The phonics revolution
Today, we are in the midst of a revolution. It is one of the most crucial of this century. It doesn't hit the mainstream media very often, and yet the outcome of this revolution will spell success or defeat for welfare reform, reducing delinquency, improving our competitive edge among the industrial nations of the world, and very likely the survival of our Republic. If the solution is so simple, then why isn't it implemented now? That is a fair question, and it deserves an answer. There are ten reasons why I believe the education system which perpetuates illiteracy is almost impossible to change. Here they are: (18)An effective answer to illiteracy
The public education monopoly is not held accountable for results.
There is an interlocking protective network, of teacher educators, teacher organizations and their publications, state and federal departments of education, school officials and publishers of school textbooks, that is exceedingly difficult for outside criticism to penetrate.
There is general agreement, with few exceptions, within this network that direct and systematic teaching of reading is ineffective, harmful and an insult to learners' self-esteem, dignity and freedom.
There is general ignorance about what experimental research has proven to be the benefits of teaching direct, systematic phonics.
There are many in the network who consider systematic teaching of phonics information as a "conservative political plot." There is abhorrence among many in the network for any teaching seen as "traditional."
There continues to be a lack of utilization of the findings of experimental research, which overwhelmingly support direct, systematic phonics.
There is a denial among those in the network that there is a crisis of illiteracy in America.
There has been no easy nor regular accommodation from the courts for grievances over malpractice in reading instruction.
The monopoly over teacher education allows reading teachers to be wrongly trained with impunity.
Most Americans won't take the time to understand the deeper roots of illiteracy, but they will act with their feet. During the past decade parents have increasingly been teaching their children to read before they enter school or as a supplement after school begins. Products like Hooked on Phonics, The Phonics Game, Sing, Spell, Read and Write, Action Reading and many others, have taken the country by storm. And yes, children are learning to read using these programs. That, despite the attack against Hooked on Phonics by the Federal Trade Commission in 1995. (19)
States like California, stung by the effect of falling literacy rates, have taken action to reverse the trend by passing legislation to require that explicit, systematic phonics be taught in their elementary classrooms. (20) Texas, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Florida, Virginia, Maryland, Massachusetts and Ohio are among the leaders in requiring direct phonics instruction as a first step in teaching children to read. (21)
There are several large roadblocks that remain if we are to return some common sense instructional practices to our schools. Most important is the denial by the education industry that there is a problem. (22) Second is the ignorance and unwillingness of teacher trainers to apply the research available today, to make sure that any prospective teacher of reading is well grounded in the knowledge of the alphabetic principles and how to teach these decoding skills to all first-grade children.
Can all children be taught to read successfully? Yes they can. Ask the teachers and parents at Barclay school in Baltimore, Maryland. As John Leo of U.S. News and World Report describes it: "Barclay is a rigorous, back-to-basics public school, that combines confidence building with high expectations. It gets results that elite private schools would be proud of, and it gets them from inner-city students, 85 percent of them black, 60 to 65 percent from single-parent homes. Barclay's approach is a rebuke to the reigning theories at our education schools. Barclay ignores "whole-language" theory. It believes in "direct instruction" (a dismissive educational term for actual teaching). It doesn't build self-esteem by excusing or praising failure. It ignores "learning strategies and multicultural claptrap. All it does is churn out bright, achieving kids." (23)
Or ask Thaddeus Lott, Principal of Wesley Elementary School in Houston, Texas. (24) When I visited his school last year, almost all of the kindergarten children were reading, and understanding what they read. They eagerly clamored to read their books to me as I observed their class. Almost all of the children in Wesley Elementary come from the same general population described in Barclay School in Baltimore, Maryland. Many more parents from more affluent areas of Houston move to the Wesley School District, just so their children can get a solid foundation in reading. I have visited schools in Washington, DC, Chicago, IL, Los Angeles, CA, and many other pockets of instructional sanity, and the results are consistently successful. Children can read with fluency and comprehension. Teachers are satisfied that they are truly professional. Parents are happy, but of more importance, the children have a chance to reach their highest potential in life without the secret shame of illiteracy.
Let me offer a less costly, and more effective answer. I have here a twenty-five page booklet called Blend Phonics (27) written by Hazel Loring, a master teacher born in 1902, who taught under both "whole word" and phonics systems. The legacy she has left us is powerful. Within the pages of this little booklet is the cure for illiteracy as we begin the twenty-first century. She writes:
"I found I could provide this tool adequately in its simplest form to my school children in daily half-hour sessions in the first grade. By starting in September, children have gained a working knowledge of the 44 phonetic elements in the English language and an overall concept of its basic structure before winter vacation. While their knowledge may not be 100 percent perfect, it will be sufficient so that they can, with the teacher's continuing help as needed, utilize the phonic key to unlock 85 percent of the words in the English language. (The other 15 percent, while largely regular, contain phonetic irregularities which sometimes require a little extra help from the teacher.) By the time the 44 units had been completed, the children had the feeling of security that comes from knowing that the language was basically an ordered, dependable system. As we came to words in our books that contained irregularities, they were welcomed as something surprising, unique, different and thus easy to remember."
"Blend Phonics is just about the easiest lesson to teach that can be imagined. No preparation is needed (except to have at hand a copy of the groups of words as given in the lesson plans); no papers to correct for this phase of the reading lesson; no compulsory tests to be given. The children themselves do most of the work by making up sentences, and thus they learn by doing. It's easy; it's inexpensive and it works!"
If every pre-service reading teacher, every reading supervisor, every kindergarten, first- and second-grade teacher in America had the information contained in Hazel Loring's 25-page booklet and taught it this fall, there would be such a dramatic decrease in illiteracy in this country that the national media would be forced to take note.
One final story: Once there was an Army Commander named Naaman. (28) He was a powerful General, but he had leprosy. One day one of his Hebrew servant girls said to Naaman's wife, "If only my master would see the Prophet who is in Samaria. He would cure him of his leprosy!" Naaman asked his master the King if it would be all right to seek out the Prophet. The King readily agreed.
When Naaman found the Prophet, to his surprise and anger the Prophet told him, "Go, wash seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored." He was furious that the Prophet hadn't the courtesy to at least examine him, and see how to treat his disease. He fumed, "I could have washed in the rivers near home. They are much cleaner than this muddy Jordan."
Naaman's servants went to him and said, "If the Prophet had told you to do some great thing, wouldn't you have done it? Naaman thought about it, and after grumbling some more, he found a clump of trees where the Prophet couldn't see him, and with turned-up nose and glowering countenance, dipped himself seven times in the muddy Jordan River. When he came up for the seventh time, his skin was as clear and clean as that of a youth. He was ecstatic. He rushed back to the Prophet's house and presented the gifts he had brought. But the old Prophet wouldn't take it. He just said, "Go in peace, my son. And God be with you." There is much more to the story, but the moral is this:
When there is a simple solution to an insoluble problem, we must not let pride prevent us from getting the help we need.
For the sake of our children, let's not let another year go by without applying to reading instruction what common sense and years of research tell us. We don't have a moment to lose.
1. Digest of Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, 1994, p.6.
2. 1994 NAEP READING: A First Look, National Center for Education Statistics, Highlights, 1995, p.1.
3. Adult Literacy in America, National Center for Education Statistics, 1993, pp.xiii-xxi.
4. N.J.Perry, "Saving our Schools: How Business Can Help," Fortune, November 7,1988, pp.42-56.
5. Heather Mac Donald, "Why Johnny Can't Write,"(The Public Interest), #120, Summer 1995, p.3.
6. Steve Bates, "Reading and Writing Renew Man's Hope," The Washington Post, (11/6/95) p. B1.
7. David Diringer, The Alphabet (Hutchinson, London, 1968).
8. Margaret Bishop, The ABC's And All Their Tricks (Mott Media, 1986), pp. 6-8.
9. Marilyn Jager Adams, Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994) p.21.
10. Hazel Loring, Reading Made Easy with Blend Phonics for the First Grade (Logan Institute for Educational Excellence,
1980), p. 2.
11. Peter A. West, Blackwell Collection on Noah Webster (Indiana State University Library,1985).
12. Miriam Balmuth, The Roots of Phonics (Baltimore: York Press, 1992), p.190.
13. Samuel Blumenfeld, The New Illiterates (Arlington House, 1973), p. 137.
14. William S. Gray, The New Streets and Roads, (Scott, Foresman and Company,1956), p.316. 15. Rudolph Flesch, Why Johnny Can't Read, (Harper Collins, 1955), p 74.
16. Copies of unpublished letters to a friend, (The National Right to Read Foundation, Washington, DC, 1996).
17. Keith Stanovich, "Romance and Reality," The Reading Teacher, Vol. 47, No. 4, December 1993/January 1994, p. 28.
18. Patrick Groff, "The Political Agenda of Whole Language Reading Instruction," California Chapter Briefings, (The National Right to Read Foundation, Washington, DC, 1996), p.6.
19. "The Federal Trade Commission vs. Phonics," The Right to Read Report,(The National Right to Read Foundation,
January/February, 1995), p. 2.
20. "Teaching Reading," Reading Program Advisory, (State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Sacramento, CA. 1996). 21. "The Uprising Continues," The Right to Read Report, (The National Right to Read Foundation, Washington, DC, March/April 1996), p. 3.
22. David Berliner, The Manufactured Crisis (Addison Wesley, 1995), passim.
23. J. Leo, "Shakespeare vs. Spiderman," U.S.News and World Report, April 1, 1996, p. 61.
24. D. Hager,"Thaddeus Lott," Destiny Magazine, October, 1994, pp. 12-17.
25. Y. Center et al, "An Evaluation of Reading Recovery," Reading Research Quarterly, Vol. 30, No 2, April/May/June 1995, pp. 240-263.
26. Patrick Groff, "A Critique of Reading Recovery," California Chapter Briefings, (The National Right to Read Foundation, Washington, DC, October 20, 1995).
27. Hazel Loring, "Reading Made Easy with Blend Phonics for the First Grade," Logan Institute for Educational Excellence, 1980.
28. "The Story of Naaman," The Bible, II Kings 5:1-20.