TEACHING PHONICS VS. BEING TAUGHT HOW NOT TO READ

Jan 8, 2019 by

The Nature of the Alphabet Must Be Obeyed

By Scott A. McConnell –

H gives a nervous smile. It’s his turn to read aloud in class. H’s eyes anxiously follow his finger along the page as he correctly pronounces the shorter well-known words. But when H comes to longer unknown words he stumbles, stutters and guesses. He “reads” hypnotized as “horrified,” capable as “capital,” broad as “bored,” falter as “fail,” and future as “figure.” (1a) Some of H’s classmates smother their titters at his absurd substitutions and nonsensical sentences. Other students stare down into their desks, embarrassed for their friend. H finishes reading the passage and red-faced sinks into his chair.

H is 17. He cannot read or spell proficiently. H suffers from developmental dyslexia. In contrast to acquired dyslexia, where a once competent reader is made dyslexic due to a brain injury, developmental dyslexia is a “disorder manifested by difficulty in learning to read.” (2) Twenty to twenty five per cent of American students fail reading. (1b) More specifically, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found in 2013 that 22 per cent of American 8th graders and 32 percent of 4th graders were reading below the basic level. (3) The same report found that 50 percent of black 4th graders read below the basic level. (4) One report regarding Australia found that “24% of Year 4 students were below the acceptable benchmark for reading literacy.” (4b)

This article will argue that much of the developmental dyslexia (illiteracy) prevalent today is the consequence of how students are “taught” to read. To properly address and understand this problem, two important concepts that underlie reading must first be understood. These concepts relate to the nature of man’s mind and to the nature of one of its greatest inventions, the alphabet.

Humans are the only animal that has a consciousness that can form and use concepts, an ability most easily seen in mankind’s development of language and capacity to think abstractly. This unique conceptual cognitive ability allows man to take a limitless number of concretes and reduce them to a much fewer number of abstractions (mental units) that he can easily work with. A simple example is the concept “tree,” an abstraction that represents billions of instances or referents. Because man has a conceptual consciousness he can order his mind, think and plan long-range, understand the world, and expand his knowledge almost without limit. (6)

The second key concept underlying reading is that the alphabet is a conceptual writing system where each written symbol represents a speech sound. As philosopher Leonard Peikoff has noted, each letter is an abstraction, a mental unit representing an innumerable number of referents. For example, there are thousands of words beginning with the letter P and its sound “puh,” such as pin, picture, pear and pan. (7) After learning this abstraction visually and auditorily, that is after integrating the letter P and its sound “puh,” a reader can pronounce this sound in any written word. Conversely, every time he hears this sound he can write its letter. English is an alphabetic system with 26 letters that, individually or combined, make 44 to 47 basic sounds. (5)

The integration of these two fundamental points—that man is a conceptual being and that the alphabet is a conceptual writing system—means that the alphabetic/phonetic English language must be taught in a way that obeys these facts. Throughout most of history, illiteracy was the result of people not being taught to read. Today, however, it is ironic and tragic that the rampant illiteracy that exists in the western world, as barely indicated above, results from how students are taught to “read.” Much of contemporary reading instruction rejects the alphabetic, conceptual nature of the English language. The inevitable result of this rejection is the vast number of illiterates/“dyslexics” in our schools today. This argument was made popular by Rudolf Flesch in his landmark 1955 book Why Johnny Can’t Read and his laterWhy Johnny Still Can’t Read. In these heavily researched books, Flesch argues that most dyslexia (“bad speech”) results from bad teaching, that is, from not using phonics to teach children to read. (9) Since the time of Flesch’s writing other researchers and theorists have come to similar conclusions. To state the point broadly, “the real culprit,” reading researcher Linnea Ehri writes, is “inadequate instruction.” (10)

To understand adequate and “inadequate instruction,” we will review the three most influential teaching reading approaches. This review will reveal the basic principles and methods of these approaches and if they respect or reject the alphabetic nature of English and thus advance or undercut the learning of reading. These three approaches are:

            [1] Phonics [word attack skills or code emphasis]

            [2] Look-Say [whole word approach, sight word, meaning method]

            [3] Whole Language Approach/Language Experience Approach

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PHONICS

Although teachers today commonly use an eclectic fusion of above three approaches, phonics is generally used less, even though it once dominated reading instruction. (11) Simply, phonics teaches the relationship between letters and sounds. Or more completely, phonics is an alphabetic based reading instruction method that systematically teaches in depth all the basic sounds in English and their letter correspondences. Rudolf Flesch argues that a good phonics program teaches 181 letter, sound and spelling patterns. (12) These sounds should be taught in a specific sequence, generally from simpler and less easily confused sounds to longer and more complex ones. (13) Reading by phonic decoding is an inductive process.

Phonics teaches spelling. This is not surprising since spelling is decoding—the deciphering of letters into sounds and uniting them into words—just from the opposite direction. When decoding, a reader converts written symbols (letters) into sounds, whereas when one spells one transcribes sounds into written symbols.

English is not a completely phonetic or regular language—not all its words are spelt as they sound. Estimates of the degree of irregularity of English words range from 2.6 percent to 13 percent, with the higher figure attributable to words usually containing only one irregular vowel. (16, 17) This partial irregularity of English necessitates that some English words be taught as whole words. (How this should be done will be discussed later.)

Critics of phonics decry it as a teaching reading method that focuses too much on the drilling of sounds. First, phonics instruction does not exclude other reading activities, such as a class orally discussing a story. And second, drilling is a fundamental and productive feature of phonics. When drilling, children first consciously learn the letters and their sounds and then overlearn them through frequent repetition. This repetition is needed to implant the letter-sound correspondences so deeply in a child’s mind that it becomes automatic. Although drilling can be made fun with clapping, singing and rhyming, it can be boring and cause student angst or inattention, but this does not lessen its necessity. (18)

Opponents of phonics also claim that its focus on sounds and drilling is detrimental to the purpose of reading—comprehension—that is, understanding the meaning of the words and text. If drilling is practiced thoroughly, however, decoding becomes automatic and rapid. It is this automaticity that allow the mind to focus on the meaning of the words. Marilyn J. Adams, reading researcher and author of the classic reading research text Beginning to Read,writes that “the ability to read words, quickly, accurately, and effortlessly, is critical to skillful reading comprehension.” (19) Adams also notes that decoding subskills, such as visually recognizing letters and spelling patterns, are critical to good comprehension. (20) Consider, for instance, a child reading about James Madison who deciphers constitution as “constellation.” Miss-decipherings like this make accurate comprehension impossible.   

Adams further states that “the single immutable and non-optional fact about skillful reading is that it involves relatively complete processing of the individual letters of print.” (21) Phonics trains beginner readers to read from left to right and to read each letter in a word. If a student has not been taught to do this, he will tend to process only the letters he knows, ignoring or mistaking unknown ones. (22) Reading words by their letters is, of course, the same way that we write them. Both acts respect the alphabetic nature of English words.

Phonics fosters independence in students. Figures differ but a typical American 6-year old starting school has an oral lexicon of somewhere between 13,000 and 24,000 words. (24, 25) By mastering the 181 sounds and spelling patterns of English, a child can decode most written English words and link them to his oral lexicon. This child thereby easily understands a vast number of written words. And he thereby doesn’t need an educator to teach him these words; he can read them by himself.

Spelling (and later phonics) dominated reading instruction since alphabets were first invented about 3,500 years ago. Marilyn Adams notes that “spelling drill was the principal means of teaching children to read…For the method to have prevailed for thousands of years, people must have felt that it worked.” (26) In principle, phonics works because it obeys the conceptual nature of the human mind and the alphabet. It treats A as A.

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WHOLE WORD/LOOK-SAY

Since the 1920s, phonics has taken a back seat to the whole word approach to reading instruction, especially the Look-Say method. (As earlier noted, other names for whole word include sight word and meaning method.) Simply, a whole word approach teaches the memorization of every written word and its individual sound. That is, a whole word approach focuses on the image and sound of complete words and not on the smaller units of letters and their sounds. Whole word thus treats English as if it were an ideographic language like Chinese. Written Chinese does not have letters but characters that represent a word or an idea. Because words in an ideographic writing system are not made up of letters that always represent specific speech units, an ideographic system has no intrinsic relationship between a written word and its sound. Consequently, a Chinese ideograph cannot be pronounced unless one has been taught the sound for that character.

Look-Say teaches words in a specific order, starting with those well-known orally to the child and those that he will encounter in his basal reader. The rate at which a child learns new words is controlled while their memorization is enhanced by repetition. For instance, a basal reader repeats words so that students remember them. To aid students to recognize and remember words, their shape and length are used as important cues. Flash cards emblazoned with words are also used to enhance learning, as are cards with words and related pictures.

The emphasis Look-Say places on word meaning can be appropriate. It can be enjoyable and valuable for children, for instance, to read (or be read to) and then to discuss the story. Such a stress on meaning, however, is not original or exclusive to Look-Say.

Look-Say teaches some phonics but not systematically or in depth. Whole word proponents believe that letter-sound relationships can be taught implicitly by students learning whole words and then inducing individual sounds from them. Look-Say thereby does not teach all the letter-sound correspondences and spelling patterns, nor does it drill the sounds it does teach. The Look-Say method, like the teaching of Chinese ideographs, therefore needs an instructor to teach students the individual sound for every written word.

As earlier noted, because English is a slightly irregular language some of its written words are taught as whole words. Some common irregular words are: one, was, are, done, said, come and who. Homonyms such as to, too, and two, and homophones such as buy-by, bear-bare and one-won are also learned as whole words. As the Chinese language and mathematics show, humans can to a degree use and process ideographs. For instance, the numeral 1 is a character that represents one concept or “word.” However, though irregular English words may seem similar to ideographs, there is a fundamental difference in the way that all English words should be learned compared to the way Chinese words and numerals are learned. English words are not single characters. They are made up of letters and as discussed earlier every letter must be read and in their exact order.That is, irregular words in English should be recognized, learned and read by their letters, not by their shapes. Reading researcher Marilyn Adams notes that good readers do not read by shapes. (28) Regarding spelling, Adams cites research by Frith that poor spellers“do not engage in phonological translation, or cannot do so efficiently, but are instead dependent on superficial visual cues, such as word length, shape, and the presence of particular letters.” (14) Researcher Linnea Ehriwrites that “beginning readers who learn how to spell phonetically are better able to store sightwords in memory. Such instruction enables them to make phonetic sense of letters they see in spellings, to connect these to sounds in pronunciation, and to store the connection in memory.” (29)  Attempting to memorize words by their shape and length, philosopher Ayn Rand has written, is the “senseless memorizing of such a vast amount of sensory material [that it] places an abnormal strain on a child’s mental capacity, a burden that cannot be fully retained, integrated or automatized.” (27)

Freebody and Byrne found that an over dependence on the sight wordmethod inhibits comprehension skill improvement between second and third grades because of the “increase in vocabulary diversity of written materials between grades 2 and 3.” (31) Phonics-trained readers did not have this difficulty. Freebody and Byrne further noted that their findings were “compatible with the notion that students who over rely on a Chinese (sight/word recognition) strategy will increasingly develop reading problems as their school careers proceed.” (32)

Arguably, the most detrimental Look-Say reading strategy is the way it teaches students to figure out words that they do not know. Consider this Look-Say reading exercise: “The package was tied with str—.”(33) A student should, a Look-Say practitioner would stress, use the meaning of this sentence fragment to guess the appropriate letters to add to the supplied consonants. But the answer to this exercise Rudolf Flesch notes could be “string” or “strap.” Using this Look-Say guessing method another student substituted “Crest” for “toothpaste.” While a third student misread the first sentence below as the second:

            “A boy said: ‘Run little girl.’”

            “A baby is running little go.” (34)

One readingstudy revealed that students guesscorrectly only 25 percent of the time. (36) Contrast this with a child who has been taught phonics. He has an 87 to 97.4 percent rate of reading words correctly, simply due to the regularity of the English language. (37)

Rudolf Flesch has argued that Look-Say resulted in “the dumbing-down” of texts. If students are memorizing only 1,500 words in four years, which Flesch noted as the number of words taught in Look-Say basal readers, then books would have to be simplified to accommodate this limited vocabulary. (38) As evidence of this consider the history of the Dick and Jane sight word readers. Introduced in 1930, these books had a very limited vocabulary but by “the 1950s, an estimated 80% of first-graders were using Dick and Jane.” (39) And further consider that the incredibly popular The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss, first published in 1957, was based on the Dolch reading list of about 220 frequently used sight words. (Sight words are high frequency words, phonetic and irregular, that are learned as whole words.) (28b, 39b)Although The Cat in the Hat book was created to make sight word books more entertaining than the Dick and Jane readers, it did have a “dumbed down” vocabulary.

Educator Samuel Blumenfeld argues that because so many pre-school children have been first introduced to reading by sight word based readers “so many children… having problems learning to read.” (41) Blumenfeld cites the research of Edward Miller,who, he notes, discovered “that when preschoolers memorize as sight [whole] words the entire texts of such popular books as Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham, they develop a block against seeing the words phonetically and thus become “dyslexic.” They become sight readers with a holistic reflex rather than phonetic readers with a phonetic reflex. A holistic reader looks at each word as a little picture, a configuration, much like a Chinese ideograph, and tries to think of the word it represents. A phonetic reader associates letters with sounds and sounds out the syllabic units which blend into an articulated word.” (41b)  

Blumenfeld quotes Dr. Seuss explaining why his publisher gave him sight words as the only words to be used in The Cat in the Hat: “That was due to the Dewey revolt in the Twenties in which they threw out phonic reading and went to word recognition, as if you’re reading Chinese pictographs instead of blendingsounds of different letters. I think killing phonics was one of the greatest causes of illiteracy in the country.” (42)

In principle, a whole word reading approach is fatally flawed because it treats alphabetic English words as ideographs. Imagine learning numbers, not with the abstract and incredibly simple way of learning 10 numerals, 0-9, and the decimal principle, but instead by memorizing the value of every number as a perceptual entity. This is an anti-conceptual, mind numbing approach, but it is the premise of the whole word reading method.  

Ayn Rand once wrote that “Words [a]re a lens to focus one’s mind.” (43) The way whole word uses words disintegrates a child’s mind. Or as Samuel Blumenfeld has stated it: “What we do know is that when you impose an inaccurate, subjective ideographic teaching technique on a phonetic-alphabetic writing system which demands accurate decoding, you create symbolic confusion, cognitive conflict, frustration and a learning breakdown.” (44)  That is, by treating A as Non A you create illiterates.

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LANGUAGE EXPERIENCE/WHOLE LANGUAGE APPROACH

The Look-Say and phonics reading approaches have been in conflict for more than 80 years. During at least the last 40 years, they have been joined in battle by a third reading force: The Language Experience Approach (LEA) or Whole Language Approach (WLA). (I treat LEA and WLA as one approach because of the important similarities between them. As one research paper notes, Language Experience and Whole Language are “manifestations of a core approach to children’s learning to read, namely that the child’s attention should be focused on the communicative function of written language rather than on its form.” (44B) LEA has two basic practices. To emphasize the link between oral and written words,LEA advocates teaching writing as “speech written down.” A LEA teacher would transcribe a student’s ideas and stories, his language experiences, and make these transcripts part of the student’s reading material. In deference to its student-centered philosophy of education, LEA also encourages students to select other reading materials that are relevant and personal to them and thus motivating. LEA teaches phonics early but only with a secondary emphasis. It does not teach phonics systematically, explicitly or deeply.

The second basic practice of LEA is to develop the classroom into a “print-rich environment” showered with labels, captions, signs, stories, rhymes, and so forth. A teacher in whole language classroom tries to give language a positive and personal aura so that learning language is an enjoyable experience.

Like Look-Say, within a very specific context LEA does have some value. By increasing a student’s print awareness and by highlighting the relationship between the visual and aural representations of words, LEA develops a student’s reading readiness skills. (46) LEA also promotes reading as relevant and personal. This, of course, is not original to LEA, as generations of parents can attest, and as does the work of such teachers as Marva Collins. (47) Language Experience Approach, however, does have serious flaws in its philosophy and consequently in its practices.

One premise underlying LEA, as noted by reading researchers I.Y. & A.M. Liberman, is that “learning to read and write can be as natural and effortless as learning to perceive and produce speech.” (48) If this were true, why did the American Indians, the Australian Aborigines and many other oral cultures never discover writing and thereby reading? In fact, why do many people in literate cultures not learn writing and reading skills?

The principled answer to LEA’s implicit/passive learning premise is that compared with learning speech learning to write and read requires a higher conceptual effort. Writing and reading involve more complex integrations than speaking, as difficult as that is. Speaking involves uniting the ears, the mouth, the throat and the mind. Reading (aloud) can involve all these and with writing, also the eyes and the hands. But reading itself is much more complex and difficult than speaking because it also entails learning and using abstract symbols such as lettersand phonemes (the basic sound units) and integrating these visual and auditory symbols.

LEA also lacks an objective teaching methodology. Because LEA believes that a child can learn words and skills by being passively exposed to them, an LEA advocate might argue that such an approach does not need a teaching methodology. But passive exposure to words, ideas and skills is not enough to learn them properly. A child needs to focus and perform work to truly learn something. As just one key example, when learning to read a student must consciously understand the relationship between letters and sounds and drill these letters and their sounds so he can properly store and use this knowledge. Naturally, children have individual differences in their predispositions, capacities and motivations and hence the time that each one needs to learn any skill. But to learn he does need to perform work. By rejecting the focus and effort that underlies learning, LEA encourages students to learn skills only partially, if at all.

LEA’s student-centered premise of basing classroom activities on what the child desires or creates can displace a more logical or hierarchical order that facilitates learning skills and knowledge. (45) One rational hierarchy to learning words is their increasing complexity, such as the number of letters in the words or the intricacy of their sounds. Marilyn Adams notes that the LEA strategy of learning words supplied by the transcriptions of a child’s speech can cause problems because these offer “too little in the way of new linguistic challenges.” That is, these words are too easy and don’t develop a child’s language. (49) Conversely, Adams also notes that reading based on material chosen by the child “for interest value may contain too much.” (50) That is, the material is too difficult for the child’s knowledge and ability.

If LEA doesn’t have a proper methodology to teach reading—apart from encouraging pre-reading skills, teaching some phonics and preparing a positive environment—what classroom practices does it use to teach words? Exactly that…words…whole words. Implicitly and explicitly, Language Experience Approach adopts some of the key premises and teaching techniques of the whole word approach.

Implicitly, the LEA exercises of “writing down speech” and of labeling objects in the classroom focus on whole words. Explicitly, the whole language approach teaches whole words by the context (guessing) method discussed earlier. For example, “The Whole Language Teachers Newsletter” recommends that a student approaching an unfamiliar word should “skip it, use prior information, read ahead, re-read, or put in another word that makes sense.” (51) Former American Reading Council president and Whole Language advocate Julia Palmer once stated that “Accuracy is not the name of the game.” (52) Dr. Kenneth Goodman, leading Whole Language theorist, once wrote a paper titled “Reading: A Psycholinguistic Guessing Game.” (53)

Marilyn Adams summarized research on LEA thus: “research on the effectiveness of relying heavily on the Language Experience Approach for reading instruction itself has shown it, on balance, to be suboptimal.” (54)

Although Language Experience and whole word both have some limited value regarding motivation and pre-reading skills (LEA) and emphasizing meaning (Look-Say), these values can be part of any good phonics program. Both whole word and Language Experience reject the base of beginner reading instruction: explicit and systematically taught letter-sound correspondence. Whole word and Language Experience therefore produce students unable to decode words accurately, smoothly and confidently. That is, they produce many students who cannot read well. Non Acannot be A.  

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THE EMPIRICAL RESEARCH

A great deal of research supports the conclusions made above.

One of the earliest comprehensive reviews of reading research data and testing was by Professor Jeanne Chall of the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. Chall summarized her five years of research in her 1967 book Learning to Read – The Great Debate. (55) Learningto Read included analysis of 85 studies that compared different methods of reading instruction. Chall concluded that “the research from 1912 to 1965 indicates that a code-emphasis [phonics] method…produces better results [compared to a meaning-emphasis], at least up to the point where sufficient evidence seems to be available, the end of third grade.

“The results are better, not only in terms of the mechanical aspects of literacy alone, as was once supposed, but also in terms of the ultimate goal of reading instruction – comprehension and possibly even speed of reading.” (56)

In his 1981 bestseller Why Johnny Still Can’t Read, Rudolf Flesch, overlapping much of Chall’s work, reviewed research from 1911 to 1977. Citing 124 studies comparing explicit phonics, non-systematic phonics and Look-Say methods, Flesch found that “not one of those 124 studies showed results favoring look-and-say…the results invariably favoured phonics.” (57)

In the mid-1980s, the United States Congress commissioned the United States Department of Education to investigate and review “all aspects of phonics and early reading instruction.” The result was Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print by Marilyn Jager Adams, then cognitive and developmental psychologist with the U.S. Department of Education’s Reading Research and Education Center. Published in 1990, Adams’ book is an exhaustive review of the reading research of the previous twenty years. Adams summarized her findings thus: “Across this book, as we have examined each of a number of domains of study—program comparisons, research on pre-reader skills, the knowledge and performance of skilled readers, theory on the nature of learning—each has pointed toward the conclusion that skillful reading depends critically on the deep and thorough acquisition of spellings and spelling-sound relationships.” (58)

Adams also found that a “deep and thorough knowledge of letters, spelling patterns, and words, and of the phonological translations of all three, are of inescapable importance to both skillful reading and its acquisition. By extension, instruction designed to develop children’s sensitivity to spellings and their relations to pronunciations should be of paramount importance in the development of reading skills. This is, of course, precisely what is intended of good phonic instruction.” (59) Adams insisted that the “symbol-sound system be taught explicitly and early.” (60)

In 2000, the National Reading Panel of the National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (NICHD) reported: “In the largest, most comprehensive evidenced-based review ever conducted of research on how children learn reading, a Congressionally mandated independent panel has concluded that the most effective way to teach children to read is through instruction that includes a combination of methods. The panel determined that effective reading instruction includes teaching children to break apart and manipulate the sounds in words (phonemic awareness), teaching them that these sounds are represented by letters of the alphabet which can then be blended together to form words (phonics), having them practice what they’ve learned by reading aloud with guidance and feedback (guided oral reading), and applying reading comprehension strategies to guide and improve reading comprehension.” (61)

These American pro-phonics findings are supported by studies in Britain and Australia. In Britain, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate report of 1990, The Teaching and Learning of Reading in Primary Schools, found that although most teachers were eclectic in their teaching reading methods, there “was a clear link between higher standards and systematic phonic teaching.” (63) Similar findings, also in 1990, were found by British educational psychologist Martin Turner. (64)

A 2006 British Independent Review of the Primary Curriculum: Final Report found that “As more research and practice now converge in strong support of high-quality, systematic phonic work, schools can be confident that their investment in good-quality phonics training for teachers and in good systematic phonic programmes, whether commercial or provided by the National Strategies, will yield high returns for children.” (65)

In 2005, the Australian government’s National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy reported that “The evidence is clear…that direct systematic instruction in phonics during the early years of schooling is an essential foundation for teaching children to read. Findings from the research evidence indicate that all students learn best when teachers adopt an integrated approach to reading that explicitly teaches phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary knowledge and comprehension. This approach, coupled with effective support from the child’s home, is critical to success.” (66)

This Australian report also stated that the Whole Language Approach, “on its own, is not in the best interests of children, particularly those experiencing reading difficulties.” (67) This assessment confirms a 1997 American study of “285 children in a poor neighborhood in Houston…[which] show[ed that] those who were taught the forty-four phonemes first to be 10 percentage points ahead of those taught in accordance with whole-language theory on a reading-comprehension test.” (68)

Research on the remedial teaching of dyslexics also supports the efficacy of phonics. Summarizing and reviewing some popular teaching strategies for dyslexia, researcher Naidoofound that “[a]ll employ a phonic approach and all eschew whole-word methods.” (69)

The empirical research data clearly supports the efficacy of phonics.  

In the United States, the failure of whole word/meaning based reading instruction is, I believe, strongly indicated in the long-term relationship between reading instruction approaches and reading test data results.

Research by Geraldine Rodgers shows that beginner reading instruction in the United States radically changed in 1930, when the meaning focused Look-Say Dick and Jane basal readers were introduced. Meaning based reading instruction soon took over the field and though there was some movement towards a more phonic based instruction after 1955 the degree of teaching phonics today is significantly below the degree that it was taught before 1930. Rodgers’ research confirms that reading instruction today is still dominated by meaning based approaches. (70)

This increase in meaning/whole word based reading instruction since 1930 is reflected, I believe, in the decrease in the literacy rates of Americans revealed in acceptance test results for the United States Army. In 1930, potential enlistees had a literacy rate of 98 percent. Between 1942 and 1944, when more than 18 million men were tested for the Army, their literacy rate was 96 percent.During the height of the Korean War (1952), when potential inductees were the product of an education system increasingly dominatedby Look-Say, this literacy rate dropped to 81 percent. During the Vietnam War (1970), the army tests reveal a 73 percent literacy rate. (71)

A 2003 U.S. Department of Education study of adult literacy titled Literacy for Everyday Life was reported as finding that in a “sampling representative of the adult population in the United States, approximately 20 percent were unable to perform basic tasks involving printed material. Specifically, they had trouble completing a job application form, understanding written instructions and reading a basic health bulletin or apartment lease. They were unable to locate numbers and use them in simple operations like addition, even when the math information was very concrete and familiar. This 20 percent demonstrated, in the report’s terminology, “below basic” literacy skills. Some experts use the term “functionally illiterate” to describe this skill level.” (72)

I further believe that test scores of American students also reveal the effect of reading instruction not dominated by explicit, systematic and deep phonics. The previously cited 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) report on reading revealed that only 35 per centof American 4th graders can read at a “solid academic performance” level or higher. Even worse, 32 percent of American 4th graders are reading below the Basic level. That is, 32 percent of American 4th graders are failing at reading. (73, 74)

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THE TRAGIC CONSEQUENCES OF ILLITERACY

Although reading is not exclusively a matter of phonic decoding, decoding is the foundation on which all other reading skills and hence many other language skills depend. The inability to read competently can have tragic consequences for children.

Dr. G. Reid Lyon of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development [NICHD], National Institutes of Health, stated the importance of reading this way: “Our research has consistently shown that if children do not learn to understand and use language, to read and write, to calculate and reason mathematically, to solve problems, and to communicate their ideas and perspectives, their opportunities for a fulfilling and rewarding life are seriously compromised. Specifically, in our NICHD-supported longitudinal studies, we have learned that school failure has devastating consequences with respect to self-esteem, social development, and opportunities for advanced education and meaningful employment. Nowhere are these consequences more apparent than when children fail to learn to read. Why? Simply stated, the development of reading skills serves as THE major foundational academic ability for all school-based learning. Without the ability to read, the opportunities for academic and occupational success are limited indeed. Moreover, because of its importance, difficulty in learning to read crushes the excitement and love for learning, which most children have when they enter school.” (76)

Consider the following grim facts and statistics about just a few tragic consequences of illiteracy in the United States: 

Researcher Donald J. Hernandez reports that “those who do not read proficiently by third grade are four times more likely to leave school without a diploma than proficient readers. For the worst readers, those who could not master even the basic skills by third grade, the rate is nearly six times greater. While these struggling readers account for about a third of the students, they represent more than three-fifths of those who eventually drop out or fail to graduate on time.” (77)

The Nevada Department of Corrections reports that “Seventy percent of prisoners fall into the lowest two levels of reading proficiency…Eighty-five percent of all juveniles who interface with the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate…More than 60% of all prison inmates are functionally illiterate.” (78)

This article argues that the current widespread illiteracy in America and other countries such as Australia is not the result of children failing to be instructed in reading. The vast illiteracy today is because children are not being taught the rational way to read. Reality demands that anyone being taught to read an alphabetic script must be taught by phonics. Phonics respects the conceptual nature of man’s mind and of the alphabet. Phonics respects A as A. Currently, however, phonics does not dominate the teaching of reading in our preschools, kindergartens, elementary and high schools. Schools today are eclectic in the ways they teach reading, with phonics (lite) only being partially and weakly taught. Not coincidentally, there is also little emphasis on teaching spelling.

Phonics will only dominate reading instruction when educators and parents armed with knowledge of the theory and practice of phonics storm the Bastille of modern education and overthrow the irrational ideas that dominate it. When explicit, systematic and deep phonics — the teaching of all the 181 letter, sound and spelling patterns — is the core of every beginner reading program, illiteracy will essentially disappear.

Using phonics as the method to teach reading is justice for every child. And teaching phonics is the best single concrete way to alleviate the many ills that illiteracy helps inflict upon our children:low self-esteem, learning failure, juvenile delinquency, drug addiction, poverty, and crime. Language ability is one of the most important resources any individual can possess. Phonics significantly ensures that a child’s language skills and mind aren’t the pale glimmer of a yellow fog-light but the beaming searchlight they can and should be. Our children’s lives depend on that.

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Scott A. McConnell, a former year 7-12 English teacher, is a writer/producer in Los Angeles and Melbourne, Australia. See https://www.linkedin.com/in/scottamcconnell

NOTES

            needs some reordering/renumbering

1a.       H is a composite. All the examples were taken from year 7-12 students of the author.

2.         Ellis, A.W., Reading, Writing, and Dyslexia: A Cognitive Analysis, LEA, London, 1987, p105. In contrast to dyslexia, reading is simply “the process by which information is extracted from written or printed text.” A.S. Reber, Penguin Dictionary of Psychology, Penguin, N.Y., 1987, p615. There are two important aspects to reading: 1. Word recognition, involving decoding and verbalizing text. 2. Comprehension, gaining meaning from the text.

1b.       I.Y. & A.M. Liberman, Whole Language vs. Code Emphasis: Underlying Assumptions and Their Implications for Reading Instruction, Bulletin of the Orton Society Vol XXXX, 1990, p52.

3.        http://nationsreportcard.gov/reading_math_2013/#/what-knowledge

Scale Scores and Achievement Levels

4.         http://nationsreportcard.gov/reading_math_2013/#/student-groups

4b.       Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) 2011 report,
https://www.cis.org.au/commentary/articles/naplan-results-show-core-learning-skills-are-in-retreat

6.         Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, Dutton, New York, 1991, pp73-109.

7.         Leonard Peikoff, “The American School: Why Johnny Can’t Think,” in Ayn Rand, The Voice of Reason, NAL, NY, 1988, pp215-216

5.         Experts disagree about the number of basic sounds in English. Forty seven represents one of the higher numbers, while forty four is commonly noted. Lindamood cites 47, Flesch 44, and the International Phonetic Alphabet 45. There is also disagreement about the number of words in the English language. Half a million is a popular lower figure.  

9.         In Why Johnny Still Can’t Read (pp 123-134) Flesch argues that “true dyslexia” is very rare and that the epidemic of “dyslexics” today is caused by look-and-say (whole word) teaching. Flesch believes that phonics be used to teach both beginning readers and true dyslexics. He believes that true dyslexics have “tendencies” toward dyslexia and must be taught with phonics, often for a much longer time. 

10.       Ehri, L.C., The Development of Spelling Knowledge and The Role in Reading Acquisition and Reading Disability, Journal of Learning Disabilities, Vol 22, No 6, June/July, 198, p364. For support of this viewpoint see Rudolph Flesch, Why Johnny Still Can’t Read, N.Y., Harper Colophan Books, 1981, pp129-131.

11.       For a history of reading instruction, see Geraldine Rodgers The History of Beginning Reading: From Teaching by Sound to Teaching by Meaning Vols 1-3, Geraldine E. Rodgers, 2001.  

12.       Rudolph Flesch, Why Johnny Still Can’t Read, N.Y., Harper Colophan Books, 1981, p44.

13.       For good phonic programs see: C.H. & P.C. Lindamood, Auditory Discrimination in Depth Program Handbook, D.L.M. Teaching Resources, 1975.

            Rudolph Flesch, Why Johnny Can’t Read, N.Y., Harper & Row, 1955.

A classic book on teaching reading by spelling and phonics is Noah Webster’s Spelling Book Method for Teaching Reading and Spelling. You can find this book at:  http://donpotter.net/pdf/websterspellingbookmethod.pdf 

            Also see: Maria Montessori, The Montessori Method, Frederick A. Stokes Company, New York, 1912. http://books.google.com/books/about/The_Montessori_method.html?id=vopsPFT9HCEC

            Elizabeth G. Hainstock, Teaching Montessori in the Home. The School Years. Random House, New York, 1971.

Marva Collins and Civia Tamarkin, Marva Collins Way, L.A., J.P. Tarcher, 1982.

For an online audio phonics course, see Elizabeth Brown’s at:  http://www.thephonicspage.org/Phonics%20Lsns/phonicslsnslinks.html

16.       Rudolph Flesch, Why Johnny Still Can’t Read, N.Y., Harper Colophan Books, 1981, pp95-6.

17.       Rudolph Flesch, Why Johnny Can’t Read, N.Y., Harper & Row, 1955, p94.

18.       For ways to make drilling fun, see Marva Collins and Civia Tamarkin, Marva Collins Way, L.A., J.P. Tarcher, 1982, pp57, 65, 86, 93.

19.       Marilyn Jager Adams, Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print, Massachusetts, M.I.T. Press, 1990, p3.

20.       Marilyn Jager Adams, Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print, Massachusetts, M.I.T. Press, 1990, p54.

21.       Marilyn Jager Adams, Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print, Massachusetts, M.I.T. Press, 1990, p105.  See also pp409-410.

22.       Ehri, L.C., The Development of Spelling Knowledge and The Role in Reading Acquisition and Reading Disability, Journal of Learning Disabilities, Vol 22, No 6, June/July, 1989, p361.

24.       I.Y. & A.M. Liberman, Whole Language vs. Code Emphasis: Underlying Assumptions and Their Implications for Reading Instruction, Bulletin of the Orton Society Vol XXXX, 1990, p58.

25.       Rudolph Flesch, Why Johnny Still Can’t Read, N.Y., Harper Colophan Books, 1981, pp4, 101.

26.       Marilyn Jager Adams, Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print, Massachusetts, M.I.T. Press, 1990, p363.

28.       Marilyn Jager Adams, Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print, Massachusetts, M.I.T. Press, 1990, p409.

14.       Marilyn Jager Adams, Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print, Massachusetts, M.I.T. Press, 1990, p393.

29.       Ehri, L.C., The Development of Spelling Knowledge and The Role in Reading Acquisition and Reading Disability, Journal of Learning Disabilities, Vol 22, No 6, June/July, 1989, p359.

27.       Rand, Ayn, The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution, Signet, N.Y. 1971, p174.

31.       Freebody & Byrne, Word-Reading Strategies, Reading Research Quarterly, fall 1988, XXIII/4, p451.

32.       Freebody & Byrne, Word-Reading Strategies, Reading Research Quarterly, fall 1988, XXIII/4, p451.

33.       Rudolph Flesch, Why Johnny Still Can’t Read, N.Y., Harper Colophan Books, 1981, p80.

34.       I.Y. & A.M. Liberman, Whole Language vs. Code Emphasis: Underlying Assumptions and Their Implications for Reading Instruction, Bulletin of the Orton Society Vol XXXX, 1990, pp 69-70.

 36.      I.Y. & A.M. Liberman, Whole Language vs. Code Emphasis: Underlying Assumptions and Their Implications for Reading Instruction, Bulletin of the Orton SocietyVol XXXX, 1990, p62.

37.       Rudolph Flesch, Why Johnny Still Can’t Read, N.Y., Harper Colophan Books, 1981, pp95-6. & Rudolph Flesch, Why Johnny Can’t Read, N.Y., Harper & Row, 1955, p94.

38.       Rudolph Flesch, Why Johnny Still Can’t Read, N.Y., Harper Colophan Books, 1981, p4-5.

39.       Greg Toppo, USA Today. http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/life/books/news/2004-02-25-dick-and-jane-main_x.htm

28b.     Blumenfeld defines a sight word as “a word learned without reference to the sounds the letters stand for.” http://www.home-school.com/Articles/dyslexia-man-made-disease.php

39b.     The sight wordsin the Dolch list are actually 90 per cent phonetic but are taught as whole words. Thus the vast majority of Dolch words could easily be taught in any phonics program. The 21 irregular words in the Dolch list can easily be learned after learning phonics. See http://www.allaboutlearningpress.com/dolch-sight-words/

41.       Samuel L. Blumenfeld. http://www.home-school.com/Articles/dyslexia-man-made-disease.php

41b.     Samuel L. Blumenfeld.  http://www.home-school.com/Articles/dyslexia-man-made-disease.php

42.       Samuel L. Blumenfeld quoting Dr. Seuss in a June 1981 interview with Seuss in Arizona magazine.

43.       Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, N.Y., N.A.L., 1957, p 42.

44.       Samuel Blumenfeld http://www.home-school.com/Articles/dyslexia-man-made-disease.php

44B.    Steven A. Stahl and Patricia D. Miller. Review of Educational Research Spring 1989, Vol. 59, No. 1, pp. 87-116 Whole Language and Language Experience Approaches for Beginning Reading: A Quantitative Research Synthesis Western Illinois University

These authors further explain similarities between LEA and WLA thus: “There are several commonalities between the two approaches. First, both approaches stress the importance of children’s own language productions as a bridge from oral to written language. Second, both approaches decry the use of skill sequences to organize instruction, as is done in most basal reading programs. Third, both approaches use children’s literature, rather than basal readers, for instruction.” The authors do also note that there are differences between LEA and WLA. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.3102/00346543059001087

45.       LEA’s child-centered approach should not to be confused with that of Montessori education, whose rational methodology is objectively child-centered and uses a phonics approach to teach reading. See Maria Montessori The Montessori Method (1912) Frederick A. Stokes Company, New York.  http://books.google.com/books/about/The_Montessori_method.html?id=vopsPFT9HCEC

            And: Elizabeth G. Hainstock, Teaching Montessori in the Home. The School Years. Random House, New York, 1971.

46.       Marilyn Jager Adams, Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print, Massachusetts, M.I.T. Press, 1990, pp371-3.

47.       See Civia Tamarkin, Marva Collins Way, L.A., J.P. Tarcher, 1982, and the film The Marva Collins Story (1981) Warner Home Video.    

48.       I.Y. & A.M. Liberman, Whole Language vs. Code Emphasis: Underlying Assumptions and Their Implications for Reading Instruction, Bulletin of the Orton Society Vol XXXX, 1990,p51.

49.       Marilyn Jager Adams, Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print, Massachusetts, M.I.T. Press, 1990, p373.

50.       Marilyn Jager Adams, Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print, Massachusetts, M.I.T. Press, 1990, p373.

51.       Cited in I.Y. & A.M. Liberman, Whole Language vs. Code Emphasis: Underlying Assumptions and Their Implications for Reading Instruction, Bulletin of the Orton Society Vol XXXX, 1990, pp68-9.

52.       Samuel L. Blumenfeld. http://www.home-school.com/Articles/dyslexia-man-made-disease.php

Samuel L. Blumenfeld http://www.turboreader.com/PDF/Miller-Blumenfeld_Dyslexia_Article.pdf

53.       See article referenced at:  http://www.researchgate.net/publication/232595451_READING_A_PSYCHOLINGUISTIC_GUESSING_GAME

54.       Marilyn Jager Adams, Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print, Massachusetts, M.I.T. Press, 1990, pp373-4.

55.       Chall, J.S., Learning to Read: The Great Debate, N.Y., McGraw-Hill, 1967.

56.       Chall cited in Rudolph Flesch, Why Johnny Still Can’t Read, N.Y., Harper Colophan Books, 1981, pp29-30.

57.       Rudolph Flesch, Why Johnny Still Can’t Read, N.Y., Harper Colophan Books, 1981, p28.

58.       Marilyn Jager Adams, Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print, Massachusetts, M.I.T. Press, 1990, p421.

59.       Marilyn Jager Adams, Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print, Massachusetts, M.I.T. Press, 1990, p416 or see: http://projectpro.com/ICR/Research/Phonics/Summary.htm

60.       P. David Pearson, Foreword to Marilyn Jager Adams, Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print, Massachusetts, M.I.T. Press, 1990, p vii.  

61.       “Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and Its Implications for Reading Instruction” April 13, 2000, National Reading Panel of the National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (NICHD).

National Reading Panel Reports Combination of Teaching Phonics, Word Sounds, Giving Feedback on Oral Reading Most Effective Way to Teach Reading

63.       Her Majesty’s Inspectorate (Autumn 1990) Teaching and Learning of Reading in Primary Schools London: Department of Education & Science.

64.       Turner, M., (1990) Sponsored Reading Failure, Independent Primary & Secondary Education Trust, and Turner, M., (1991) “A disturbing report, however you read it.” Daily Telegraph (London), 10-1-91, p12. For further discussion of methods of reading used in Great Britain, and especially the decline in reading standards, see:

Cato, V. & Whetton, C. (1991) An Enquiry Into LEA Evidence on Standards of Reading of Seven Year Old Children: National Foundation for Educational Research

Gorman, T. & Fernandes, C. (1992) Reading in Recession: National Foundation for Educational Research. 

65.       http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20130401151715/http://www.education.gov.uk/publications/eOrderingDownload/Primary_curriculum_Report.pdf page 62. For more evidence supporting phonics, also see this 1998 report: Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young 

Children by Snow, Burn & Griffin, Harvard University. https://www.nap.edu/read/10067/chapter/6#52.

And this 2000 book by Keith Stanovich Progress in Understanding Reading https://www.guilford.com/books/Progress-in-Understanding-Reading/Keith-Stanovich/9781572305656/reviews

66.       December 2005, the Australian government’s National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy, p 11.  http://www.dest.gov.au/nitl/documents/report_recommendations.pdf

67.       See page 12 of the report, as noted, at:   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synthetic_phonics#Australia See also, http://www.curriculum.edu.au/leader/report_of_the_national_inquiry_into_the_teaching_o,12633.html?issueID=9803

68.       Nicholas Lemann, “The Reading Wars” http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/97nov/read.htm 

69.       Cited in Ellis, A.W., Reading, Writing, and Dyslexia: A Cognitive Analysis, LEA, London, 1987, p127.

70.       Based on a graph showing beginner reading instruction approaches in the United States by Elizabeth Brown at http://www.thephonicspage.org/On%20Phonics/historyofreading.html.

This graph is based on research by Geraldine Rodgers presented in The History of Beginning Reading: From Teaching by Sound to Teaching by Meaning Vols 1-3, Geraldine E. Rodgers, 2001, and on other research by Elizabeth Brown. My point is also influenced by correspondence from Rodgers and Brown. 

71.       John Taylor Gatto http://www.johntaylorgatto.com/chapters/3b.htm

72.       Joseph J. Dunn http://www.americamagazine.org/issue/left-behind  

73.       http://nationsreportcard.gov/reading_math_2013/#/what-knowledge

74.       http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/achievement.aspx The report defines Basic as “Partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade.”Proficient is defined as “Solid academic performancefor each grade assessed.”

76.       Dr. G. Reid Lyon, Chief Child Development and Behavior Branch, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health, Subcommittee on Education Reform, Committee on Education and the Workforce, U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, D.C. Measuring Success: Using Assessments and Accountability to Raise Student Achievement March 8, 2001 http://projectpro.com/ICR/Research/Releases/NICHD_Testimony1.htm

77.       Donald J. Hernandez. Jeopardy How Third-Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation By Donald J. Hernandez Professor, Department of Sociology Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York and Senior Advisor, Foundation for Child Development  http://gradelevelreading.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/Double-Jeopardy-Report-030812-for-web1.pdf    2012

78.      Education Services Newsletter, Spring 2012.  http://www.doc.nv.gov/sites/doc/files/pdf/education/Education_Services_Spring_2012_Newsletter.pdf

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3 Comments

  1. Avatar

    I’ve worked w/ people with dyslexia and while it may be a “disease” because of human definitions… folks with dyslexia still need different teaching (more intensive, multisensory) to succeed.
    I think Rudolph Flesch may have done more harm than good with his vitriol. Bac in grad school I researched phonics vs. whole language, though, and grew weary of whole language “research” that was basically “you phonics people keep YELLING at us!!! Stop being so emotional!” … and then claiming that students don’t need to learn to decode because hey, if a word is that important it will show up again and accuracy was overrated. (I could feel authors everywhere silently screaming…)
    Thanks for this analysis… I’m really encouraged by trends. For so many years I couldn’t say the word “phonics.” I combed through research on college students who were poor readers at the beginning of the century and decoding was either ignored or dismissed (“we knew decoding wasn’t the problem” — but the only article that went past that said it was because they asked the students if it was…) without evidence. Now it seems more people recognize the value of actual research…

  2. Avatar
    Geetika Randhawa

    Very insightful and enlightening to beginners like me. Thanks for sharing and writing, as it is! It’s the first time I heard dyslexia referred to as a ‘man made disease ‘ and it makes so much senses.
    The scenario is bleak, but guidance such as yours is valuable beyond a doubt.
    Thankful that I bumped into this read, tell me where you follow your work.
    Regards

  3. Avatar
    Brian J Hurlock

    This is the type of education material which should be basic for every teaching curriculum for “teaching the teachers”. Many young people have had their future blighted by those “whole word” teachers (sic) who think they know better.

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