Phonics Is Important. But There Is No “Science of Reading”

by Diane Ravitch from her blog

One of my grandsons sent me an article about the national rush to mandate “the science of reading,” and it caused me to explain briefly (without boring him) the background of the latest panacea.

I didn’t tell him the history of the “reading wars,” which I researched and wrote about in Left Back (2000). I didn’t tell him that reading instruction has swung back and forth between the phonetic method and the “whole word” method since the introduction of public schooling in the first quarter of the 19th century. Horace Mann opposed phonics. But the popular McGuffey readers of that century were phonetic. In 1930, the Dick-and-Jane readers were introduced, and they swept the country. Unlike the McGuffey readers, they featured pictures of children (white and suburban), they used simple words that could be easily recognized, and they were bright and colorful. By the 1950s, Dick and Jane style readers were used in about 80% of American schools. They relied on the whole word method, also know as look-say.

In 1955, this national consensus was disrupted by the publication of Rudolf Flesch’s wildly popular book, Why Johnny Can’t Read, which castigated the look-say method and urged a revival of phonics. The fervor for phonics then is similar to the fervor now.

But the debate about which method was best quickly became politicized. “Bring back phonics” was the battle cry of very conservative groups, who lambasted the whole-word method as the conspiratorial work of liberal elites. Phonics thus was unfairly tarnished as a rightwing cause.

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