Is Reading about 'Getting Meaning from Print'?

Nowadays, if you want to be promoted to the upper echelons of the Education Establishment, there is one big claim you have to repeat with endless enthusiasm: "Reading is about getting meaning from print."  This phrase (and variations of it) is ubiquitous in K-12 education.

What does it mean?  Consider the first-grader who is trying to follow this blueprint.  The child is not to be concerned with letters, letter sounds, or sounding out words.  He is concerned with figuring out the meaning, in a more general way, of what's on the page.  For example, imagine you are in Japan and see a poster advertising noodles.  You guess the ad is saying, "Our noodles are tasty."  Even though you can't read a word of Japanese, a teacher can declare that you got the correct meaning from print, therefore you are a good reader!  That's the sophistry we are dealing with here.

The shift from emphasizing sounds to emphasizing meaning is one of the great switcheroos in all of intellectual history.  English is a phonetic language, and like all the other phonetic languages found in Europe, it must be learned phonetically – that is, learned primarily as sounds.  Not learning it this way is a strange aberration indeed.

The historical background for this strangeness is complex in the details, but the basic idea is simple enough.  Leading educators in the USA circa 1900 did not want a lot of academic education or a lot of literacy.  They had a low opinion of what workers, peasants, and ordinary people needed to be able to do.  G. Stanley Hall, one of the big voices in American education, pontificated: "Little attention should be paid to reading."  Hall and his colleague John Dewey agreed that the proper trajectory was to ignore literacy or undercut it.  The simplest strategy was to downplay phonics.  But how could they pull this off?

Phonics had centuries of prominence and success.  It is the normal way to do things.  Throwing it out is no easy deal.  As any magician will tell you, if you want to make something vanish, you need misdirection or distraction.  In reading, the distraction is a relentless harping on meaning and comprehension.  In fact, the distraction became the substitute for what works.  So we hear a never-ending white noise about "getting meaning from print."

But if you can't read the letters, how do you become a reader of words?  An emphasis on meaning quickly pushes us into a fantastical parallel universe filled with empty promises and useless techniques, such as guessing, picture clues, context clues, pre-reads, post-reads, prior knowledge, previewing, predictions, summarizing, the three-cueing system, and all the other gimmicks that public schools focus on in order to hide the fact that so many of their students cannot read. 

Official dogma leads to a strangely surreal world, where ordinary kids in elementary school are like tourists in Japan "reading" billboards they can't actually read.

G. Stanley Hall had a graduate student named Edmund Burke Huey.  In 1906, young Huey wrote a book that boldly articulated the views that his mentor presumably encouraged.  Huey's book seems to be the first explicit statement of the meaning-over-sound sophistry. 

Huey famously stated:

It is not indeed necessary that the child should be able to pronounce correctly or pronounce at all, at first, the new words that appear in his reading, any more than that he should spell or write all the new words that he hears spoken. ... And even if the child substitutes words of his own for some that are on the page, provided that these express the meaning, it is an encouraging sign that the reading has been real, and recognition of details will come as it is needed.  The shock that such a statement will give to many a practical teacher of reading is but an accurate measure of the hold that a false ideal has taken of us, viz., that to read is to say just what is upon the page, instead of to think, each in his own way, the meaning that the page suggests.

This is quackery brilliantly expressed.  About 60 years later, Frank Smith, another top guru, expressed the same idea in these few words: "Similarly, a child who reads 'John didn't have no sweets' when the text is 'John had no sweets' may well be reading better than a child who is more literally correct."  Better?

Kenneth Goodman, the other great guru, built a career on his cockamamie insistence that if a child says "horse" instead of "pony" (the word on the page), the child grasped the meaning and is therefore really reading.  In this scenario, there is a picture of an animal on the page.  The child cannot read but might guess correctly.  The teacher can then give a good grade.  Imagine the confusion that will follow this child forever.  If "pony" can be pronounced "horse," can "horse" be pronounced "pony"?  Words would lose all the logic they now have.

So this remarkable effort that was started 100 years ago has culminated in a propaganda campaign that tries to convince people that reading is about meanings, not sounds.

Professor Andrew Johnson puts it colorfully: "Barking sounds into the air on cue like a trained seal is not reading.  Reading is creating meaning with print.  We want to develop readers who create meaning with print, not trained seals."

The terms "meaning" and "comprehension" are now used almost interchangeably.  Children want to find meaning so they will achieve comprehension and vice versa.  The striking feature in all proclamations about reading is, as you see, there's no mention of the alphabet or the sounds of letters.  Relentless chatter about meaning serves mainly to keep people from learning about phonics.

For most of the past century, the Education Establishment declared phonics dead and not worth saving.  Students should use Whole Word and sight-words.  Well, this is a big con.  In terms of results, it can't be justified, which was precisely the thesis of Rudolf Flesch's famous 1955 book Why Johnny Can't Read.

Conclusion: Reading is about getting sounds from print (either aloud or in your head).  Here is the sequence: print > sounds > meaning.  The Education Establishment wants to pretend that you can skip the central step.  How?  By memorizing thousands of words on sight.  If you have a photographic memory, you might be able to pull it off.  The rest of humanity will be illiterate to one degree or another. 

Research has shown that children enter first grade recognizing 15,000 words or more.  These words, many long and sophisticated such as "digital" and "quarterback," are in their brains as spoken words.  Phonics lets children sound out a printed word and realize they already know what it means.  No problem.

Schools should rely on what has always worked.  Focus on the alphabet and the sounds that the letters represent.

Bruce Deitrick Price explains theories and methods on his education sites Improve-Education.org.  (For info on his four new novels, see his literary site Lit4u.com.)

Nowadays, if you want to be promoted to the upper echelons of the Education Establishment, there is one big claim you have to repeat with endless enthusiasm: "Reading is about getting meaning from print."  This phrase (and variations of it) is ubiquitous in K-12 education.

What does it mean?  Consider the first-grader who is trying to follow this blueprint.  The child is not to be concerned with letters, letter sounds, or sounding out words.  He is concerned with figuring out the meaning, in a more general way, of what's on the page.  For example, imagine you are in Japan and see a poster advertising noodles.  You guess the ad is saying, "Our noodles are tasty."  Even though you can't read a word of Japanese, a teacher can declare that you got the correct meaning from print, therefore you are a good reader!  That's the sophistry we are dealing with here.

The shift from emphasizing sounds to emphasizing meaning is one of the great switcheroos in all of intellectual history.  English is a phonetic language, and like all the other phonetic languages found in Europe, it must be learned phonetically – that is, learned primarily as sounds.  Not learning it this way is a strange aberration indeed.

The historical background for this strangeness is complex in the details, but the basic idea is simple enough.  Leading educators in the USA circa 1900 did not want a lot of academic education or a lot of literacy.  They had a low opinion of what workers, peasants, and ordinary people needed to be able to do.  G. Stanley Hall, one of the big voices in American education, pontificated: "Little attention should be paid to reading."  Hall and his colleague John Dewey agreed that the proper trajectory was to ignore literacy or undercut it.  The simplest strategy was to downplay phonics.  But how could they pull this off?

Phonics had centuries of prominence and success.  It is the normal way to do things.  Throwing it out is no easy deal.  As any magician will tell you, if you want to make something vanish, you need misdirection or distraction.  In reading, the distraction is a relentless harping on meaning and comprehension.  In fact, the distraction became the substitute for what works.  So we hear a never-ending white noise about "getting meaning from print."

But if you can't read the letters, how do you become a reader of words?  An emphasis on meaning quickly pushes us into a fantastical parallel universe filled with empty promises and useless techniques, such as guessing, picture clues, context clues, pre-reads, post-reads, prior knowledge, previewing, predictions, summarizing, the three-cueing system, and all the other gimmicks that public schools focus on in order to hide the fact that so many of their students cannot read. 

Official dogma leads to a strangely surreal world, where ordinary kids in elementary school are like tourists in Japan "reading" billboards they can't actually read.

G. Stanley Hall had a graduate student named Edmund Burke Huey.  In 1906, young Huey wrote a book that boldly articulated the views that his mentor presumably encouraged.  Huey's book seems to be the first explicit statement of the meaning-over-sound sophistry. 

Huey famously stated:

It is not indeed necessary that the child should be able to pronounce correctly or pronounce at all, at first, the new words that appear in his reading, any more than that he should spell or write all the new words that he hears spoken. ... And even if the child substitutes words of his own for some that are on the page, provided that these express the meaning, it is an encouraging sign that the reading has been real, and recognition of details will come as it is needed.  The shock that such a statement will give to many a practical teacher of reading is but an accurate measure of the hold that a false ideal has taken of us, viz., that to read is to say just what is upon the page, instead of to think, each in his own way, the meaning that the page suggests.

This is quackery brilliantly expressed.  About 60 years later, Frank Smith, another top guru, expressed the same idea in these few words: "Similarly, a child who reads 'John didn't have no sweets' when the text is 'John had no sweets' may well be reading better than a child who is more literally correct."  Better?

Kenneth Goodman, the other great guru, built a career on his cockamamie insistence that if a child says "horse" instead of "pony" (the word on the page), the child grasped the meaning and is therefore really reading.  In this scenario, there is a picture of an animal on the page.  The child cannot read but might guess correctly.  The teacher can then give a good grade.  Imagine the confusion that will follow this child forever.  If "pony" can be pronounced "horse," can "horse" be pronounced "pony"?  Words would lose all the logic they now have.

So this remarkable effort that was started 100 years ago has culminated in a propaganda campaign that tries to convince people that reading is about meanings, not sounds.

Professor Andrew Johnson puts it colorfully: "Barking sounds into the air on cue like a trained seal is not reading.  Reading is creating meaning with print.  We want to develop readers who create meaning with print, not trained seals."

The terms "meaning" and "comprehension" are now used almost interchangeably.  Children want to find meaning so they will achieve comprehension and vice versa.  The striking feature in all proclamations about reading is, as you see, there's no mention of the alphabet or the sounds of letters.  Relentless chatter about meaning serves mainly to keep people from learning about phonics.

For most of the past century, the Education Establishment declared phonics dead and not worth saving.  Students should use Whole Word and sight-words.  Well, this is a big con.  In terms of results, it can't be justified, which was precisely the thesis of Rudolf Flesch's famous 1955 book Why Johnny Can't Read.

Conclusion: Reading is about getting sounds from print (either aloud or in your head).  Here is the sequence: print > sounds > meaning.  The Education Establishment wants to pretend that you can skip the central step.  How?  By memorizing thousands of words on sight.  If you have a photographic memory, you might be able to pull it off.  The rest of humanity will be illiterate to one degree or another. 

Research has shown that children enter first grade recognizing 15,000 words or more.  These words, many long and sophisticated such as "digital" and "quarterback," are in their brains as spoken words.  Phonics lets children sound out a printed word and realize they already know what it means.  No problem.

Schools should rely on what has always worked.  Focus on the alphabet and the sounds that the letters represent.

Bruce Deitrick Price explains theories and methods on his education sites Improve-Education.org.  (For info on his four new novels, see his literary site Lit4u.com.)