Reading: The Con Continues
Not much is certain in life, but here are two things you can take to the bank. If you want a child to learn to read, phonics is the way that works. Second, you can be sure that our Education Establishment will try to keep phonics at a minimum and force children to memorize the English language one sight-word at a time.
Where reading is concerned, the nonsense never stops.
In his famous 1955 book Why Johnny Can’t Read, Rudolf Flesch said he looked at all the research. There were 11 studies from 1913 to 1948; in all of them, phonics was superior.
Now, a century after that first study, Malkin Dare, a Canadian expert, summed up the latest research from the UK:
There is no such thing as a silver bullet in education, but systematic phonics comes pretty close. Doubters ought to read this report by Dr. Marlynne Grant, an English educational psychologist. Dr. Grant is actually reporting on two studies. The first is a two-year study of…children who were taught to read using systematic phonics. At the end of two years, when they were just six years old, all 30 children were fluent readers who could read well above grade level….The second study is a larger longitudinal study following up on a much-earlier cohort of 700 disadvantaged children who had been taught to read using systematic phonics but then received no special treatment. At the end of grade 8, the group as a whole could read significantly above the national average and not one child had difficulties with literacy.
What else would an intelligent person need to know? We have a hundred years of research showing that phonics is best. (That’s where you start with letters, sounds, and blends.) But our ideologically impaired Education Establishment schemes continuously against phonics and in favor of “whole words.” (That’s where you treat each word as a unitary design.)
The result is that you find, across the country, every possible degree of real phonics, adulterated phonics, and no phonics at all. There are school districts so benighted that they are almost entirely Whole Word, just as almost all school districts were 50 years ago.
Such schools chatter reverently about reading’s famous quacks:
Edward William Dolch, Ph.D. published a book in 1948 called ‘Problems in Reading’ which devoted an entire chapter on sight words….Dolch’s sight words represent approximately half of printed material and he encouraged every child to learn to recognize these words instantly. Many of the Dolch list words cannot be sounded out phonetically, nor can they be illustrated to add a visual cue to the learning process….Dr. Edward Fry, was Professor Emeritus, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.….During his twenty-two years at Rutgers, he was President of the National Reading Conference, the International Reading Association, and the New Jersey Reading Association. He is a member of the Reading Teacher Hall of Fame.
The people pushing Whole Word remain a huge, shameless juggernaut. It’s almost guaranteed that a large percentage of their students won’t learn to read. What do they do with all the troubled readers? They have an array of excuses, crutches, and interventions for every age, all the way to high school, often including the expensive one-on-one approach known as Reading Recovery.
So the question before us is, how do we make people understand once and for all that sight-words (aka Dolch words, Fry words, etc.) do not work?
Consider the icons in the top right of your computer screen. (If you know PhotoShop, consider those icons.) These little graphics are convenient and easy to grasp. In small groups, they seem to work better than words. So instead of having the word “PENS,” you have a pen.
These graphic designs are equivalent to sight-words. In both cases you are dealing with structure or shape. When a child is just starting off, such graphic symbols seem doable. This apparent easiness is used to fool parents and students.
But try to imagine that the number of icons on your screen goes above 50. Very quickly the convenience disappears. You would probably scream, “Please, no more pictures. Just write the words.”
Imagine having to memorize 100 icons on the right side of your computer. You will find this an overwhelming experience. (But that’s just the beginning in learning English.)
Also keep in mind that these icons are dealt with one at a time. But English words typically occur in sentences, and you have to process them very quickly to extract the meaning.
People who memorize several hundred sight-words typically read only in a stumbling, painful way. They remain semi-literate.
Whole Word experts have invented numerous gimmicks that let such children fake it. They do a picture walk, a pre-read, and a paragraph-by-paragraph discussion of what might be in the book. By the time the child comes to “read” the book, he can answer questions about “meaning.” And if he can extract meaning, then according to these experts, he can “read.” What a con.
Imagine that this is a nine-word sentence in a language that your child is going to learn: $ ^ # * ) = @ ! &, pronounced, “Dick and Jane like to play in the street.” You’ll find it’s quite a lot of work to memorize those nine symbols so you can read that sentence. You’ll also find that if someone reverses the symbols, or adds new ones, you will be very confused very quickly.
This is typically what happens to Whole Word victims in the second and third grades, as they try to go from100 sight-words to 300. The common expression you hear is: “They started off so well, but then they hit the wall.”
Isn’t that cute? Little children are hitting the wall. Splat, splat, splat. And big adults are making lots of money giving them interventions. And so the lucrative con continues.
Systematic phonics (i.e., nothing but phonics) is the only way to go. If your children are at a school that uses any of the following terms, start fighting back: sight-words, Dolch words, Fry words, high-frequency words, picture clues, context clues, whole language, pre-read, picture walk, guess, skip ahead, balanced literacy.
Why are there so many of these bogus phrases? Simple. For the last 75 years, the Education Establishment has been selling a bogus reading method. Some people figure it out. So the Education Establishment has to come up with new slogans and clever new marketing phrases. That’s why we have all the slop.
Meanwhile, in all that time, phonics was called phonics and still is. When something works, you don’t need to fake it.
PS: Common Core is guilty of perpetuating Reform Math and Whole Word. Eliminating both is the prerequisite for educational success.
Bruce Deitrick Price explains education theories and methods on his site Improve-Education.org.