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Why Can’t Johnny Read? We Taught Him Incorrectly

By Rudolf Flesch — June 12, 1985 4 min read
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Rudolf Flesch is the author of Why Johnny Can’t Read and Why Johnny Still Can’t Read.

We have had compulsory education in this country for a century. Virtually all those millions of adult illiterates have had at least four years of elementary school. Ours is not the kind of illiteracy common in Third World countries; rather, it is what the late Dr. Hilde L. Mosse, school psychiatrist for the New York City Board of Education, called “an epidemic neo-literacy” peculiar to the United States.

Enemies of public education have been quick to say that all this amounts to an indictment of our public schools. But that is a simplistic judgment. Decades of painstaking research have shown that neither our schools nor our teachers are to blame. Rather, the fault lies with a method of teaching reading that was first proposed for general use in 1927 and has since been adopted in most of our schools. It is called the “whole-word” method because it relies on memorizing the shapes and meanings of whole words. It was introduced with the best intentions: the idea was to make learning to read more fun for our children. Today, it is almost universally used in this country.

The opposing school of thought holds that reading should be taught with systematic phonics. This system, which was brought out in 1940 by the late Robert H. Seashore of Northwestern University, is based on the fact that an English-speaking child enters 1st grade with a speaking and listening vocabulary of about 24,000 words. Once the typical American child with this rich vocabulary enters school, the job of teaching him or her to read reduces itself to the teaching of a system of notation, much like teaching Gregg shorthand. The Gregg system uses specific symbols for 36 sounds. Our standard system of spelling is a little more complex. It symbolizes the full 44 sounds of English by means of the 26 letters of the Roman alphabet plus a little over 100 letter groups such as ch, eigh, ng, oy, and wr. The obvious way to teach small children those sound symbols is by giving them simple practice words: mom, chimp, sleigh, bang, toy, pup, and wreck.

Many decades of experience have shown that whatever specific method of systematic phonics is used, it normally takes from September until Christmas of 1st grade to teach children to read and write whatever they like. Systematic phonics is used for alphabetical languages all over the world. Russian, French, German, and Czech children learn to read during the first few months of their first year in school. Unfortunately, this is not true in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, because those countries long ago adopted our American whole-word method of teaching.

When the whole-word method was first proposed, researchers began studies to compare its results with traditional phonics. In 1980, when I did the research for Why Johnny Still Can’t Read, I found 124 such studies. This research has been meticulously catalogued in two successive research reviews—Learning to Read: The Great Debate, by Jeanne S. Chall of Harvard University, and Research in Reading, by Robert Dykstra of the University of Minnesota.

Not one of those studies produced results in favor of the whole-word method. Yet reading is still taught in most of our schools in total disregard of the scientific evidence.

Recently, Bernard R. Gifford, dean of the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Education, wrote in this newspaper that only 26 percent of blacks, 39 percent of Mexican-Americans, and 50 percent of Asian-Americans passed the 1983 California Basic Educational Skills Test, compared with 76 percent of whites. (See Education Week, March 20, 1985.) Clearly, most of the minority candidates had been taught to read by the whole-word method in U.S. inner-city schools.

Most educators probably think that phonics is something to be taught after a basic reading vocabulary has been taught by the whole-word method. Not so. When the whole-word method is used at the outset, children acquire and reinforce the harmful habit of looking at words as wholes and guessing at their meaning. This is an obstacle to reading as it should be done: mentally sounding out the letters or letter groups in their proper left-to-right sequence. The acquired habit of word-guessing leads to learning disabilities, dyslexia, minimal brain dysfunction, and other reading disorders. All of this is described in full clinical detail in Dr. Mosse’s monumental, two-volume Complete Handbook of Children’s Reading Disorders.

In 1979, there appeared a three-volume collection of papers by leading researchers, Theory and Practice of Early Reading, edited by Lauren Resnick of the University of Pittsburgh and Phyllis Weaver of Harvard. Of the 59 contributors, 53 (about 90 percent) were in favor of systematic phonics and against the prevailing whole-word method, which they considered harmful.

Isabelle Y. Liberman and Donald Shankweiler of the University of Connecticut wrote: “Children’s ability to memorize the shapes and associated meanings of a handful of words may lull them and their parents into the comfortable belief that they can read, but it may leave them stranded at that stage, functional illiterates with no keys to unlock new words.”

Barbara Bateman of the University of Oregon wrote: “Near failure-proof methods for teaching all children to read are ... available. Continued failure of schools to employ these programs is at best negligent and at worst malicious.”

Finally, in 1983, the NIE sponsored a Commission on Reading to “seek out the existing scientific knowledge and the knowledge still needed to achieve universal literacy.” Nine experts headed by Richard C. Anderson, director of the Center for the Study of Reading at the University of Illinois, issued their report last month. Its message to reading teachers is clear: Use systematic phonics.

A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 1985 edition of Education Week as Why Can’t Johnny Read? We Taught Him Incorrectly

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