Okay, folks, place your bets. Was it clueless incompetence on a cosmic scale? Or, was it John Dewey’s collectivist wet dream turned Clockwork Orange?
One of these ways or the other, we became a country with 50,000,000 functional illiterates, people who can’t read a cereal box, never mind instructions on a pill bottle when that exact skill might save a life. Prisons are full of people who can’t read. The country’s schools wallow in mediocrity. All thanks to educational malfeasance, decade after decade.
J’accuse! J’accuse! The so-called experts in charge of reading are derelict and destructive. Please, remove these parasites from our weary carcass.
Reading was always something that kids learned, almost automatically, in the first few years of schools. Kids learn the alphabet, then A is for Apple, then the sounds of the letters, and soon everyone is reading.
John Dewey, however, opined that a concern with literature constituted a perversion. Takes one to know one, John. This character actually lamented that children might sit alone enjoying a good book. He and his cronies seem to have set out to make sure it cant happen. I never know what to call these people. Quacks is accurate; but I prefer shameless hussies.
Now, let’s focus on what children should be doing and on what timetable. We need at this point a few expert testimonies to establish a baseline.
One of our best-known educators is Marva Collins. She has this assertion on her website: “Children as young as 4 years of age are admitted to my school, at the beginning of every school year in September. I guarantee that they will ALL be reading by Christmas, three months later. That has been the results since I started my school in 1975.” Note that the lady says: “ALL,” even as some public schools casually accept that one-quarter of their students might need to be classified as dyslexic.
Sibyl Terman and Charles Walcutt said in Reading: Chaos and Cure that: “It is absurdly easy to teach a child to read with [phonics]. Most of the children in America could be taught to read in a few weeks or months at the age of five.”
Mona McNee and Alice Coleman, two of Englands leading educators, both with 40+ years in the school trenches, state in their book The Great Reading Disaster that: “All children, apart from the blind, profoundly deaf and brain damaged, can learn to read by the end of infant school [age seven]. Reading schemes should not go on forever and after two years children should be capable of choosing their own books.”
These quotes should bring tears to our eyes. They tell us what is normal, and how quickly the process moves along in sensible schools using the proper methods.
Instead we have a totally lunatic situation where millions of children fall behind in elementary grades and never recover. They hate books, and their education remains in free fall. This is the predictable results wherever phonics is discarded and Whole Word (or Sight-Words) is imposed on children.
Heres another way to judge appropriate progress. You have probably learned a foreign language, or you know someone who did. This task might take a few years, at which point you’re reading, writing and speaking a wholly different language from your own. Note that a whole new vocabulary must be learned. But give it two or three years, and you can manage.
The situation for American children in our public schools should be much easier. They are native speakers who show up on Day One knowing nearly 10,000 words and names. All these words and their pronunciations are ALREADY in the brains of the children. All they need is the tool kit that lets them recognize the words in print. This isn’t a difficult thing to do, and experts tell us they can do it rather quickly.
How very dysfunctional our public schools have become. American children learning to read French make faster progress than American children learning to read English!
So let’s think about this: our Education Establishment doesn’t accomplish much of anything and they take many tedious years to do it. Hmm, you’d almost have to conclude that they’re faking it, that they have no interest in teaching people to read. Why else would anyone use a loser pedagogy like Whole Word?
Just for a moment, consider the silly theory that our top educators put forward. There should be no sounding out of letters and syllables; children should memorize words as graphic designs or diagrams. Put yourself in the head of a kid showing up for first grade. The teacher points to a design like xhyld and instructs, “This means house. When you see this, say house.” So, can you memorize xhyld?
Probably. But will you be able to pick it out from similar designs, of which there are dozens, such as: xhydd, xyhld, xhydl, xyyld, xhdyl, xyjkl, xkyht, xygld, etc. Of course, youll need to be ready for variations such as XHYDD, XYHLD, XHYDL, XYYLD, XHDYL, XYJKL, XKYHH, XYGLD. Okay, maybe you have a photographic memory, so you might have a chance. But no ordinary person has even a tiny chance of being literate. You can probably feel the dyslexia creeping into your brain.
And you’ve just started on your first list of words. You’ll need 5,000 words to be barely literate. But guess what the guru of this madcap theory said? Children can acquire sight vocabularies of 50,000 words. Not without a chip implant. But it’s even worse. College students probably need 100,000 words. (Total English vocabulary is over 1,000,000 words.)
The idea that reading has something to do with memorizing word-shapes is nuts. There’s no polite way to say it. English is a phonetic language, and you first need to learn the alphabet and the sounds they represent.
(Just for fun, lets jump back in history 50 centuries, to that bright day when a genius with super-hearing announced to a friend. “Know what? I can write down our entire language with about 25 symbols.”
The friend naturally said, “You are crazy. Weve got thousands and thousands of words.”
The First Writer explained, “No, its easy. Here’s how it works. Take the word bat. So I write a b-sound, an a-sound and a t-sound, thus: B-A-T. Now, say that back to me fast.”
Whereupon the friend said, “Ba-…ah-…tuh-….BAT! Darn, it works! How the heck did you figure that out?” And at that moment the friend became the First Reader.
Note that the processes are complements. Reading and writing are the reverse of each other, like ice into water, and back again. We seem to be wired to do both processes with amazing speed. Sounds become letters; letters become sounds.)
The Whole Word frauds say: But English has so many inconsistencies. Well, it certainly has some. But remember, kids don’t care because they ALREADY know the pronunciations.
Really, it’s quite possible to read phonetically without knowing all the rules and details. (I’m Exhibit A for this.) Similarly, most English speakers do quite well despite not being able, for example, to conjugate common but very inconsistent verbs, such as to be.)
So let’s say kids go down the formal phonics route, and do memorize 100 rules. That’s a walk in the park next to memorizing 100,000 words. This has always been the single most demented aspect of Whole Word, that learning 100 rules and exceptions is said to be too much work, but memorizing 100,000 sight-words is something any kid can do.
I’m not keen on memorizing little rules myself. I’ve worried about this aspect. But I’ve been comforted by Mona McNee’s conclusion that little kids love all the little rules. It’s like a game or a puzzle for them. As they gain mastery, they feel better about themselves and more enthusiastic about reading. Sounds good to me.
Joan Dunn, a teacher, wrote in 1955: “The children…want to be taught step by step, so that they can see their progress. The duller they are, the more important and immediate is this need.” All of my research suggests that Dunn’s second sentence is educations Big Profundity. The slower kids are simply being destroyed because the schools refuse to teach the basics in a systematic way.
Samuel Blumenfeld provides the bottom line for the whole society: “In fact, most reading problems can be avoided by teaching a child phonics at home before he or she goes to school.”
Inoculate your children. Teach them to read early.
(For more about the hoax called Whole Word, see “42: Reading Resources” on the writer’s site Improve-Education.org.).
Bruce Price – is the founder of Improve-Education.org, a lively intellectual site with articles on Latin, birds, Pavlov, phonics, sophistry, 1984, the assault on math, design, teaching science, why our educators do a bad job, and much more.
Bruce Price’s fifth book is “THE EDUCATION ENIGMA–What Happened To American Education.” (Available on Amazon.)