Bogus reading instruction is the 800-pound quack in many classrooms

The single most important aspect of education is reading.

If children are not reading, their entire education comes to a halt. That’s what has happened in millions of lives.

All the statistics for many decades reveal a curious surprise: our public schools don’t actually know how to teach reading or, more likely, they pretend not to know.

This is a bizarre scandal, especially given that children have been learning to read for thousands of years, and 100 years ago this country was thought to be moving toward universal literacy.

An odd thing happened circa 1931. The Education Establishment pushed look-say (or Whole Word) into the schools. This method produced bad results, so much so that in 1955 Rudolf Flesch wrote a famous book explaining why Johnny wasn’t learning to read. Mainly, Flesch explained, children need phonetics to learn to read a phonetic language. Imagine that.

Then a second odd thing happened. The Education Establishment refused to acknowledge a blunder. Instead, they concocted catchy new jargon (e.g., “Whole Language”), cherry-picked research to prove their method worked even though it clearly didn’t, and heaped abuse on Flesch.

The result is that the educational landscape became and remains a swamp of sophistry and outright lies. Even well-intentioned people can hardly have an intelligent conversation about reading. Unfortunately, this confusion serves as protective cover for the perpetuation of bad theory.

Still, phonics did regain favor; and Whole Word, in its pure form, started losing credibility. Circa 1999 the Education Establishment had to stage an abrupt strategic retreat. They conceded minor points so they could hang on to the most harmful feature, that being the exaltation of memorizing Whole Words. The elite educators basically declared: okay, phonics isn’t so bad after all but kids still have to start by memorizing 200+ sight-words.

Note the absurd contradiction. Phonics is important but not right away. So now we hear endless chatter favoring Balanced Literacy and “no one method suits every child.” All of this is propaganda which allows the Education Establishment to make children begin reading instruction just as they did 20, 40 and 60 years ago, in the darkest days of Whole Word.

Children are no longer subjected to Whole Word in its pure form but they are subjected to a muddled, deceitful version of Whole Word that is almost as harmful. Many children are learning two methods at once, and if they become good at whole-word-reading, their brains are less likely to become good at phonetic reading. Collateral damage includes ADHD and dyslexia.

The common denominator running through every bad idea from 1931 to now is the notion that you can lean to read by memorizing English words as graphic designs or configurations. Suppose a teacher shows you this design, &+; and tells you to pronounce it “car.” You have to stare at that design, preferably write it many times, and keep telling your memory, that’s “car.” The human brain doesn’t have much trouble with a few dozen designs. But in a typical first-grade, children are told to memorize 100 designs, with another hundred or so the next year, and another hundred the year after that. Most children simply give up, overwhelmed and defeated.

This design “&+” is an example of what is typically called a sight-word. This is the essential idiocy in all the bad teaching methods. English words are presented to children as a sight-word, something they memorize on sight. There are no letters, no sounds, no blends, no phonics, nothing that is actually necessary if someone wants to learn to read.

For the reader of this article to fully understand the nightmare that was created in our public schools, you have to think of something that you have tried to memorize in your own life, for example, electrical symbols, weather symbols, currency symbols, flags, phone numbers, license plates, something that you were supposed to memorize “on sight.”

Or perhaps you studied art history in college and had to memorize scores of paintings. It wasn’t easy but perhaps doable. Remember, however, that naming a painting is successful if you can do it in a few seconds. But reading speed would be to name three or four paintings per second. Virtually no one can do this.

My goal here is to have everyone feel the frustration and hopelessness of trying to memorize hundreds of sight-words with instant recall. It just can’t be done unless someone has a nearly photographic memory.

But memorizing hundreds of sight-words is precisely what most of American education is based on. Wherever we look around the country (or the world) and find children struggling to read English, you can be sure that Whole Word or Whole Language poisons the air.

Note that the Education Establishment, when they embraced Balanced Literacy in 1999, basically confessed that everything they had been claiming for the previous 70 years was a mistake. Remember, they had declared phonics evil, wrong, a waste of time. Suddenly they said: never mind! Why would anyone trust these people? They had created 50,000,000 functional illiterates by demonizing a method they now declared essential. Now they’ve been creating more functional illiterates by insisting on sight-words in the early grades.

This dogma is still peddled on hundreds of sites: “Sight words consist of 220 of the most frequently used words in printed English, excluding nouns. Learning to recognize these words instantly by sight is essential to developing reading fluency and comprehension.“ Essential, it says. Destructive is what it should say.

Visit a forum concerned with elementary education or reading, and you’ll hear one wobbly little alibi after another for hanging on to this Frankenstein’s monster that has done so much to hurt American culture.

Further confusion comes because some people say sight-word but they’re really thinking of vocabulary words. Of course, everyone needs to learn vocabulary words. But these words are learned in multiple ways: meaning, spelling, phonetics, similarity with other words, rhymes, personal associations, etc. The memory can seize on many factors. But “sight word” is a technical term for words memorized in only one way–shapes the eye can see.

Sight-word, both the linguistic term and the instructional concept, is a mistake. We don’t need it at all. Everything flows more smoothly if children learn the letters of the alphabet so they can say them and write them. Then they learn the sounds that letters represent; then they learn the blends of those sounds. Very quickly children know how to read. It all happens in 4-8 months. No sight-words required.