It is true that the Abbe de l'Epee had claimed in the eighteenth century that his deaf and mute beginning readers, who had not learned speech, were able to read with greater understanding than his opponents' beginning readers. That is because his opponents' deaf beginning readers were taught letters and lip-reading as the first step and so were taught to read by the 'sound' of printed words instead of by de l'Epee's sight-word 'meaning.' However, de l'Epee's claim of greater understanding ('reading comprehension,' in today's terms) from his sight-word beginning-reading 'meaning' method was apparently only limited to the beginning stages. De l'Epee certainly did not say that teaching reading for 'meaning' instead of for 'sound' had been the fundamental reason that he had invented his deaf-mute sight-word method in the first place. Yet reading for 'meaning' certainly was the fundamental reason for the 1870 sentence method, just as it had been for the earlier and simpler 1826 isolated sight-word method which had not used silent reading. The deaf-mute 'meaning'-method roots of both the simpler 1826 isolated sight-words oral method and the 1870 whole-sentence, silent-reading method are self-evident.
The two new practices in the 1870 sentence method (silent reading and the use only of whole sentences) were supposed to safeguard reading for 'meaning' (or, in today's term, 'reading comprehension'). Those new practices were to be ultimately apparently justified by the language theories of William James which he outlined in his 1890 text, even though his 1890 text made no reference to the 1870 sentence method in teaching beginning reading. Nevertheless, those two practices that were new in 1870 appear to have been tailor-made to meet James' 1890 specifications.
It is highly unlikely that those two new concepts in the teaching of beginning reading could have arisen independently in 1870 in the mind of Binghamton Superintendent of Schools George L. Farnham with no input from William James. Yet the sentence 'meaning' method in that original version, using those two new concepts, was tried for the very first time in 1870 in Binghamton, New York, schools by Superintendent of Schools Farnham, who has always been presumed to be its inventor. Farnham very soon described his 1870 program in a speech at the National Education Association annual meeting of 1873. Farnham's speech appeared later as an article in the widely-read and very influential National Education Association annual report of 1873. Farnham obviously had connections to some influential people some time before 1873, in order not only to give that speech and article, but to have them placed so prominently, as the opening speech at the Elementary section of the national meeting, and as the opening article in the Elementary section of the NEA annual report.
It is extremely significant that Farnham's 1873 material employed psychological jargon to justify the sentence method, the same kind of reasoning that was employed in relation to sentences by William James in 1890. Farnham's initial testing in 1870 had begun exactly twenty years before James published his 1890 book. It was in that 1890 book that James introduced as his very own, very original invention what had been Farnham's 1870 thesis, that the sentence is the unbreakable primary unit in thought. Yet the psychologist William James had been commissioned by the Holt publishers in New York to write that 1890 book long before, in 1878. Therefore, James had actually been writing that book for at least twelve of the twenty years that the sentence method had been in public existence. Furthermore, it is evident that James' sentence inspiration could have occurred to him long before 1878, the year in which James was commissioned to write that book. James must have already established some kind of a reputation with some people for presumed psychological achievements before 1878 or he would never have received a commission to write a book on psychology. One of those achievements before 1878 may well have been his sentence inspiration which had been tried out first in the Binghamton government schools eight years previously, in 1870.
As only a Harvard instructor with just six years' service in 1878, William James obviously had to have influential connections, like Farnham's in 1873 when Farnham became the leading speaker at the Elementary section of the National Education Association annual meeting. Without such influential connections, a major New York publisher like Holt would never have commissioned the relatively inexperienced James in Massachusetts to write a book with the new experimental outlook on psychology. That is particularly true since neither Harvard nor any other college in the United States (nor what was apparently America's only university at the time, the recently founded Johns Hopkins in Baltimore) had a psychology department in 1878. Nor, without such powerful connections, is it likely that Holt would have waited patiently for twelve long years for James to finish that commission.
Even though William James' name was not mentioned by Farnham in connection with his 1870 use of James' unbreakable-sentence concept in teaching beginning reading, the record strongly suggests that Farnham was only James' unacknowledged agent in the testing of James' psychological thesis in government schools. However, that testing had to be arranged in 1870 through some influential person or persons connecting the much-older 46-year-old Superintendent of Schools Farnham to the far-younger 28-year-old, never-before-employed and still-unemployed-in-l870 William James. However, since the record clearly demonstrates that both Farnham's work with James' unbreakable-sentence thesis before 1873 and James' promotion of the new, German, experimental psychology before 1878 had received support from some very influential people, those same people could provide the necessary 1870 tie between Farnham and James.
The historical facts place the reigning period of the unbreakable sentence 'unit' in the teaching of beginning reading between 1870 and 1885. In 1870, Farnham's psychological experiment (to paraphrase Farnham's 1881 description of it) was begun in Binghamton, New York, and then James Johonnot wrote his own book on the sentence method in 1885. The 1885 publication of Johonnot's book apparently marked the last time that the unbreakable sentence thesis appeared in education materials. Then, five years later, in 1890, William James of Cambridge, Massachusetts, published his famous text on psychology, in which James made a great point of claiming to have originated that unbreakable sentence concept himself, since James established that the concept was something distinctly new in the psychological literature. Yet James did so without any reference to the fact that the very same concept had been prominent in widely publicized avant-garde education programs between the years of 1870 and 1885. The unbreakable sentence concept had appeared not only in the widely promoted educational writings of Farnham and Johonnot but in the Quincy, Massachusetts, schools and the Boston, Massachusetts, schools which were so very close to William James in Cambridge, Massachusetts.