K-12: No Joy In Reading. That's the Plan.

Newspapers in my state reported a particularly sadistic murder.  The victim was shot, strangled, beaten with a hammer, stabbed, punched, and set on fire.  The killers were thorough and then some.

If you look at how reading is taught in the U.S., you will think of this  execution.  Children are taught stupidly and then some.  Every technique that will make reading difficult and unpleasant is employed. 

To start with, Sight-words are the worst way to start.  Instead of learning letters and the sounds they represent, children memorize graphic designs.  Rudolf Flesch (Chapter V of Why Johnny Can't Read) said that as of 1948, eleven studies had been conducted; all found that phonics is superior.  (So the Education Establishment has always known that if you want a society to have low literacy, you will promote Sight-words.  And that is what they relentlessly do.) 

Children who rely entirely on Sight-words will invariably end up semi-literate (aka functionally illiterate).  However, it's also true that the more verbal children will in time figure out that Sight-words are not efficient.  These children will notice that certain letter-shapes represent certain sounds.  And by the third grade, many children will be reading phonetically even though they were never taught to do so!

Well, the Education Establishment is not going to put up with that kind of failure.  If water in the fuel line is not enough, put some sugar in the gas tank and some sand in the engine, and while you're at it, punch a hole in the radiator.  Examples include:

1) Professor Ken Goodman's "three cueing system" teaches children to rely on semantics or context.  Second, use syntax.  (Last if at all, use phonetics.)  These rules turn the English language into an elusive puzzle you need to solve word by word and sentence by sentence, every time you read.  Goodman is world-famous for this guff.

2) Professor Frank Smith mandated that children must, when not recognizing a word, guess and then skip.  Once a child has acquired the tendency to use these techniques, that child will never be a good reader.  Guessing is a hard habit to break.  Conversely, real readers rarely guess or skip.  (Frank Smith is world-famous for guff about guessing.)

3) Public schools have for many years told children to look for Picture Clues, as if pictures will always be there and always mean one thing.  Furthermore, in the very act of looking at a picture, the child stops looking at the text.  This disruptive habit kills off good reading.

4) Prior Knowledge is constantly emphasized, as if children could use what they already know to decode text they have not seen before.  At best, this turns reading into a puzzle, a detective story.  In elementary-school practice, Prior Knowledge is used to justify lots of pre-reading and re-reading, until students know virtually the whole piece by heart.  Students can then demonstrate their alleged reading ability.  So it's not that Prior Knowledge helps you to read; it's that Prior Knowledge conceals the fact that you cannot read.  (Compare to someone being allowed to take a test three times.  What would an A mean?)

5) Reading Logs are one of those things that never needed to be invented.  Apparently, some children are made to keep records of what they read as if this will somehow make them enjoy reading more.  No, it does the opposite.

6) Guided, Leveled, or Graded Reading mainly serves to keep schools dull and to provide an alibi (and camouflage) for slow progress.  Children are supposed to read from a small selection of books matched to their supposed ability instead of being able to explore whatever catches their interest.  This unnecessary filtration guarantees that children don't explore too far or have too much fun.  Motivation is sabotaged.  (Collectivists, of course, love any excuse for leveling.)

7) Close Reading is a big feature of Common Core, a sure way to know that this boondoggle had no redeeming features.  Instead of encouraging children to read quickly and exuberantly in all directions, Close Reading forces them to read small complex passages again and again.  David Coleman, the weird wizard in charge of Common Core, thought IRS booklets and air-conditioning manuals were fine material for young readers. 

8) Often there seems to be a concerted effort to make sure children don't see books they might actually enjoy.  This is especially obvious (and brutal) in the case of boys.  The quickest way to sandbag reading is to give them books that were written for girls – i.e., books about feelings and relationships.  Boys cringe, and the Education Establishment takes a bow.

9) Another gimmick is to describe what skilled readers theoretically do and to claim that students must learn to do exactly that.  Adults know how to do many things more or less automatically.  Children need to learn them step by step, starting with the smallest bits and pieces.  Flesch (Chapter IV) quotes a Dr. Cronbach, who claimed that psychologists figured out by 1910: "The good reader takes in a whole word or phrase at a single glance, recognizing it by its outline."  It's doubtful that any adults do this.  Imagine the idiocy of making children try to do it.

10) Even when "phonics" is supposedly used, it's often a misnomer.  The International Literacy Association, long a crusader against phonics, recommends with equal enthusiasm different kinds of phonics, some bad: "intensive, explicit, synthetic, analytic, embedded."  Systematic phonics is the phonics you need.

The result of all these  unnecessary (or destructive) techniques is to make children unable to read or unable to derive pleasure from reading.  A lot of teenage boys say, "I hate reading.  I don't like books."  Probably the truth in most cases is, they don't actually know how to read, or they know how to read in a clumsy way, one guessed Sight-word at a time.  They were never taught to read correctly, and that's where they stay.  Many people suffer a lifelong agony as a result.

The percentage of adults who can read for pleasure is lower than it was years ago, according to many articles.

All of these techniques overlap and interact.  It's as if every time you went camping, there was a new kind of biting insect or a flash flood.  Even if you know a lot about camping, you will have no pleasant associations with it.  You would be amazed if anybody wanted to go camping.  You would avoid it if at all possible.  We have tens of millions of citizens who avoid reading in exactly the same way.

QED: Reading taught with Sight-words is the most urgent problem in education.  Low literacy is the crisis that we can most easily fix.  President Trump, please take note.

Now is the time for all good people to come to the aid of our children.

Bruce Deitrick Price explains educational theories and methods on his site, Improve-Education.org. For info about his four new books, see his literary site, Lit4u.com.

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