The Reading Wars were always chaotic and confusing. Here’s the gist:

Illiterate RatesOn the one side, you had earnest, sincere people warning the country about the dangers of non-phonetic approaches (these were called Look-say, Whole Word, sight-words, and other jargon). The warning was always the same. Nobody can learn to read that way. It’s a hoax. Don’t do it! You’re being punked. (illustration credit: readingkingdom)

 On the other side, you had patronizing professors of education saying the exact opposite. Phonics is old-fashioned. Dull and dreary. We’ve got the fun new way to learn to read. Kids think of words as graphic designs and memorize them. Easy. No problem.

Dr. Celia Stengler, one such professor, panned a phonics text this way: “One wonders whether the authors have ever had the thrill of seeing a group of children learn to read by the use of modern methods. The zest with which these children approach reading and the zeal with which they read will almost certainly be lost if we turn the clock back [to phonics].” Thrill, zest, zeal-–that’s what the professors promised in order to have their way with us.

 “Modern methods” in this case means memorizing hieroglyphics just as the early Egyptians did. Easy? No problem? It’s a huge problem. Try to memorize even a hundred hieroglyphics and see how easy it is. 

The condescending professors smugly claim that ordinary kids can memorize tens of thousands of graphic designs or even thousands of them. In fact, some children can’t memorize a few hundred. Many years later, the best you can say about millions of children is that they are semi-literate. The entire claim is a joke. America, you were punked.

So how could the professors pull off this charade? There were lots of faux-experts, thousands apparently. They were well organized. All the big names were making buckets of money selling useless books to children. Probably the main thing is that they were a cult and knew exactly what they wanted, namely, to pursue John Dewey’s dream of turning the US into a socialist country. 

Some permissive souls give the Deweyites the alibi of incompetence. But the scam has gone on for more than 75 years. Generations of students have come and gone. But somehow the brilliant high-level PhD’s cannot deduce that their theories are false. One suspects they had figured it out from the beginning, which brings us back to our central tragedy: America, you were punked.

 Starting around 1930 the professors forced Whole Word into classrooms. When Rudolf Flesch wrote his famous book in 1955 explaining Why Johnny Can’t Read, the professors counterattacked by forming the International Reading Association (IRA). Its whole purpose was to ridicule phonics and persuade Americans that they should use a reading method that did not work. America, stand still and be punked.

 Frank Smith, a brilliant man and IRA hero, wrote a book called Reading Without Nonsense (1973) which was entirely devoted to convincing people they could read with nonsense. In his book he said a most remarkable thing: ordinary humans can easily memorize 50,000 sight-words. Completely absurd but they made it stick. Punk you very much.

Ken Goodman, the other brilliant man in this game, alleged that there are four “cueing systems” for reading: graphophonemic; semantic: syntactic: pragmatic. A theoretical edifice always in the process of toppling. But ed schools taught it; young teachers believed in it; students were victims of it. This edifice should perhaps have been called “punking systems.”

As Dr. Samuel Blumenfeld has mordantly noted in The Victims of Dick and Jane, “The International Reading Association…is perhaps the only organization of such size in which a form of educational malpractice has been enshrined as the highest pedagogical good and its practitioners awarded prizes for their achievements….The vast majority of American children are trapped within a system that is turning their brains into macaroni.”

This theme–-the utter disaster of using sight-words to learn to read-–has been emphasized over and over by phonics advocates. Siegfried Engelmann stated in 1992: “The system panders and plays games because it is thoroughly incompetent at the top….At present, there are strong advocacy groups for the spotted owl, the killer whale, the Alaska fur seal, and hundreds of other ‘endangered species.’ Paradoxically, millions of our kids are endangered. They will fail in school. They will suffer a very real form of child abuse. Yet these kids have far less real advocacy than the spotted owl does.” (War Against the Schools’ Academic Child Abuse, 1992)

Blumenfeld and Engelmann are singing the same song: America, you’ve been thoroughly punked

But these few smart sincere critics were no match for the organized horde of the International Reading Association and this country’s Education Establishment. These commissars wanted you to believe that ordinary children could memorize sight-words with automaticity. That’s a technical term for instant recall and pronunciation. Reading speed is fast–three or four words a second. Almost nobody can name sight-words at that pace. But these alleged experts pushed this fantasy with total ferocity; and they still do. 

Here is a wonderfully stark summation of the current situation by reading guru Don Potter: “The situation across the nation is dramatically worse that anyone can possibly imagine. When I ask the teachers why they teach sight-words, they inevitably tell me because their students are going to be assessed on them. They are totally unaware that sight-words are positively harmful. They consider sight-words part of a good reading program that includes some phonics, not realizing that sight-words create a reflex that interferes with phonics instruction. Sight-words are an obstacle to reading, not an aid.”

 America, you’ve been punked. You’re still being punked.

 (For more on the Reading Wars, see 42: Reading Resources.

Bruce Deitrick Price explains educational theories and methods on his site