Whatever Happened to Phonics?

One of the most important books in America’s intellectual history, Why Johnny Can't Read, by Rudolf Flesch, was published 60 years ago in 1955. This book sold 8 million copies, was the talk of the country, and explained why children need phonics to become successful readers.

There are many fascinating aspects to this story. Flesch fled from Austria just before the Germans invaded his country; at that time he was pursuing a law degree. In the United States, he went to Columbia University and earned a doctorate in English. Safe to say, he was exceptionally smart. In addition, he was obsessed with lucid language. He flourished, as Wikipedia notes, “as a writing teacher, plain-English consultant and author. He published many books on the subject of clear, effective communication: How to Test Readability (1951), How to Write Better (1951), The Art of Plain Talk (1946), The Art of Readable Writing (1949), The ABC of Style: A Guide to Plain English (1964), and Rudolf Flesch on Business Communications: How to Say What You Mean in Plain English (1972),” and others.

So we arrive at a sad, unexpected irony. This master communicator believed that he had settled the reading matter forever. Phonics was essential. Whole Word (also known by such names as Look-say, sight-words, Dolch words, Whole Language, etc.) was an obvious fraud and as well dangerous to children. Flesch assumed that any dunce would understand this. He was wrong.

Flesch explained that if you make children memorize English words as graphic designs, you have changed English into a hieroglyphic language. You have thrown away 40 centuries of human history, making English much like Egyptian circa 2000 BC. You have turned a phonetic language, which most children can learn to read in first grade, into a symbol-language that most children can never learn to read. Nobody could possibly be that stupid, right? Wrong.

Here is how Flesch explained our predicament in the famous 1955 book:

We have decided to…learn to read English as if it were Chinese. One word after another after another after another. If we want to read materials with a vocabulary of 10,000 words, then we have to memorize 10,000 words; if we want to go to the 20,000 word range, we have to learn, one by one, 20,000 words; and so on. We have thrown 3500 years of civilization out the window and have gone back to the age of Hammurabi.” 

Certainly that settles the matter, right? Unfortunately, no.

Here’s the huge problem. Flesch did not close the deal. He believed he had, of course. He thought that if you say 2+2 = 4, what else is there to say? That was his mistake. He needed to explain it again and again and again (and again) until every parent and teacher understood, and no dishonest literacy professor could claim to miss the point.

Flesch underestimated our Education Establishment. These professors of education, essentially a far-left cult, had forced sight-words into the schools circa 1935 and they were not going to let go. They would pretend, they would lie, they would wiggle like a snake to victory any way possible.

So what did they do? They ridiculed Rudolf Flesch (“Devil in the Flesch”) and went right on doing all the bad things they had previously been doing. They formed the International Reading Association (IRA) to consolidate their gains, and to quarantine Flesch. Further, they fashioned endless sophistries to justify their incorrect methods. They kept the field of reading mired in jargon and techno-talk.

It is arguably one of the greatest tragedies the country suffered in the 20th century. To repeat, Rudolf Flesch did not close the deal. Flesch, the master of clear English, underestimated the malevolent power of unclear English. He underestimated the power of lockstep orthodoxy, as when thousands of professors agree to support every wrong detail of an absurd doctrine.

Still today, many schools in the United States proudly boast on their websites that they use Dolch words or the equivalent. Millions of students are still being turned into functional illiterates.

What can be done now to rectify this terrible mistake?

First, every parent should take a few minutes to understand why phonics is essential but memorizing sight-words one by one makes no sense at all. Very few people, for example, could memorize even 100 license plates or instantly identify 100 celebrities. Even when you know the name, you can’t always bring it up from your memory in a fraction of a second. It's no different with sight-words.

Second, teachers who haven’t read “Why Johnny Can’t Read” (or “Why Johnny STILL Can’t Read,” 1981) should acknowledge that they are clueless amateurs. Such a person should not be allowed in an elementary school. Why? Because you will not be able to recognize inferior methods and the damage they’re doing to children. All phonics experts confidently assert that 99% of children can learn to read in the first grade. If you are accepting a lower level of achievement, then you are part of the problem.

Third, our newspapers and other media can help people to understand these matters. By remaining detached and silent, our media remain a big part of the problem.

There is a maxim in police work: “lie once, lie always.” Translation: if you lied, you can no longer be considered a reliable witness. That would seem to blackball all the people who gave us Whole Word from any further involvement with literacy. Legal codes sometimes stipulate who can testify at a trial; for example, convicted criminals might be excluded because it is assumed they will lie. There is another category of people who can’t testify: those with a financial interest in the outcome. Once again, there goes the entire Education Establishment. They cannot testify about reading methods because they’re all making money from the inferior methods now used. It’s not just all the expensive but worthless textbooks. When children don’t learn to read after a year or two, they are sent to interventions, sent for psychiatric counseling, sent to pick up their Ritalin. There are billions of dollars being made off of stunted readers, i.e., children victimized by Whole Word. Lots of people are making lots of money from the cash cow known as K-12 education. (So-called dyslexia, all by itself, has become a cash cow.) Are these pretend-experts now going to start telling the truth? Unlikely.

Don’t trust anything they say. Trust Rudolf Flesch. His books are available on Amazon. Used versions might sell for pennies. Read even a few chapters and you will be free at last.

For a great look back at the reading situation as of 1975, read Samuel Blumenfeld’s wonderful speech at the Reading Reform Foundation that year. 

Blumenfeld also chronicled our tragedy in his book “Victims of Dick and Jane” where he said:

"Flesch naively assumed back then that after the educators read his book, they would recognize the error of their ways and return to the sane phonetic method of teaching. What he didn't understand, however, was the political agenda behind what those progressive professors were doing. Their goal was to use education as a means for changing America from an individualist, capitalist, religious society into a socialist, collectivist, humanist society.”

Make no mistake. The Education Establishment, or perhaps we should say the Illiteracy Establishment, has tormented and abused the children of this country for 80 years. These phony experts should not be forgiven.

Bruce Deitrick Price explains educational theories and methods on his site Improve-Education.org.

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