Illiteracy in America IS an Epidemic
In a country that has offered and supported free education to the entirety of its population it is seriously criminal that such a huge number of citizens are functionally illiterate.
Reports state that as many as 50 million adult Americans fit that category, costing businesses and taxpayers over two hundred billion dollars annually in remedial education and losses due to crime, unemployment, welfare, and more. Further, over 60% of all prison inmates and 85% of all juvenile offenders have problems with reading, writing and basic math.
In 1997, the United States Congress requested the Director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, in consultation with the Secretary of Education, to convene a committee to assess the effectiveness of the various approaches utilized to teach reading skills and to, basically, discover why the country was so illiterate.
The National Reading Panel (NRP), following over two years of exhaustive research, concluded, in The Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read, that there are five key factors that must be present for effective reading instruction.
The first two elements are “phonemic awareness” (the ability to notice, think about and work with the individual sounds in spoken words) and “systematic phonics instruction” (teaching the relationships between the letters of written language and the individual sounds of spoken language).
These two factors had, basically, been taught since at least 1500 BC when the Egyptians and Phoenicians developed their alphabets and was the method exclusively used in America for scores of years but seemed to have all but vanished from most reading curricula during the 20th century, replaced by sight-word teaching, known also under a variety of different names (i.e., sight reading, look-say, whole-word, etc.).
As early as 1927, neurologist Dr. Samuel Orton, under a Rockefeller Foundation grant, concluded that children who had been diagnosed with ‘congenital word blindness’ (now called dyslexia) were actually severely harmed by the teaching methods (sight-reading) employed. His findings were reported in a scientific paper entitled “The ‘Sight Reading’ Method of Teaching Reading as a Source of Reading Disability.”
That methodology, and the results that it produces, are nothing less than child abuse, which is a criminal offense.
Three decades later, in 1955, author and Doctor of English Rudolf Flesch isolated the decline of literacy in America with the replacement of phonics instruction by sight-word when he published his best-selling book, Why Johnny Can’t Read.
So, if it wasn’t broken, why “fix” it?
For a partial answer, one must understand the beginnings of the movement. The below quote is from John Dewey, an educator and psychologist who became one of the main forces behind the change, circa 1898:
“It is almost an unquestioned assumption, of educational theory and practice both, that the first three years of a child’s school-life shall be mainly taken up with learning to read and write his own language…It does not follow, however, that because this course was once wise it is so any longer…The plea for the predominance of learning to read in early school life because of the great importance attaching to literature seems to me a perversion.”
Literature, a perversion? Is not the ability to read literature the way to obtain knowledge?
Even in today’s high-tech environment, the vast majority of content on the web is the written word.
Another strong proponent of eliminating phonics was Edward Lee Thorndike, a psychologist who laid the foundation for educational psychology. In 1906, he had this to say about the mission of a teacher:
“The aim of the teacher is to produce desirable and prevent undesirable changes in human beings by producing and preventing certain responses.”
Produce and prevent changes and responses? That sounds more like his own work in animal behavior than in teaching the youth of America.
Perhaps the definition of ‘teach,’ per Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language, is more extensively accurate:
“To instruct; to inform; to communicate to another the knowledge of that of which he was before ignorant.”
Teaching has nothing at all to do with behavior modification and everything to do with literature. (Literature, as defined back then was: “comprehends a knowledge of ancient languages, denominated classical, history, grammar, rhetoric, logic, geography, as well as of the sciences.”)
If one looks at American literacy prior to the theories of people such as Dewey and Thorndike becoming paramount in society it becomes abundantly clear that phonics was not broken and should not have been “fixed,” especially with a method that does not, and cannot, produce positive results with all people.
And, in fact, that which was used to replace phonics not only broke, but devastated, a fully functioning and workable education system.
The following link easily proves the point: 1895 8th Grade Final Exam. It is the 1895 8th grade final exam from Salina, Kansas.
Since 2005, Bright Sky Learning employees have had many people, including those who hold a Ph.D. or Ed.D., attempt to pass the test with better than a 50% score. Even allowing credit for answers unique to that period’s lifestyle (such as the question dealing with a bushel of hay), no one has yet accomplished this task.
Another point of proof is Webster’s Elementary Spelling Book (commonly called the Blue-Backed Speller and also published under different titles, such as The American Spelling Book), first published in 1783, and used by luminaries such as Benjamin Franklin, who home-schooled his daughter using the book. It includes words required to be known by students at the time and is especially significant considering the fact that most people only attended school until about the 8th grade level.
There is also this simple fact: there was no such thing thing as “remedial reading” before 1925. Prior to that phonics was in use. After that date public schools were universally “teaching” reading using the whole word method. And, what is used for remediation: phonics!
All the propaganda in the world cannot cover up the fact that what Dr. Seuss said so succinctly in 1981 was correct, “I think killing phonics was one of the greatest causes of illiteracy in the country.”
He is in excellent company.
To all those who fight the good fight, to use phonics instruction to teach or remediate reading skills, keep up the fight.
The “reading wars” are not over and will not be over until our country is 100% back to pure phonics reading instruction, providing access to all information and knowledge that is available to every citizen of the United States.