To the Editor:
In the Commentary “Dear Data, Please Make Yourself More Useful” (May 23, 2012), Brad C. Phillips and Jay J. Pfeiffer plead for education data that can be drawn upon to change schools for the better. I believe that their plea was answered in another Commentary that appears in the same issue.
Anthony Palumbo’s “Unlocking Literacy for Intellectual Growth” (May 23, 2012) documents a hundred years of Americans’ failure to teach their schoolchildren to read. Mr. Palumbo notes that 25 percent of the draftees of our two world wars proved to be illiterate. He notes that the reading achievement of our schoolchildren has continued to fall, forcing the SAT to renorm its tests because they had become too hard for our students. The No Child Left Behind Act produced no improvement. In fact, the verbal scores on the 2011 SAT were the lowest ever recorded.
Such data would seem to point unambiguously to one conclusion: Phonics and whole language, our two methods of teaching reading, are not doing the job. Phonics states firmly that no one can learn to read without knowing the short vowel sounds. However, anyone who seeks data on this subject will discover that about 60 percent of the vowels in any English paragraph are not pronounced with their short sound at all, but with vowel-sound associations that phonics does not teach. Phonics students will be forced by such instruction to distort those words so badly that they can make no sense of the sentence, or paragraph, or story that they are trying to read, which accounts for those falling scores.
It would seem obvious that the best way to improve our schools from 1st grade to 12th grade is to abandon our nonfunctional reading teaching practices and replace them with an approach that works.
Here, a little more data may prove the solution to the vowel problem. Three alphabetic languages—Hebrew, Arabic, and Farsi—work perfectly well without any vowel letters in their alphabets. We can solve our vowel problems easily by copying those languages and using the consonant sounds to identify written words in the context of sentences, paragraphs, and stories. Of course, that is the same discovery that has been made by those many children who every year teach themselves to read before they even enter school.
Former elementary school teacher
New York, N.Y.
A version of this article appeared in the August 22, 2012 edition of Education Week as Reading Instruction Should Be Reoriented