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Why Johnny Can't Read

by Charles J. Sykes

The most dramatic declines in the achievement levels of American students have been in their literacy. SAT verbal scores have reached historic lows, while national surveys have put the number of functionally illiterate Americans in the tens of millions. A 1994 report by the Educational Testing Service found that half of the nation's college graduates could not read a bus schedule and that only 42 percent could summarize an argument presented in a newspaper article or contrast the views in two editorials about fuel efficiency.

A study that divided students into five levels of literacy found that only 11 percent of the graduates from four-year colleges and only 2 percent of graduates of two-year colleges reached the top level. Only 35 percent of the four-year college graduates were able consistently to write a brief letter about a billing error." One study found that American business loses nearly $40 billion in revenue a year because of the low level of their employees' literacy and the added time required to train and retrain workers for new technologies. Recently the Stone Savannah River Pulp & Paper Corporation had to spend $200,000 to train workers to use computers after managers found that workers lacked the reading skills they needed to operate the equipment."
Rudolf Flesch said something like this would happen.

In the mid-1950s, Flesch warned in the best-selling book Why Johnny Can't Read that American schools would produce a generation of illiterates if they continued to rely on faddish techniques for teaching reading. At the time Flesch wrote, American education was dominated by the "look-say" method of teaching instead of teaching children how to sound out words, the so-called phonetic method that had been used for generations, students were encouraged to look at and recognize the whole word. Flesch warned that the abandonment of phonics and other traditional approaches to reading was a "time bomb" primed to wreak educational havoc on the nation's schools. Although his book drew widespread attention, he was generally either ignored or vilified by educationists. But nearly four decades of experience have vindicated his Cassandra-like warnings. While national test scores of reading and writing abilities are awful enough, the experience of California may be the most obvious test case of Flesch's theory.

In 1987, California radically changed its reading curriculum to de-emphasize what little phonetic instruction still remained. In ditching phonics, California embraced what educationists called a "literature-based" approach to reading that de-emphasized "skill-based" programs. Kids would be taught to read by having them experience [more Dewey-esque influences - my emphasis and comment] the wonders of literature, rather than having to go through the dreary business of first learning the mechanics or rules of reading. It was, educationists insisted, "the natural way" to learn reading. One survey found that 87 percent of California's reading teachers embraced the new techniques and that fewer than one in ten heavily emphasized phonics. Many teachers said later that they thought the new curriculum required them to get rid of phonics altogether (a claim state educrats later denied for reasons that will soon be apparent). The result was a full-scale, statewide test of pro-phonics and anti-phonics theories.

In 1993, six years into the phonics-less curriculum, a national reading survey conducted by the Educational Testing Service found that California's fourth graders ranked forty-ninth - tied with students from Mississippi for dead last - in their reading abilities compared with students throughout the country. Even when California's nonimmigrant, white fourth graders were considered separately, they still finished in the bottom fifth of the fifty states in the test.

"There's a lot of evidence that first-graders who do not get instruction in phonics fail to read adequately," said Robert E. Slavin, director of the elementary school program at Johns Hopkins University's Center for Research on Effective Schooling for Disadvantaged Students. "It's possible that the kids in the last several years were not taught word attack skills adequately. Today's fourth-graders were in the first grade three years ago." State educrats, however, blamed the problem on a simple miscommunication. They insisted that they had never meant to totally eliminate phonics. But, inadvertently, they had provided stunning empirical confirmation of Flesch's worst fears.