Massive K-12 Reading Failure Easily Explained

Aug 17, 2017 by

Herewith a simple way to understand the destructive failure of most reading instruction in the United States:
First, consider our eyes. Their purpose is to grasp quickly what objects are: food or predator, useful or irrelevant? This is often a matter of life and death. How do eyes do their job?
Eyes twitch, jerk, and flick rapidly from detail to detail in order to identify an object. There are no built-in sequence, no shortcuts. The eye must twitch -– perhaps dozens of times–-  until a positive identification is made. (The technical term for these twitches is a saccade—rhymes with façade or parade.)
Such eye movements occur every time you see a car, painting, building,  celebrity, insect, etc. Your eyes flick randomly top-to-bottom, side-to-side, point-to-point, finding more and more details until the brain is certain.
Scientists can track these eye movements  It’s remarkable how much activity is required to identify a single face, that is, to be sure it’s not a similar face. The eye might go to the ears, then nose, then lips, back up to the hairline, and around again. There might be 10, 20 or 30 saccades before you confidently decide, “This is Mary in accounting.”
When the first symbol languages were introduced, such as Egyptian hieroglyphics, nothing changed. A picture of a bird is the same as a real bird, from the point of view of the eyes making sense of it. Designs such as Chinese ideograms are again the same thing. Hieroglyphics were objects just like birds and flowers.
 Around 4000 years ago, something new appeared in the world. Humans invented a new kind of object— the phonetic word. This object is like a simple machine in that it must be operated in a precise sequence for maximum efficiency.
The sequence is built in to the object. We might say the phonetic word is a circuit that  has to be operated in a  prescribed way or it’s useless. Just as you turn on a radio before you tune it, you have to process a phonetic word in a prescribed sequence—syllable by syllable, left to right.
If you insist on  tuning the radio before you turn it on, you’ll wasted a lot of time. If you insist on reading “probably” as bab-ly-pro, you would never understand the word.
Now we have reached the moment of dark genius. Public schools routinely train children to read phonetic words as though they are typical objects found in  the world. As a result,  words that must be read left-to-right are processed with random saccades.
 An English word, read in this random manner, could require 10-20 saccades. Remember that these saccades occur chaotically: top to bottom, diagonally from bottom left to top right, etc. The brain cannot know in advance what the optimal sequence is. The brain has to hunt and peck, like a chicken looking for corn in the sand. It’s a very inefficient method.
The typical English word, if read phonetically, might need only one or two saccades. There is a necessary sequence, and if that sequence is followed, you get remarkable  speed. That is why phonetic words read phonetically are far superior to sight-words read as sight-words. There’s no competition. (Even worse, sight-words may not be read at all because even after 50 saccades, your memory might not be able to supply the name, whether of a person or a word.)
The evil genius of whole-word reading is to coerce children into processing a simple phonetic word as though it’s a woman’s face. Look at all of the activity involved in identifying this person – about 25 saccades to identify one face  For victims of bad pedagogy, reading is very hard work indeed. Instead of a few flicks, there may be a few dozen flicks. Instead of a fraction of a second, the process may take  a fraction of a minute.
Reading, far from being quick and fun,  becomes difficult and tedious. Fewer people achieve full literacy.  Fewer Americans reach the point where they can read for pleasure.
Increasingly we are able to teach computers to perform pattern recognition. This is feasible because a computer can do thousands of operations a second. Sight-word reading reduces children to pattern recognition software. Humans are not good at recognizing difficult designs. A few hundred is feasible. But a few thousand quickly becomes impossible for all but the most retentive memories. Phonetic language was invented precisely because it got us around this problem.
The country has nearly 50,000,000 functional literates. Children who should learn to read in the first grade are, thanks to sight-words, still struggling in the third, fourth and fifth grades. Two-thirds of eighth graders are below proficient in reading.
Conservative cynics say that sight-words were deliberately introduced to reduce literacy. In any event, that is the result.
 Bruce Deitrick Price’s next book is “Saving K-12 – What happened to our public schools? How do we fix them?”  See for more info. (Article first appeared on American Thinker.)
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