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How Kids Learn 1

by Charles J. Sykes

For generations, children were taught to read by being first taught the mechanics of reading. They were taught that letters had sounds and that they could decode words by sounding them out. At the end of a couple of semesters, a child with the mastery of phonetics could read an estimated 24,000 words. Look-say requires children to memorize whole words, much like the Chinese learn individual ideograms. Thus, they learn by reading the same words over and over again. Instead of a potential vocabulary of thousands of words, children are able to read only a few hundred. The classic example of the repetition used to bolster the look-say method was the mind-numbingly inane Dick and Jane series of books. In 1930, the Dick and Jane pre-primer taught a total of 68 different words in 39 pages of text; by 1950, the pre-primer had grown to 172 pages, but the number of words had been cut to 58. By 1950, children were being soaked with the banality of readers that repeated the word "look" 110 times, the word "oh" 138 times, and the word "see" dragged gasping into the text 176 times. Eventually, children learned to recognize the words.

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Flesch was merciless in ridiculing such approaches. "Learning to read," he wrote, "is like learning to drive a car. You take lessons and learn the mechanics and the rules of the road. After a few weeks you have learned how to drive, how to stop, how to shift gears, how to park, and how to signal. You have also learned to stop at a red light and understand road signs. When you are ready, you take a road test, and if you pass, you can drive. Phonics-first works the same way. The child learns the mechanics of reading, and when he's through, he can read. Look- say works differently. The child is taught to read before he has learned the mechanics- the sounds of the letters. It is like learning to drive by starting your car and driving ahead.... And the mechanics of driving? You would pick those up as you go along."

Flesch predicted that such techniques would work no better for teaching reading than for producing competent drivers. By the mid-1980s, he had won the right to say that he had told us so.

As Flesch predicted, reading scores have dropped precipitously as schools dropped phonics and experimented with "look-say" methods or "language experience" or "whole language" programs. The intensity of the debate over the issue might suggest either that research data are mixed on the most effective reading methods or that we really don't know how children first learn to read. Neither is true. It's impossible to review here all of the salvos fired in the reading wars, but research support marshaled to support Flesch's position is formidable, to say the least.
In a 1985 study titled Becoming a Nation of Readers, a commission of the National Institute of Education found that: "Classroom research shows that, on the average, children who are taught phonics get off to a better start in learning to read than children who are not taught phonics. The advantage is most apparent on tests of word identification, though children in programs in which phonics gets a heavy stress also do better on tests of sentence and story comprehension, particularly in the early grades.

In Harold Stevenson's international comparisons, he and his colleagues found that American students tended to be over-represented among both the best and worst readers. The differences, they determined, could be explained by the presence or absence of phonics instruction. "Children who fail to catch on to this possibility tend to be poor readers; children who do learn to break down words by sound are able to read words of high complexity."
Studies that have identified the traits of effective schools - forceful administrators, high faculty expectations, an orderly school atmosphere - also found that successful schools shared similar approaches to reading including schoolwide concern about reading skills, the adroit use of reading specialists, and a phonics-based curriculum."