Massive K-12 Reading Failure Explained

Herewith, a simple way to understand the destructive failure of most reading instruction in the United States.

Consider our eyes.  Their purpose is to grasp quickly what objects are: food or predator, useful or irrelevant?  This is often a matter of life and death.  How do eyes do their job?

Eyes twitch, jerk, and flick rapidly from detail to detail in order to identify an object.  There are no built-in sequences, no shortcuts.  The eyes must twitch – perhaps dozens of times – until a positive identification is made.  The technical term for these twitches is a saccade (which rhymes with façade).

Many such eye movements occur every time you see a car, painting, building, celebrity, insect, etc.  Your eyes flick top-to-bottom, side-to-side, point-to-point, finding more and more details until the brain is certain. 

Scientists can track these eye movements.  It's remarkable how much activity is required to identify a single face – that is, to be sure it's not a similar face.  The eye might go to the ears, then nose, then lips, back up to the hairline, and around again.  There might be 10, 20, or 30 saccades before you confidently decide, "This is Mary in accounting."

When the first symbol languages were introduced, such as Egyptian hieroglyphics, nothing changed.  A picture of a bird is the same as a real bird, from the point of view of the eyes making sense of it.  Designs such as Chinese ideograms are again the same thing.  Hieroglyphics were objects just like birds and flowers.

Around 4,000 years ago, something new appeared in the world.  Humans invented a brand new kind of object – the phonetic word.  This object is like a simple machine in that it must be operated in a precise sequence for maximum efficiency.

The sequence is built into the object.  We might say the phonetic word is a circuit that  has to be operated in a  prescribed way, or it's useless.  Just as you turn on a radio before you tune it, you have to process a phonetic word in a prescribed sequence – syllable by syllable, left to right. 

If you insist on tuning the radio before you turn it on, you'll waste a lot of time.  If you insist on reading "probably" as bab-ly-pro, you will never understand the word.

Now we reach the moment of dark genius. Public schools routinely train millions of children to read phonetic words as though they are typical objects found in  the world. As a result,  words that must be read left-to-right are processed with random saccades.

An English word, read in this random manner, might require 10-20 saccades.  Remember that these saccades occur chaotically top to bottom, diagonally from bottom left to top right, etc.  The brain cannot know in advance what the optimal sequence is.  The brain has to hunt and peck, like a chicken looking for corn in the sand.  It's a very inefficient method.

The typical English word, if read phonetically, might need only one or two saccades.  There is a necessary sequence, and if that sequence is followed, you get remarkable speed.  That is why phonetic words read phonetically are far superior to sight-words read as sight-words.  There's no competition.  (Even worse, sight-words may not be read at all, because even after 50 saccades, your memory might not be able to supply the name, whether of a person or a word.)

The evil genius of whole-word reading is to coerce children into processing a simple phonetic word as though it were a  human face.  Look at all of the activity involved in identifying this person – about 25 saccades to identify one face.  For victims of bad pedagogy, reading is hard work indeed.  Instead of a few flicks, there may be a few dozen flicks.  Instead of a fraction of a second, the process may take a fraction of a minute.

Reading, far from being quick and fun, becomes difficult and tedious.  Fewer people achieve full literacy.  Fewer Americans reach the point where they can read for pleasure.

Increasingly we are able to teach computers to perform pattern recognition.  This is feasible because a computer can do thousands of operations a second.  Sight-word reading reduces children to pattern recognition software.  Humans are not good at recognizing complex designs.  A few hundred is feasible.  But a few thousand is impossible for all but the most retentive memories.  Phonetic language was invented precisely because it got us around this problem. 

The country has nearly 50,000,000 functional illiterates.  Children who should learn to read in the first grade are, thanks to sight-words, still struggling in the third, fourth, and fifth grades.  Two thirds of eighth-graders are below proficient in reading.

Conservative cynics say sight-words were deliberately introduced to reduce literacy.  In any event, that is the result. 

The simplest way to solve our educational decline is to eliminate sight-words from public schools – both the phrase and the concept.  Phonics is everything readers need to know.

Bruce Deitrick Price explains theories and methods on his education sites (For info on his four new novels, see his literary site

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