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Teaching Reading: Why Isn’t It Working? Part 1

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An excerpt from Reading Kingdom’s book, “The Reading Remedy.”

Four processes are seen as central to attaining literacy: two (decoding and comprehension) are associated with reading, and two (spelling and composing) with writing. Don’t be put off if these terms are unfamiliar. As you will see, their meaning is straightforward.

In order to read, you must be able to take the letters on a page (for example, c-a-t) and convert them into words (cat). The term for that process is decoding. Having decoded the words, you then have to figure out the message they are conveying. The term for that is comprehension. The two processes are independent of one another. For example, you can easily decode, or read, this string of words: “house if sleep between go red not lost,” but you cannot comprehend these words because they do not make sense within this string.

Writing offers a comparable set of terms. In order to write you must be able to take the sounds of words you speak and convert them into letters. The term for that is spelling. You also have to be able to take the words you spell and combine them into meaningful messages that others can read. The term for that is composing, or writing.

In general, reading receives more time and effort in school instruction than does writing. However, poor achievement permeates both—with writing generally showing even more serious deficiencies than reading.

Looking Back Before Looking Ahead

Despite all the recent attention it has been getting, the issue of reading failure is far from new. Sixty years ago an “aroused parent,” Rudolph Flesch (1955), wrote a book that took the country by storm, Why Johnny Can’t Read: And What You Can Do about It. In it, Flesch railed against the teaching establishment. He made the astounding claim that there were “no remedial reading cases” in most European countries and that there “never was a problem anywhere in the world until the United States,” around 1925, switched its method of teaching from the phonics instruction to the whole word method. In the whole word approach, children were taught through look and say techniques to recognize, or decode, whole words. Flesch likened this approach to reading “English as if it were Chinese,” as if each word were represented by a different symbol.

Though attention getting, Flesch’s claims about the previous absence of failure were unfounded. The widespread testing needed to substantiate them simply did not exist generations back and would likely have contradicted his claim if they had. Still, the book struck a chord in the many parents who then, as now, were grappling with the ordeal of children struggling with reading. More to the point, Flesch offered a clear, simple answer: go back to basics, and teach children to decode with a solid phonics approach.

Phonics is now the central method of reading education used in our nation. Its hold is so pervasive that the term is almost synonymous with the teaching of reading. Although many variants exist, at their core is the idea that reading is based on sounding out the letters in words. Flesch himself set out a three-part program that starts by teaching children that “single letters . . . stand for single sounds,” for example, t = tuh, b = buh, and so forth. His program then moves on to more complicated issues, such as the sounds that are “spelled by two-letter or three-letter combinations” (such as ow as in cow, ay as in say, chr as in Christmas), and finally to the idea that “some of the letters do not spell one sound but two.” For example, the a in a word like cat is pronounced very differently from the a in a word like watch. If you’ve seen your child, or some other child, at the start of reading instruction, you’ll find these ideas familiar because they are largely the ones used in classrooms around the nation.

Flesch’s views were strengthened and given academic respectability with the publication in 1967 of Jean Chall’s Learning to Read: The Great Debate. In this book, Chall, a professor at Harvard, evaluated the phonics and whole word positions and, in the end, came down firmly on the side of phonics as a more effective way of teaching reading. Under these pressures, phonics instruction reassumed its long-standing role at center stage. The only problem was that the failure did not stop.

No one should have expected that it would. Despite Flesch’s claims, whole word teaching had not appeared out of the blue. It had emerged as an effort to stem the failures generated by phonics. Unfortunately, the solution had not worked. Whole word teaching proved to be even more ineffective than phonics. That did not mean that phonics teaching was effective. It was just better than the only available alternative.

To be continued in our next post…

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