Reading Instruction Series

Copyright © 2013 Karl M. Bunday, all rights reserved.

Don't Learn to Read in School

I kept my oldest son out of school to make sure he would get good reading instruction. I have taught him to read English, and my wife has taught him to read Chinese, and he enjoys reading both languages and reads them well. Read on below for information on why you shouldn't risk sending your children to school to learn to read.

I urge all readers of this page to read the latest thoroughly researched book on reading instruction, namely Why Our Children Can't Read: And What We Can Do about It by Diane McGuinness, Ph.D. Ms. McGuinness reviews the most up-to-date research on dyslexia, phonological awareness, the practice in most schools, and other vital subjects to provide parents and teachers with accurate, useful information about how to help learners learn to read. I would be delighted to hear from other scholars of reading instruction about your opinions on Why Our Children Can't Read and its method for teaching reading. I have already heard from many parents who are satisfied users of Reading Reflex, a book by children of Ms. McGuinness that helps parents apply phonological awareness research to teaching their children. I particularly admire Why Our Children Can't Read's overview of world writing systems and how they work and the application of that overview to instruction in the United States. And of course anyone who cares about children should be glad to see the carefully evidenced critique of "whole language" theory and the erroneous writings of Ken Goodman that Ms. McGuinness presents for the discerning reader. I appreciate any comments you have about research on reading instruction more recent than that reported below.

Learn words at a glance, or learn letter combinations?

Rudolf Flesch shocked millions of parents and indicted most schools with his best-selling Why Johnny Can't Read:--And What You Can Do About It in 1955. Today, his book is still widely available and still useful for parents who want to make sure their children learn to read. But reading instruction in most schools is little changed from the description in Flesch's more recent Why Johnny STILL Can't Read: A New Look at the Scandal of Our Schools (1981) (ISBN 0-06-091031-3). Flesch's criticisms parallel those of Samuel L. Blumenfeld, author of The New Illiterates--And How You Can Keep Your Child from Becoming One (2d ed. 1988) (ISBN 0-941995-05-4) and other books on educational reform. Both authors are dismayed that most American schools do initial reading instruction as a process of memorizing whole words, rather than teaching the sound values of the few dozen typical spelling combinations of the twenty-six letters. Various forms of evidence converge to show what common sense would suggest, that learning a limited number of general rules with commonplace exceptions results in much better development of early reading skill than memorizing each reading word one by one.

Flesch and Blumenfeld explored the history of reading instruction in the United States, discovering that the switch to what Flesch calls "look-say" instruction began just as laws compelling attendance at public schools began. Reading instruction at the time of the founding of the United States took place largely at home, using phonics methods, resulting in high rates of literacy and reading of books. Lawrence Cremin, American Education: The Colonial Experience 1607-1783 (1970) pp. 126-130. "Look-say" ("sight word," or "whole word") instruction has today become the staple form of reading instruction for over half of America's schools.

As soon as children were confined to a method of instruction that only allowed them to learn one word at a time, instead of learning general principles they could apply to the thousands of words in their speaking vocabularies, the notion of grade levels in primary readers was born. Today, additional trends toward standardization and atomization of the lesson content in children's textbooks, well documented in Frank Smith's Insult to Intelligence: The Bureaucratic Invasion of Our Classrooms (1986) (ISBN 0-87795-827-0), result in reading textbooks that have nothing to do with teaching reading. (Smith confirms Flesch's identification of the major reading series used in American schools, and evidences additional reasons besides their lack of phonics instruction why the leading textbooks are useless for teaching reading to most children.)

Teacher-dependency and the insipid reading matter in current textbooks teach a powerful, unwanted lesson to children: reading is boring and useless. Parental instruction, on the other hand, easily achieves all of the noble objectives of the "whole language" movement, namely to use reading for real-life activities of interest to children. Children who learn to read independently at an early age, as phonics readers taught one-on-one routinely do, develop a zest for learning that they keep for a lifetime.

In my on-line writings on reading instruction, I have for years been describing the "the noble objectives of the 'whole language' movement, namely to use reading for real-life activities of interest to children." I really think that goal is admirable; what's more, I remember that my own first-grade teacher intuitively (or by long experience observing what worked) did most of the classroom activities recommended for whole-language classrooms. But she was very careful also to teach phonics consistently.

The only source of resistance to the whole-language (WL) movement that I have seen may, indeed, be to phony WL, but it is a common source of resistance. That source of resistance is parents observing that their kids are unable to read after one, two, even five years of "whole language" (so the school labels it) reading instruction, when the kids' older siblings or cousins who were taught by what was labeled "phonics" can read just fine. I have seen numerous public posts here on various computer networks and received much E-mail relating exactly such experiences.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's Centre Point program (which is rebroadcast in many parts of the United States) on 4 October 1992 did a thorough report on reading instruction in Canada. Nominally, it was mostly all whole language. Parents were appalled at their kids not being able to read and in some cases shelled out $3,000 (Canadian) to send their kids to cram schools that taught phonics when the kids at age eleven still couldn't read. Sure enough, with that instruction the kids finally learned to read and to like reading. Teachers were interviewed on the program who said that, at least in Canada, the implementation of WL included an explicit ban on phonics teaching by any teacher in many schools, even by experienced veteran teachers who had always had good results in teaching phonics. One teacher said she taught phonics on the sly, and didn't want the kids to reveal it so she wouldn't be caught by the school administration.

I am prepared to say that those Canadian schoolmasters may be misunderstanding what WL is all about. But it is perfectly understandable to me why a parent would be upset about "whole language," if that is the name applied to the school program, and the school program doesn't result in the child being able to read. Meanwhile, many parents, including many who are themselves public school teachers, ask the legitimate question, "What does 'whole language' mean will happen in my child's reading program?" In fact, exactly this has happened in Canada. A member of Prodigy computer network who moved to the United States from Canada said then, "If whole language was successful, there would not be organizations all over Canada such as the Organization for Quality Education, Quality Education Network, and the Reading and Literacy Institute, just to name a few."

She also described the situation in New Zealand, which is said to use "whole language" more successfully than Canada. The Thorndike international literacy study, comparing several countries, was conducted in 1968. That study is the source of the widespread belief that New Zealand is especially high in levels of adult literacy. But the Canadian-American observer comments, "Whole Language did not come into full force in N.Z. until 1972. Furthermore, the students tested were in grade 12. The likelihood that these kids were ever exposed to W.L. is extremely slim. The retention rate [that is, the secondary school completion rate] in N.Z. is 13%, so they were not only testing kids that had not had exposure to WL but were also testing the brightest." Patrick Groff has published an article about the 1968 Thorndike study and why it should not be misinterpreted as an endorsement of WL.

What is the theoretical background to WL?

The "whole language" (WL) movement doubtless has some good points, particularly encouraging children to write at an earlier age. Its admirable goal is to rescue children from doing endless worksheets while never writing or reading a real story. But "whole language," as it trickles down to public schools, is one more example of how useful ideas developed by theoreticians get bollixed up by public classroom schools. Moreover, it has often become a subterfuge for putting look-say word guessing back into top position in reading instruction. It's dismaying to see many parents comment that their children taught by phonics methods learned to read just fine but that their later children don't learn to read under "whole language" programs, which usually from the descriptions don't even sound like true WL programs.

Frank Smith, a British-Australian former journalist who later studied and taught about reading in North American universities, is one author cited frequently in WL circles. Smith has much to say about how dumb school textbooks are in Insult to Intelligence: The Bureaucratic Invasion of Our Classrooms (1986) (ISBN 0-87795-827-0). Smith's book Understanding Reading (which has gone through several editions) makes a number of thoughtful points about reading instruction. But as of a decade ago, when Dr. Hilde Mosse roundly criticized Smith's work in The Complete Handbook of Children's Reading Disorders pp. 121-22 (1982) (ISBN 0-942311-00-0), Smith had never taught even one child to read--that wasn't his research specialization. (Roberta Pournelle, sysop of the GEnie Education Roundtable and herself an experienced reading teacher, confirms that Frank Smith admitted an entire lack of experience in teaching reading at a seminar not many years ago.) Moreover, the entire discussion of East Asian reading and writing in Understanding Reading is flat wrong. For correct information on this subject, see John DeFrancis's Visible Speech: The Diverse Oneness of Writing Systems (1989). Chinese has written characters that represent syllables. Those characters have been subject to more than 2,000 years of sound change in Chinese speech. The Roman alphabet characters used for English represent sounds more specifically by representing segmental phonemes. They reached essentially their current visual form as the script for another language (Etruscan). The Romans then adapted the same script for spelling the very different Latin language. The use of Roman alphabet characters for spelling English has been ravaged by English sound changes for about 500 years. Korean developed its own alphabetic writing system about the same time that English spelling was fixed. Japanese has two sound-indicating writing systems that are used in parallel with Chinese characters. But in all countries of East Asia, even in Chinese-speaking countries where adult writing makes no use of alphabetic characters, reading instruction for children uses alphabetic writing with a phonics-first method of instruction. "How do children learn to read in Chinese? At the beginning of the first semester of first grade, children are taught to read a simple phonetic spelling system. These extra-orthographic systems are needed because without a great deal of prior knowledge, children have very little chance of being able to pronounce new characters correctly. In the People's Republic of China, the pinyin system is used. This system is based upon the Roman alphabet. In Taiwan, a syllabary system known as the zhuyin fuhao is used. In the elementary textbooks, pinyin or zhuyin fuhao are printed beside all new characters to facilitate the pronunciation of the characters. After learning these systems, Chinese characters are introduced." Shin-Ying Lee, David H. Uttal, and Chuansheng Chen, "Writing Systems and Acquisition of Reading in American, Chinese, and Japanese First-Graders," in Scripts and Literacy, Insup Taylor and David R. Olson, editors (1995).

I'm passionate about this issue because I live in east Asia and can't think of a bigger obstacle to adult success than not being able to read well, and it's evident American schools aren't doing their job to help our children read. Jill Sunday Bartoli, in Unequal Opportunity: Learning to Read in the U.S.A. (New York: Teacher's College Press, 1995), a book written from a WL point of view, concludes, on page 15, "Those who do learn to read successfully more often learn in spite of the system by which they are taught," in current American schools.

I agree with Ms. Bartoli's observation about the severity of the problem. I draw from this and other evidence the conclusion that if you want your children to read well, it is best to make sure they are taught phonics at home. When parents give their children individual attention in phonics instruction (which is something any parent can do with a variety of easily obtained materials) the children learn to read well--that is the consistent report of actual experience. Marjorie Vanoy Fields, Literacy Begins at Birth: A Revolutionary Approach in Whole Language Learning, Emphasizing Writing Before Reading in Early Childhood (1989) is a good book with a balanced presentation of some of the theory behind WL instruction. It, and all other good books about reading instruction, point out that it is ultimately the parents who make the decisive difference.

But it is important to note that one of the most widely believed tenets of WL philosophy, "children learn to read just like they learn to talk," is absolutely, positively flat wrong. Whole countries have illiterate, speaking majorities of people who learned to speak naturally and never learned to read at all. The best current linguistic research confirms that the process of learning to speak is essentially built-in among human beings, while learning to read is a culturally based process of learning to link arbitrary symbols of a writing system to the speech sounds of the reader's language. A November 1995 front-page article in the Boston Globe newspaper reported how many serious scholars of language have become disturbed at the misinformation spread by WL supporters. A group of forty linguists, psychologists, and other scholars wrote a letter of protest to the Massachusetts education department, pointing out that "whole language" has hurt learning of reading most places it has been tried, notably in California, where reading scores went down after a WL curriculum was adopted. That joint statement eventually resulted in a modification of a Massachusetts proposal for reading curricula in Massachusetts public schools. One of the scholars quoted in the article was Marilyn Jager Adams, whose book Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990) thoroughly refutes many WL claims. Jean Chall, professor emerita at the Harvard School of Education and author of Learning to Read: The Great Debate has studied the issue for years and told the Boston Globe reporter that reading tests and other research prove phonics-skills instruction is helpful to learners. "If this were a medical treatment, people would accept it unquestionably. Yet it keeps being beaten back," Chall said. Another scholar is quoted by the Boston Globe reporter as saying WL supporters "are making incorrect claims about the reading process," something that I have certainly seen them do.

The Boston Globe article also illustrated the intellectual dishonesty of some supporters of WL, and of one of their chief gurus, professor of education Ken Goodman, author of What's Whole about Whole Language. Goodman describes opposition to WL as "part of an orchestrated campaign by the far right, and some of these academics have wandered into this without realizing who they're getting into bed with," as if the world renowned linguists who signed the Massachusetts protest letter didn't have the capability to make up their own minds. In fact, I have every reason to believe that many of the Massachusetts signatories are "liberals," the kind of liberals who want children to have effective reading instruction. Why is it that the WL supporters never point to the results of WL, but only to its philosophy (which is disproven by the science of linguistics) or to its political connections with the government school system establishment? It is my hope that some of those same Massachusetts scholars will find time in their busy schedules, perhaps in collaboration with their colleagues in other parts of the country, to sum up the latest research on reading instruction in words understandable to people who haven't studied linguistics to make clear what science says about effective reading instruction. If such a resource is posted to the World Wide Web, I will be glad to provide a link to it, even if all the signatories are "liberals," or "conservatives," or a mixture of every sort of political point of view. Scientists who happen incidentally to be concerned parents of children in public school who care about whether children learn to read well can make this point better than I can. Most parents, it seems to me, are more interested in having their children learn to read well than in having them be politically corrected at a young age.

What can a parent do at home to help a child learn to read?

There are a number of things parents can do at home to help their children succeed as readers. Phonics is a skill, not a religion. Some people live without it. Phonics is peculiarly effective for initial reading instruction, so much so that it is invariably used for that purpose in Japan, Taiwan, and China, although adult reading and writing in those places does not use a pure phonemic writing system. All experts agree that adult readers take in print with rapid, practiced eye movements and that contextual reading skills not concerned with pronunciation of a written word also have their place in fluent, adult reading. Children should be given a chance to learn all the skills that might come in useful someday. To give children the best possible start on a lifetime of successful reading, the following practices are suggested by research.

Rhymed metrical poetry is good ear training. Read it aloud to your children often, at all ages. (And remember that intuitively parents have been doing this for generations every time they recited a nursery rhyme or sang a favorite folk song.) Use of language that savors sound, as well as meaning, increases awareness of language sounds. You can play word games with your child that exploit minimal sound differences. (Would you rather have a cup or a cap? A book or a bike? A cat or a pat?) There are only forty or so consonant and vowel phonemes in English, but some children (I was an example) don't consistently distinguish the most subtle few in speech until older than five.

My oldest son appears to have benefitted from the reading of poetry we provided him when he was young, and from playing phonological awareness games like those found in Reading Reflex: The Foolproof Phono-Graphix TM Method for Teaching Your Child to Read. That book is a book for parents that serves as a how-to guide to the latest research on reading instruction. Peter Bryant and Lynette Bradley, Children's Reading Problems: Psychology and Education (1985) (ISBN 0-631-13683-5) discusses several interesting research approaches to children's reading problems--and how to help children avoid or overcome them. The consistent conclusion of research on this issue is that, yes, you can increase your child's phoneme-awareness by the simple activities just suggested, and thus help prevent reading problems. Preschool Prevention of Reading Failure, Richard L. Masland and Mary W. Masland, ed. (1988) (ISBN 0-912752-14-9) presents the proceedings of an Orton Dyslexia Society conference in which several researchers from different countries reported preschool rhyme awareness brought about by "training" children with poetry prevented reading failure, but beginning as late as school was, unfortunately, less effective. Phonological Processes in Literacy: A Tribute to Isabelle Y. Liberman, Susan A. Brady, and Donald P. Shankweiler, ed. (1991) (ISBN 0-8058-0501-X) presents recent research by many different authors on this subject.

Above all, read to your children often. Jim Trelease, The New Read-Aloud Handbook (2nd rev. ed. 1989) (ISBN 0-14-046881-1) is the classic, highly recommended book on this subject. Librarians can help you find a ton of good stuff to read to your children; there are books upon books listing what's good for reading to children at home.

I enjoy posting notes on reading instruction that focus on accentuating the positive, what parents can do to help their children learn to read. This note is one that aims to eliminate--or at least reduce--the negative. Here are suggestions about an environmental influence that APPEARS to be good for reading, but in fact does little to help a child's reading skill.

In the United States, only the generation or two born since the mid-1950s has really grown up with television. As a member of the first TV-reared generation, I have no idea how different family life was before television --but it most certainly was. There are indications that some of the countries that have bested the United States in economic competition in recent years limit TV broadcasting hours by national government edict. That's food for thought. The first time I lived in Taiwan for three years, in the early 1980s, broadcasters were constrained from filling the airwaves with only junk, and sometimes were off the air during what in the United States would be prime viewing hours. Perhaps things are becoming worse here in Taiwan now, as many children can now watch TV twenty-four hours a day, and seem to, and school achievement appears to be beginning to decline here.

Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick, The Superbaby Syndrome: Escaping the Dangers of Hurrying Your Child (1988) (ISBN 0-15-186777-1) has a whole chapter discussing the influence of TV, and especially the Sesame Street program, which is not nearly as educational as its producers once hoped. Jane Healy, Endangered Minds: Why Our Children Don't Think (1990) (ISBN 0-671-67349-1) also has a chapter discussing the available research on TV, some of which is still tentative. After reading what these veteran mothers and diligent researchers have to say, I still think TV is useful for obtaining some forms of information. I own a TV, but don't use it much; political commentary, news, and documentaries are my favorite fare. Even with limited use, I find TV robs me of family communication time and it mesmerizes my son. We no longer own a TV now as we live in Taiwan--alas, my son still watches a lot of TV at his grandparents' apartment, more than he needs to watch to stay informed and acquainted with the Chinese language.

There is no evidence TV is beneficial for anything but seeing breaking news. To keep TV from dominating your life, use it very sparingly. In its place, have conversations with your children. If you're not used to having sustained conversations with your children, there is abundant advice on how to do that (even with kids too young to talk!) in my bibliography on language development of children. (There are many subjects more worthy of family conversation than what happened on the latest TV show.) Other advice on what to do instead of watching TV is found in Marie Winn, The Plug-In Drug: Televisions, Children, and the Family (rev. ed. 1985) (ISBN 0-14-00.7698-0) and Francis M. Lappe, What to Do After You Turn off the TV.

Several parents on the Prodigy® computer network have reported about children with reading difficulties who for years would read very little but would nonetheless enjoy comic books. When I read these reports, I used to think, well, better to read something than nothing. I was quite stunned in the autumn of 1992, shortly after reading such a parent account on Prodigy, to read Hilde L. Mosse, The Complete Handbook of Children's Reading Disorders (1982) (ISBN 0-942311-00-0) pp. 132-37, 275-79, 510. There the late Dr. Mosse presents abundant reasons why, from her medical point of view, the arrangement of print on the pages of comic books and their heavy use of pictures result in reading problems that are difficult to correct if comic books are the main reading matter of a beginning reader. Dr. Mosse had a several decade career as a physician (specializing in pediatrics and then psychiatry) working for the New York City public school system. She also reports grave concern about the content of comic books, based on her many years of interviewing psychologically troubled schoolchildren.

My observation of comic books as a child was that they were an addictive substance. The only time I read a comic book in my beginning reading days was the summer after first grade, when I read one a friend brought outside while we were playing. When I got to the end, I was shocked to see the story hadn't been resolved. I thought, "Hey! The people who wrote this just want me to buy another comic book!" It's a naive view of literature, I admit, to expect every story to be resolved within the covers of one volume, but that cliffhanger nature of most comic books is intentionally designed to "hook" young readers. I still think the hundreds of books other than comic books that kids can read in childhood are of more lasting value. At the very least, it would be prudent both financially and intellectually to encourage interest in other kinds of reading matter at every turn.

Certainly, there are parents who disagree with me on this issue whose children have grown up to be proficient readers. Part or much of the resolution of this issue may be the distinction between the skilled reader, who can read anything (although perhaps without liking everything) and the beginning reader, who is still developing skill. What John Taylor Gatto, 1991 New York State teacher of the year, says on the issue is, "If you want to do damage to someone becoming a powerful reader, just give him a book with pictures--lots of pictures." His years of teaching in public schools in New York City, ending up in Harlem, where he won the state teacher of the year award, give Gatto a certain credibility with me. To balance the competing advice, give children lots of opportunity to read things that are almost pure print until they are competent, confident readers. Then let them read anything that strikes their interest.

Children especially interested in drawing (who seem to be more captivated by comic books than others) can take advantage of the many anthologies of editorial cartoons and newspaper comic strips, not to mention the collected sketches of great artists.

What's a mother to do?

I had an extraordinarily capable first-grade teacher in public school. She succeeded in giving me good training in phonics despite the school district's dumb choice of the Dick and Jane look-say basal readers. Many years, she was assigned to teach "learning-disabled" children (I think the jargon term was different in those days), who usually improved greatly as readers with her teaching. The majority of the adults I know who read best had phonics instruction as kids. Yet some friends on computer networks tell of "phonics" instruction in public school that consists of boring mass drills and worksheets. Worse, most schools teach a scant one phonics sound per week, or no phonics at all. Ever since I began reading public notes on the Prodigy® computer network in June 1992, I have repeatedly seen parents speak of the "hidden phonics" phenomenon. A child gets little or no phonics at school, and the parent becomes concerned after the child attends much school without learning to read. But when the parent begins coaching the child in phonics at home, the child's teacher notices a dramatic improvement in the child's reading, especially compared to other kids in the same class. My conclusion, after seeing the concerns of parents of schoolchildren all over the country and hearing the success stories of parents who taught their children to read at home, is don't take chances by having your child learn to read in school.

You can make sure your child learns to read, by using the efficient phonics instruction method yourself at home. You can make it interesting by discussing what you read with your children, and encouraging them to read and write about subjects of interest to them. You can do phonics instruction even if you didn't get it yourself when you were a kid. In less than a year, your child will be an independent reader, able to self-educate in every subject that has ever been written about.

[Last revision 9 March 2013]

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A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another: and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or the majority of the existing generation in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by a natural tendency to one over the body.
John Stuart Mill On Liberty (1859)
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