The Most Obvious Conspiracy in the History of the World
Duh! Do you think? Oh, really? You don’t say!
People use these snarky expressions when they want to suggest that something is so totally obvious that ten out of ten people will see it instantly.
In a sane world, a good example would be Whole Word (or Look-say, as it was called when introduced in 1931). This is the famously bad reading method where kids have to memorize words as graphic designs, as shapes, as outlines.
Decade after decade, Whole Word produced dreadful results. It’s the main reason we have 50 million functional illiterates. The presence of this obvious hoax in elementary schools would seem to be prima facie proof of a vast conspiracy. Duh.
So how can this hoax survive if it’s so bad? The answer is that most people, once they become fluent readers, lose empathy for the difficulties that children face. As a result, the schools can get away with murder.
We need an easy way for adults to experience what it’s like to learn reading with Whole Word. Then they’ll care! Here’s a simple experiment that will drop you into an all-too-typical first grade:
1: Get pen and paper.
2: Draw a simple geometric design composed of a circle and two squares (arranged any way you want).
3: Draw a simple design composed of a triangle and three wavy lines.
4: Draw a simple design composed of a square and four small circles.
Arrange the three designs side-by-side so that you have a sentence. Write the pronunciations underneath: See Dick run.
Now pretend the teacher points at these three designs and instructs you to memorize the pronunciations. Your parents would be told that you can now “read” three words.
In fact, you can read them only in the sense that you look at an ant and say “ant.” You are naming something, but you are not reading it. That is the central sophistry of Whole Word.
If you have the patience, create another dozen designs. In any case, imagine having to memorize pages of such arbitrary designs – five or ten per week. It’s equivalent to memorizing (with instant recall) the names of famous paintings, species of birds, Chinese ideograms, or English sight-words. One thousand is beyond all but a tiny group of mandarins. Even 100 is an uphill struggle. And while you are engaged in this massive memory project, the rest of your education remains in first gear. Even by fourth or fifth grade, you are hardly literate in any real sense. Meanwhile, your memory becomes ever more overwhelmed. If you are an ordinary kid, the odds are high that you end up semi-literate for life.
But the children who learn phonics in the first grade become independent readers almost immediately. These children learn the 26 letters and the sounds they represent. At that point the children can read almost anything.
Here’s what makes this whole conspiracy so brazen. In 1955, Rudolf Flesch published his famous bestseller Why Johnny Can’t Read. Flesch studied everything published on phonics for the previous 40 years and concluded: “In every single research study ever made, phonics was shown to be superior to the word method; conversely, there is not a single research study that shows the word method superior to phonics.” (There were 11 studies from 1913 to 1948. You can be assured that the professors were trying desperately to prove that phonics wasn’t necessary. They couldn’t. Typically, they just lied. The conspiracy demanded it.)
The squares, circles, and triangles in the little experiment always remain shapes, nothing more. You may be instructed that a design composed of two squares and a triangle is pronounced “car,” but there is nothing in those shapes that lets you figure that out for yourself. Every word-design is like a phone number: you memorize it perfectly, or it’s useless.
Here is what Whole Word does for the child and the culture. The entire phonetic history of English going back to Greek and Latin and its many cousins among European languages is entirely obliterated. English is transformed into a hieroglyphic language.
Phonics, as noted, quickly allows you to read almost anything. Apparently that was the problem. Clearly, the people running the education system did not want children to read almost anything. So the children were sent off on a snipe hunt, essentially, where they had to waste years trying to memorize the English language one word at a time.
When parents reported to Sue Dickson, a famous phonics expert, that their children were complaining about sight-words, Dickson replied: “Duh! Did you ever try to memorize license plates?”
This nonsense continues today. First-graders are still being asked to memorize sight-words. Illiteracy seems to be the country’s official policy. Any reform (Common Core, et al.) that doesn’t repudiate this nonsense is presumably a continuation of the same conspiracy.
Bruce Deitrick Price explains education theories and methods on his site Improve-Education.org.