The Illiteracy Machine Wants Your Kids

Written by Bruce Deitrick Price


Every attempt to improve education in this country will fail unless we first make sure that children can read. This goal, however, is impossible to reach, given that the Education Establishment aggressively obstructs our path.

Dysfunctional is the best way to describe the Education Establishment’s official doctrine on reading. These methods are endlessly praised; but they don’t work.

I_can_not_readThe only hope is that parents by the millions understand how reading should be taught, so they can demand proper methods. This article tries to explain the basics in a few words.

In 1955, Rudolf Flesch wrote a famous book called “Why Johnny Can’t Read.” He showed that English is a phonetic language and must be read phonetically. What does that mean? Very simple. You see an object such as “a” and you know to say “ah.” That’s it. Each letter signifies a sound (or a cluster of similar sounds). Soon you see “ha” and know to blend the two sounds and say “ha.” You see "hat" and know to blend the three sounds and say "hat." It's a beautiful thing.

Flesch explained that many children can’t read because they were not taught letters and sounds. Instead they were told to memorize entire words. As a hypothetical example, they are shown an object such as “fjhq”  and told to say “bike.” You are probably thinking: but that’s completely arbitrary. Precisely. The Whole Word approach to reading means that all mnemonic clues are given up.

To a six-year-old, English words (or sight-words, as the educators call them) seem without logic or reason. That’s the problem. Memorizing large numbers of arbitrary designs is an extremely difficult project.

Test yourself on these eight symbols: ^ )  % ~  #  >  ”  <. Memorize that they are pronounced: “This is not how we learn to read.”

It’s just eight symbols. Take a few hours. Write them down over and over. Do you think you’ll reach the point where you can quickly read these symbols in a different order, for example: > “  % ^  #  )  <  ~

This test will probably seem awkward and difficult. Please wallow in those feelings of helplessness. Now you know the essence of what most children experience when they try to memorize their first 25 sight-words:

the  of and   a  to   in   is   you   that   it  he   for   was   on

are  as with his they  at be  this from  I  have

Note there is no logic in the order, no story. There are no clues to suggest pronunciation. Many designs look almost alike. When the children are alone, they can read only what they have perfectly memorized.

Remember, they don’t know the alphabet and sounds. Children are trying to identify shapes or designs, much as we recognize pennies, dimes, nickels and quarters at a glance. Children with exceptional visual memories can make progress. But the average child has a great deal of trouble with this. Slower children fail from the first weeks onward.

The Internet is full of professors and merchants enthusiastically extolling the glories of sight-words. Here is one version of the official doctrine:

“During preschool and the primary grades your child is building the foundations for a lifetime of reading.  One of the building blocks of a strong foundation in reading is sight-words. The ability to easily identify and understand high-frequency words in texts helps the young reader move efficiently and effectively through reading tasks. While it is important for young readers to master the core set of 220 high-frequency words by the end of third grade, this does not mean that sight-word instruction ends on the last day of the third grade school year. Sight-word instruction should be an important part of the fourth grade reading program as well....”

This is insane. You can tell from the low goals that this approach is tedious and slow. Even in the fourth grade the students will be readers only in a very limited sense. Clearly, they haven’t been reading stories, geography, newspapers, real books, etc.

Now compare this glacial progress with systematic phonics, which generally allows first graders to read in less than six months. Read, that is, tens of thousands of English words.

Here is more of the cheerful con from our Education Establishment: “Sight words free up a child’s energy to tackle more challenging words. Reading is tough work! As fluent readers we often underestimate the amount of focus and energy reading takes when you don’t know most of the words on the page before you.”

Typically, sight-words don’t free up anything. Children search desperately in their memories for what each design might be. It never gets easier. The official doctrine actually tells kids to GUESS or SKIP AHEAD, which is what illiterate people necessarily do.

Of course, the brain always looks for easier ways to do things. After a delay of a few years, most children figure out the phonics inside the sight-words. (And most schools teach some phonics mixed with the sight-words.) But the very process of memorizing sight-words undercuts the phonics reflex. There may be subtle impairments, often called dyslexia. This helps explain why we have so many millions of adults who can read to some degree but don’t read for pleasure.

Almost half the children never do find the phonics. Those children become functional illiterates, able to recognize roughly 200-2000 sight-words, logos, product names, street names, etc. The US is said to have 50,000,000 functional illiterates.

In summary, Phonics is a vast mnemonic device fairly easy to master. Whole Word, with no mnemonics, is a vast Illiteracy Machine. Why does the Education Establishment keep pushing this kid-killer? Are these people incompetent, greedy, subversive, sadistic, or what?--

Bruce Deitrick Price is an author and education reformer. Improve-Education.org, the writer’s site, has many articles about reading. ("42: Reading Resources" is a good place to start.)

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