|It's many years overdue, but the scandal of widespread illiteracy has
finally become a topic of general discussion and debate, from local
newspapers to network TV news. Americans are at last being told the
tragic fact that the public schools are failing to teach children how to
Our largest and trendiest state suddenly forced the facts of
illiteracy into the national news stream. California came in last in
national fourth-grade reading tests, set up a state task force to find
out why, held legislative hearings, discovered that the state's Whole
Language method is a disaster, and earmarked $100 million for new
textbooks and teacher training to switch the schools back to phonics.
In order to receive their share of the money, schools will have to
give students "systematic explicit phonics instruction, with
phonemic awareness, sound-symbol relationships, and decoding."
Governor Pete Wilson is even requiring that school districts spend their
federal Goals 2000 money on reading instruction.
Wilson's spokesman, Sean Walsh, was blunt. "Whole Language was
an utter failure. Our curriculum taught to kindergarten to
third-graders, quite frankly, stinks."
The Whole Language system teaches children to guess at words by
looking at the pictures on the page, to memorize a few dozen frequently
used words, to skip over words they don't know, to substitute words that
seem to fit, and to predict the words they think will come next. The
child who is taught those bad habits, instead of how to sound out the
syllables, will never be able to read big words or become a good reader.
Many schools give high grades and happy report cards to children who
are good at guessing and memorizing words, so parents don't realize that
their children are being taught to guess instead of to read. Self-esteem
is a higher priority than literacy.
A federal agency called the National Assessment of Educational
Progress (NAEP) publishes what is called the Reading Report Card for the
Nation and the States. Its recently released report on the 1994 test
given to 140,000 students in grades 4, 8 and 12 in public and private
schools proves that schoolchildren's reading skills are not only bad,
but are getting worse.
Comparing 1992 and 1994, the NAEP results show a significant decline
in the percentage of students scoring at or above the "proficient
level" and at or above the "basic level," and a
significant increase in the percentage of pupils performing below the
"basic level." The NAEP tests also show a lack of any positive
results from the expensive federal Title I program for the
How did it happen that the entire public school system abandoned
phonics and substituted a guessing system? It's rather easy to date and
track the Whole Language system from its official adoption by the state
of California in 1987, because California is a model for other states
that want to be "progressive."
But Whole Language was not a new idea in 1987; it was just a new name
for the system that was already in widespread use called "whole
word" or "look-and-say." The mystery as to how that
stupid system swept the country, starting in the late 1930s, was
revealed in a report aired the first week of June on National Public
"Look-and-say" came to dominate the schools as a result of
a sophisticated marketing plan carried out by Scott Foresman, the
publishers of the Dick and Jane series of elementary school
readers. Scott Foresman sent slick salesmen to every school district to
demonstrate how easily children could be taught to "read" the
inane See Dick run stories that had color illustrations of Dick,
Jane and Spot (the dog) doing whatever the one-syllable words described.
By the 1950s, the Dick and Jane readers were, as Newsweek now
tells us, "ubiquitous." Rudolf Flesch's 1955 landmark book, Why
Johnny Can't Read, fully exposed the fact that this system is a
cheat on everyone.
The typical first-grader already knows the meaning of thousands of
big words, such as hamburger, basketball, birthday, toothbrush, and even
hippopotamus and Philadelphia. But the child will not be able to read
those words unless he is taught the skill of sounding out the syllables.
That's what we call phonics.
It is encouraging to see that California is making a massive attempt
to abandon the failed Whole Language system and switch to the proven
method of phonics. But changing the educational system today will be
like trying to change the course of an aircraft carrier with a rowboat.
Parents who want to make sure that their children are not handicapped
by the dumbed-down methods used in most public schools today should
assume the task of teaching their own children how to read. It's easy to
do if you use intensive, systematic phonics. I did it with my six
children, and I urge all parents to do likewise.
June 20, 1996