Private school kids can read. Classical academy kids can read. Montessori school kids can read. Homeschooled kids can read. Spot the pattern?
It’s only kids in public schools who can’t read. Why is that? You would think our education professors would figure out what the schools are doing wrong. In fact, they have not figured out very much in the last 80 years. Our professors seem mainly concerned with perpetuating the wrong ways to teach reading. And so the crisis continues.
Truth is, reading is easy to teach and easy to learn. All the phonics experts agree: reading is no big deal It should happen routinely in the first grade. Our brains are wired to learn to read. Many children learn to read with virtually no instruction. Reading is a problem only if the people in charge refuse to teach it correctly.
Here’s the bad news. Our Education Establishment, starting around 1930, insisted on teaching reading the wrong way. Their favorite bogus method is called sight-words, Whole Word, Whole Language, and many other aliases. It doesn’t work. (Phonics, on the other hand, does work. All the research confirms this.)
Here is additional bad news. Many school districts, after having shifted toward phonics for many years, are now recidivists. They have again embraced Dolch Words, Fry Words, high-frequency words, i.e., all the paraphernalia of bad teaching that virtually guarantee sub-literacy.
Many schools and school districts now have websites which clearly tell children they must learn their sight-words, for example:
“Over half of every newspaper article, textbook, children’s story, and novel is composed of these 300 words. It is difficult to write a sentence without using several of the first 300 words in the Fry 1000 Instant Words List. Consequently, students need to be able to read the first 300 Instant Words without a moment’s hesitation.”
Savor the phrase “without a moment’s hesitation.” In education circles, such instant recall is referred to as “automaticity.” These websites make it sound so easy. In fact it’s nearly impossible. Place on a table 25 objects— flags of Europe, brands of cars, famous people. Try to name all of them quickly with no hesitation. You’ll find it very difficult even with a small set of familiar objects. Imagine you need to know hundreds. Many children never gain automaticity with more than a few hundred words. All the other words they read in a fumbling way or not at all. And remember that these Dolch lists do not include proper names such as Benjamin Franklin and Germany. You see here the method by which our public schools create children who can’t read and don’t know very much.
Next consider a quote from a school site in Kentucky. The school dictates exactly what is supposed to happen but rarely does:
“SIGHT WORD POLICY—A high percentage of all reading material is composed of relatively few words. These high frequency words are called “sight words” because they must be recognized instantly, on sight, for reading fluency. Students in grades K-5 will be assessed on their grade level sight word list. All of the sight words are taken from the Fry Sight Word List. A report of this assessment will be included in the second grading report card. By the end of Kindergarten, students should be able to read 50 sight words. By the end of First Grade, students should be able to read 200 sight words. By the end of Second Grade, students should be able to read 400 sight words, and by the end of Third Grade, students should be able to read 600 words. By the end of Fourth Grade, students should be able to know 800 words. By the end of Fifth Grade, students should be able to know 1,000 words. In order to meet grade level goals, we are asking parents to work with their children on recognition of these sight words each day.” (LINK)
Meanwhile, phonics-taught students will be reading by the second grade.
So now you know why so many children reach middle school hardly able to read, and thinking about giving up. As fast as they learn new sight-words, they forget the earlier ones. These kids are just a mess. Even if they do retain hundreds of sight-words, that’s not a lot in the vast English language. These kids cannot read an ordinary book, newspaper, or brochure, for the simple practical reason that most words they run into are unknown to them.
In sum, the public schools teaching sight-words are engaged in deceit. They pretend they don’t know the best way to teach reading. (Hint: it’s called phonics.) They pretend to be nutty professors stumbling around in the dark, always coming up with odd new approaches and strange new jargon.
At this point in our history, it’s critically important that every American reject these methods and the jargon. Just say no to Whole Word, sight-words, Fry Words, high-frequency words, and the rest.
It’s also critically important that every adult knows what phonics is: children learn the alphabet, then the sounds of the letters, and then the blends. At that point the student is reading. Real readers do not guess. They do not hesitate. They do not leave out words. They do not substitute words. They read from left to right, syllable by syllable and word by word. Even with this minimal understanding of the process, adults can protect the next generation.
Our tragedy is that we have public schools that shamelessly use bad methods and get bad results. Then they stand around acting surprised that they’ve gotten bad results. The Education Establishment cannot admit they know what they are doing wrong. And they cannot blame themselves. Instead, they blame the weakest, most defenseless person in sight. That’s the kid who can’t read. Every one of these non-readers is said to have some sort of mental or emotional problem. They are ADHD. They have dyslexia. The family is alcoholic and dysfunctional. Etc.
Meanwhile, if we could check, we would probably find the kids in the public schools are, at the start of first grade, genetically and cognitively identical to all the other kids in the area. The differences, if any, emerge after the kids are in public schools for a few years. By that time they have raging cases of what might best be called “dysteachia” and “schoolitis“— that is, wholly artificial disabilities created in our classrooms.
CODA: “Why Johnny Can’t Read” by Rudolf Flesch was published 60 years ago in 1955. This is one of the most important books in America’s intellectual history. It explains in simple terms why there was an epidemic of bad readers. At that point the story got very strange. Our Education Establishment sneered at Flesch and went right on promoting their dysfunctional ideas. They do so until this day. The pattern is quite obvious: the Education Establishment will do to each community what the community will put up with. So if you have any hope of your children learning to read, you have to push back. Insist on phonics starting in K. Second-grade children should be able to select their own little books and read them. And thus the illiteracy crisis ends.
For a quick introduction to phonics, see “Preemptive Reading.”