literary
matter, and the relation of oral work to the reading in each subsequent
grade is clearly marked.


_1st Grade._ Games, Mother Goose. Lessons based on Games, etc.
Fables, Fairy Tales. Board Exercises.
Nature Myths, Child Poems. Primers, First Readers.
Simple Myths, Stories, etc.

_2d Grade._ Robinson Crusoe. Fables, Fairy Tales.
Hiawatha. Myths and Poems.
Seven Little Sisters. Second Readers.
Hiawatha Primer.

_3d Grade._ Greek and Norse Myths. Robinson Crusoe.
Ballads and Legendary Andersen's & Grimm's Tales.
Stories. Child's Garden of Verses.
Ulysses, Jason, Siegfried. Third Readers.
Old Testament Stories.

_4th Grade._ American Pioneer History Greek and Norse Myths.
Stories. Historical Ballads.
Early Biographical Stories Ulysses, Arabian Nights.
of Europe, as Alfred, Hiawatha, Wonder Book.
Solon, Arminius, etc.

This close dependence of reading proper, in earlier years, upon the oral
treatment of stories as a preliminary, is based fundamentally upon the
idea that suitable and interesting thought matter is the true basis of
progress in reading, and that the strengthening of the taste for good
books is a much greater thing than the mere acquisition of the art of
reading. The motive with which children read or try to learn to read is,
after all, of the greatest consequence.

The old notion that children must first learn to read and then find,
through the mastery of this art, the entrance to literature is exactly
reversed. First awaken a desire for things worth reading, and then
incorporate these and similar stories into the regular reading exercises
as far as possible.

In accordance with this plan, children, by the time they are nine or ten
years old, will become heartily acquainted with three or four of the
great classes of literature, the fables, fairy tales, myths, and such
world stories as Crusoe, Aladdin, Hiawatha, and Ulysses. Moreover, the
oral treatment will bring these persons and actions closer to their
thought and experience than the later reading alone could do. In fact,
if children have reached their tenth year without enjoying those great
forms of literature that are appropriate to childhood, there is small
prospect that they will ever acquire a taste for them. They have passed
beyond the age where a liking for such literature is most easily and
naturally cultivated. They move on to other things. They have passed
through one great stage of education and have emerged with a meagre and
barren outfit.

The importance of oral work as a lively means of entrance to studies is
seen also in other branches besides literature.

In geography and history the first year or two of introductory study is
planned for the best schools in the form of oral narrative and
discussion. Home geography in the third or fourth year, and history
stories in the fourth and fifth years of school, are best presented
without a text book by the teacher. Although the children have already
overcome, to some extent, the difficulty of reading, so great is the
power of oral presentation and discussion to vivify and realize
geographical and historical scenes that the book is discarded at first
for the oral treatment.

In natural science also, from the first year on the teacher must employ
an oral method of treatment. The use of books is not only impossible,
but even after the children have learned to read, it would defeat the
main purpose of instruction to make books the chief means of study. The
ability to observe and discern things, to use their own senses in
discriminating and comparing objects, in experiments and investigations,
is the fundamental purpose.

In language lessons, again, it is much better to use a book only as a
guide and to handle the lessons orally, collecting examples and stories
from other studies as the basis for language discussions.

It is apparent from this brief survey that an oral method is appropriate
to the early treatment of all the common school studies, that it gives
greater vivacity, intensity, simplicity, and clearness to all such
introductory studies.

The importance of story-telling and the initiation of children into the
delightful fields of literature through the teacher rather than through
the book are found to harmonize with a mode of treatment common to all
the studies in early years.

In this connection it is interesting to observe that the early
literature of the European nations was developed and communicated to the
people by word of mouth. The Homeric songs were chanted or sung at the
courts of princes. At Athens, in her palmy days, the great dramatists
and poets either recited their productions to the people or had them
presented to thousands of citizens in the open-air theatres. Even
historians like Thucidides read or recited their great histories before
the assembled people. In the early history of England, Scotland, and
other countries, the minstrels sang their ballads and epic poems in the
baronial halls and thus developed the early forms of music and poetry.
Shakespeare wrote his dramas for the theatre, and he seems to have paid
no attention at all to their appearance in book form, never revising
them or putting them into shape for the press.

This practice of all the early races of putting their great literature
before the people by song, dramatic action, and word of mouth is very
suggestive to the teacher. The power and effectiveness of this mode of
presentation, not only in early times but even in the highly civilized
cities of London and Athens, is unmistakable proof of the educative
value of such modes of teaching. This is only another indication of the
kinship of child life with race life, which has been emphasized by many
great thinkers.

The oral method offers a better avenue for all vigorous modes of
expression than the reading book. It can be observed that the general
tendency of the book is toward a formal, expressionless style in young
readers. Go into a class where the teacher is handling a story orally
and you will see her falling naturally into all forms of vivid narrative
and presentation, gesture, facial expression, versatile intonation,
blackboard sketching and picture work, the impersonation of characters
in dialogue, dramatic action, and general liveliness of manner. The
children naturally take up these same activities and modes of uttering
themselves. Even without the suggestion of teachers, little children
express themselves in such actions, attitudes, and impersonations. This
may be often observed in little boys and girls of kindergarten age, when
telling their experiences to older persons, or when playing among
themselves. The freedom, activity, and vivacity of children is, indeed,
in strong contrast to the apathetic, expressionless, monotonous style of
many grown people, including teachers.

But the oral treatment of stories has a tendency to work out into modes
of activity even more effective than those just described.

In recent years, since so much oral work has been done in elementary
schools, children have been encouraged also to express themselves freely
in blackboard drawings and in pencil work at their desks by way of
illustrating the stories told. Moreover, in paper cutting, to represent
persons and scenes, in clay modelling, to mould objects presented, and
in constructive and building efforts, in making forts, tents, houses,
tools, dress, and in showing up modes of life, the children have found
free scope for their physical and mental activities. These have not only
led to greater clearness and vividness in their mental conceptions, but
have opened out new fields of self-activity and inventiveness.

So long as work in reading and literature was confined to the book
exercises, nearly all these modes of expression were little employed and
even tabooed.

Finally, the free use of oral narrative in the literature of early
years, in story-telling and its attendant modes of expression, opens up
to primary teachers a rare opportunity of becoming genuine educators.
There was a time, and it still continues with many primary teachers,
when teaching children to read was a matter of pure routine, of formal
verbal drills and repetitions, as tiresome to the teacher, if possible,
as to the little ones. But now that literature, with its treasures of
thought and feeling, of culture and refinement, has become the staple of
the primary school, teachers have a wide and rich field of inspiring
study. The mastery and use of much of the preferred literature which has
dropped down to us out of the past is the peculiar function of the
primary teacher. Contact with great minds, like those of Kingsley,
Ruskin, Andersen, the Grimm brothers, Stevenson, Dickens, Hawthorne, De
Foe, Browning, Æsop, Homer, and the unknown authors of many of the best
ballads, epics, and stories, is enough to give the primary teacher a
sense of the dignity of her work. On the other hand, the opportunity to
give to children the free and versatile development of their active
powers is an equal encouragement.

Teachers who have taken up with zeal this great problem of introducing
children to their full birthright, the choice literature of the world
suited to their years, and of linking this story work with primary
reading so as to give it vitality, - such teachers have found school life

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Online LibraryCharles A. (Charles Alexander) McMurrySpecial Method in Primary Reading and Oral Work with Stories → online text (page 1 of 11)