All Commentary
Saturday, August 1, 1998

Why Our Children Can’t Read and What We Can Do About It

A Plethora of Information About the Literacy Crisis

Samuel Blumenfeld has written extensively on education. His books include Is Public Education Necessary? (1981) and The Whole Language/OBE Fraud (1996).

This is a very valuable and useful book, especially for those of us in the reading instruction field who have been engaged in a long, drawn-out war with the teaching establishment. The first shots of that war were fired in 1955 when Rudolf Flesch wrote his famous Why Johnny Can’t Read and What You Can Do About It, in which he told parents that the reason Johnny couldn’t read was that he had not been taught to read in the proper phonetic way.

Flesch explained how in the early 1930s, the professors of education changed the way reading was taught in American schools. They threw out the alphabetic-phonics method, which is the proper way to teach children to read an alphabetic writing system, and replaced it with a new whole-word, look-say, or “sight” method that taught children to read English words as if they were whole configurations, like Chinese characters. Flesch observed that when you impose an ideographic teaching method on an alphabetic writing system, you cause symbolic confusion that leads to reading failure.

Needless to say, the professors of education paid no attention to Flesch. Instead, they formed the International Reading Association, which became the citadel of whole-word pedagogy. As a result, America began to experience the strange phenomenon of declining literacy while having more children spend more time in school at greater taxpayer expense than ever before. By 1993, the U.S. Department of Education reported that 90 million Americans—half the adult population—were considered borderline illiterates.

Meanwhile, the professors were also busy revising their whole-word teaching methods. Dick and Jane metamorphosed into “psycholinguistics,” the notion that reading is a “psycholinguistic guessing game,” which then evolved into what is now known as “whole language,” a concept of reading that defies all logic and common sense.

The basic premise behind whole language is that children learn to read as naturally as they learn to speak. Thus, they really need very little, if any, formal instruction. Of course, if this were true, there would be no illiterates! But what is even crazier is the definition of reading given by three whole-language professors in their book Whole Language, What’s the Difference? (1991). They write: “From a whole language perspective, reading . . . is a process of generating hypotheses in a meaning-making transaction in a sociohistorical context. . . . This view of reading implies that there is no single ‘correct’ meaning for a given text, only plausible meanings.” Amazing.

And now we come to the present book by Diane McGuinness, who enters the fray as a “cognitive developmental psychologist.” Linguistics is considered a branch of cognitive science, and it was pioneer linguist Leonard Bloomfield of Yale University who first focused the attention of linguists on the way reading was being taught in American schools. In a critical essay published in the April and May 1942 issues of the Elementary English Review, Bloomfield contrasted the differences between an alphabetic writing system and an ideographic one, insisting that the former must be taught phonetically. He explained that the spoken language was composed of a limited number of identifiable, distinctive sounds, which he called phonemes, each of which is represented in the written language by a grapheme. In teaching a child to read, it was necessary to teach the phoneme-grapheme correspondences. This, by the way, is the basic principle behind Bloomfield’s own reading program, Let’s Read, which was published in 1961.

McGuinness accepts Bloomfield’s linguistic views, which were later further developed and modified by the pioneering work of Isabelle Liberman. Bloomfield believed that children should not be taught the letter sounds in isolation. But Liberman discovered that having a phonemic awareness, an ability to segment words into their individual phonemes, was a crucial factor in becoming a good phonetic reader. Thus, McGuinness’s own approach to teaching reading, based on Liberman’s findings, relies heavily on teaching the phonemes of the language as the first step in learning to read. McGuinness insists that her approach should not be confused with traditional phonics, of which she is somewhat critical. But what she doesn’t take into account is the fact that many reading programs that call themselves phonics are anything but true intensive, systematic phonics, the kind responsible for the high literacy of the past.

Because McGuinness has had to deal with children with severe reading disorders, she became acutely aware of the whole-language method that was causing those disorders. The result is that this book contains probably the most devastating critique of whole-language philosophy written to date. She believes that the scientific evidence is so overwhelmingly against whole language that the educators will simply have to change their ways. We earnestly hope that McGuinness is right.

She must be praised for giving us not only a new scientific approach to teaching reading, but also a plethora of information about the literacy crisis, much fascinating historical background on the development of alphabetic writing, and a critical look at such disabilities as dyslexia and attention-deficit disorder, which she asserts are caused by faulty teaching methods. This is a book that can inspire much-needed change if the educators are open to such change. But whether or not the educators change, I believe that many parents and teachers can gain greatly by reading this very honest book.