K-12: Quackery Kneecaps Reading

Nov 26, 2021 by

Preventing Reading Difficulties and Failure - Wrightslaw

In the early 1950s, when Rudolf Flesch started work on his famous book Why Johnny Can’t Read, he visited the New York Public Library to find research on the big question, what’s better, phonics or sight-words?

In Chapter 1 of this historic book, Flesch reported that there were a dozen academic studies, going back to the early 1900s. All favored phonics.

The most extensive study was conducted by Dr. Samuel Orton circa 1927. He concluded that Sight-words did not work and (here was something new and scary) could mess up a child’s brain for life. In a rational world that would end the debate. But a Rockefeller Grant paid for this research; academic sponsors expected Orton to endorse Sight-words, which were then (and remain now) the Party Line. 

Although unwelcome, Orton’s findings were published in an obscure but high-level magazine for professors of education. So we can safely say that everybody at the top levels of education knew that phonics was the road to reading. 

It’s a fascinating fact of American history that in the early 1930s, when the self-anointed experts knew the truth, public schools across the country worked aggressively to terminate phonics and make children memorize Sight-words. But why?

A militant preference for dysfunctional methods suggests that Progressives (typically a euphemism for people on the far-left) were urgently looking for ways to weaken the US in its global confrontation with the USSR. What could be more weakening than widespread illiteracy and semi-literacy? Many writers hesitated to make this obvious connection; but I think my summary is an exact description of what happened. 

Through all the claims and counterclaims of the Reading Wars, the Education Establishment clung to Whole Word, Whole Language, Balanced Literacy, and all the other aliases that were effectively synonymous with Sight-words. Fifty million functional illiterates apparently did not spark feelings of guilt. Still, the situation was tense as many critics lambasted the Education Establishment for rigging the game. The professors absolutely needed an alibi, a Get Out Of Jail Free card.

So we entered a weird and dishonest period in American history. Public schools filled up with millions of struggling readers, millions of confused parents, and endless contention from traditionalists who understood the value of phonics.

In a nutshell, the public schools were soon drowning in pseudoscientific jibber-jabber about why children might be illiterate. Needless to say, the problem was never-ever that the schools used bogus methods. The professors insisted the real problem was that most children were born with one or more congenital defects. In short, every educational problem in America turned out to be an act of God. No human could be blamed. Well, that’s a relief.

The United States of America entered a psycho-therapeutic free-for-all where every kid was analyzed, tested, and classified. I promise you will be amazed at the creativity and range of verbal tomfoolery found in our schools, especially during the middle decades of the 20th century.

Every professor seemed to be publishing a book with titles such as:

The Psychology of Reading and Spelling with Special Reference to Disability (1922)

Special Disabilities in Learning to Read and Write (1925)

A Handbook of Children’s Behavior Problems (1936)

 An Investigation of Reading Retardation (1938)

A Case of Congenital Word Blindness for Nonreaders in Distress (1935)

Delinquency and Reading (1936)

Diagnosis and Treatment of Extreme Cases of Reading Disability (1937)

Prof. Marion Monroe wrote a book titled Growing Into Reading. It presented an inventory of all the ways—emotional, physical, cognitive, auditory, and more— that children could go wrong. There are many exotic explanations: “defective intrauterine development, birth injuries, acute infections and diseases in infancy (especially measles, whooping cough, and virus infections) before speech has developed, while the nervous system is yet highly immature, may be responsible for a child’s difficulty in forming correct reading associations.)”

Another book is Why Pupils Fail in Reading by Prof. Helen Robinson, who analyzes every way a kid can be dysfunctional. The author notes that: “Each child was examined by the following specialists: a social worker, a psychiatrist, a pediatrician, a neurologist, three ophthalmologists, a speech specialist, an otolaryngologist, an endocrinologist, a reading specialist, and the investigator who acted as psychologist and reading technician.”

In the pages of this book you will see medical conditions you have never heard about: hyperopia, binocular coordination, fixation ability, fusion, stereopsis, blind spots, aniseikonia, undefined visual defects, hypothyroidism, delay in descent of testicles, etc.

“Many eminent neurologists have felt that although the specific area involved could not be completely localized, there might be a physical inadequacy in the brain which accounted for some retarded readers. This condition has been referred to as word blindness, alexia, congenital alexia, developmental alexia, or diplexia.”

Prof. Robinson had 30 children to use as guinea pigs for five years. She held a magnifying glass up to every twig on the tree. The confusion in reading was total but deliberately misdiagnosed. Any blame placed on guilty professors was tiny. 

Then an unexpected plot twist occurred. All the problems mentioned so far were basically subsumed under the single word dyslexia, an all-purpose explanation claiming that kids are messed up at birth and there is nothing you can do. The Education Establishment had established the ultimate escape for schools and professors: problems are in the genes. Professors established this con, this dodge, in the public mind. Is there a problem? Oh, that’s just dyslexia, don’t worry. It’s a gift. And that became the orthodoxy by the 1990s.

Researchers followed clues in surprising directions: poor dentition, defective hearing, mouth breathing, speech defectiveness, goiter, malnutrition, infected tonsils, adenoids, glandular dysfunction, asthmatic and allergic conditions, susceptibility to colds, circulatory disorders, gastrointestinal difficulties, tuberculosis, and more.

That litany gives you a sense why the public never had a chance. The field of reading became a branch of medicine. The professors were triumphant in dictating the terms of the switcheroo. Kids were the big losers. That’s K-12 in America. 

But another reality was visible. Prof. Monroe mentions a first grader who did not learn a single word in nine months. How could a student not learn a single word if the school were doing anything correctly? 

Meanwhile, phonics experts say reading is easy and they will teach almost all children to read in the first grade!

The essential problem was that children were made to memorize Sight-words. That’s what Dr. Orton warned against in 1929, if only everyone would listen.

Bruce Deitrick Price is the author of Saving K-12, which he describes as “a citizens guide to improving public education” and “an excellent gift for smart people.”

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