In the 1920s, a medical doctor named Samuel T. Orton was studying a new and disturbing epidemic that was being called congenital word blindness. Large numbers of children with normal vision, hearing, and intelligence were mysteriously failing to learn to read. Many of these children then went on to develop emotional and behavior problems. All of these problems were being blamed on some unknown disease of the child’s nervous system.
Dr. Orton found that the explanation was much simpler. He found that the schools were using an ineffective method for teaching children to read. Instead of teaching the children to sound out the words letter by letter (phonics), the schools were asking children to memorize whole words. This latter method has been called sight-reading, look-say, or whole word. It’s the center of the “whole language” educational approach that proved to be so disastrous in California in the late 1980s. When Orton’s “word blind” patients were taught phonics, they quickly learned to read and their emotional and behavior problems went away.
Today, many of our schools are still using that ineffective method of teaching reading, and many of their students are still ending up functionally illiterate. As in the 1920s, the child’s nervous system, rather than the methods of instruction, is usually blamed for the child’s failure to learn. The children are given diagnostic labels such as dyslexia or learning disability. These children may be given “remedial” reading instruction, which usually means just a bigger dose of the method that has already failed.
When the children express boredom or frustration because they can’t keep up with the rest of the class, they are given even more diagnostic labels: attention-deficit disorder and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Children who become so frustrated and angry that they lose all respect for their parents and teachers are given yet another diagnostic label: oppositional defiant disorder. If that problem escalates, the child is given a diagnosis of conduct disorder.
All of this misery is preventable. Up until the 1830s, children were taught to read any alphabetic language by learning the sounds associated with the letters. They were then taught how to combine those sounds into syllables and those syllables into words. This method, which is commonly called phonics, was used in the New England Primer, in Noah Webster’s “Blue Backed Speller,” and in McGuffy’s Readers. In the 1840s, however, Horace Mann insisted that this time-tested method should be abandoned. He said that instead of learning the sounds of the individual letters, children should be taught whole words. Mann’s wife wrote a primer that used this method for reading instruction. The results were so dismal that her primer was quickly discarded.
In the 1890s, however, some educational psychologists started to resurrect the “whole-word” monster. Why? They didn’t want children to learn to read. In an influential book, Edmund Burke Huey argued that it was actually harmful for children to learn to read before they were 10 years old. John Dewey wrote that the emphasis on teaching reading in primary school was a “fetich” and that the emphasis on literature seemed to him to be a perversion. He wasn’t just against literacy; he was against academic learning: “The mere absorption of facts and truths is so exclusively an individual affair that it tends very naturally to pass into selfishness. There is not obvious social motive for the acquirement of mere learning, there is no clear social gain in success thereat” Unfortunately, Dewey was able to get his disciples placed on the faculty of normal schools and teachers’ colleges throughout the country.
Samuel Orton had found that the whole-word method of reading instruction was causing outbreaks of dyslexia in the 1920s. The problem became a pandemic in the 1930s, after the Scott Foresman and Company introduced the “Dick and Jane” readers. Instead of teaching children to sound out any word they encountered, the Dick and Jane readers were intended to teach children to memorize whole words by seeing them over and over. “See Spot run. Run, Spot, run!” These books and their imitators became so widely used that they created a nationwide epidemic of functional illiteracy, even among children who had spent years in school.
In the 1950s, Rudolf Flesch brought this problem to the public’s attention. Flesch had been to law school in his native Austria before he had to flee the Nazis. He then earned a PhD degree in English from Columbia University. Flesch created the Flesch-Kincaid readability tests that are built in to the spell-checker in my word processing program. One of Flesch’s neighbors had asked for his help for her son, who had flunked sixth grade because he couldn’t read. Flesch was shocked that a child of normal intelligence hadn’t learned to read by age 12. Such things never happened in Austria. In working with the boy, Flesch discovered that they boy couldn’t read because no one had taught him how to sound out the letters of the words. Flesch taught the boy phonics, and the boy rapidly caught up with the rest of his class.
In 1955, Flesch published Why Johnny Can’t Read: And What You Can Do About It. The book became a bestseller and unleashed a public outcry. In reaction, the author of the Dick and Jane books founded the International Reading Association, which fought back effectively to suppress phonics and promote whole word. In 1983, Flesh published another book, Why Johnny Still Can’t Read, which explained that nothing had improved since 1955.
Today, millions of Americans are functionally illiterate despite having spent years in school. This problem persists because many schools are still using ineffective methods to teach children to read. The educators are still blaming the failures on the children instead of on their own teaching methods. As a result, children are often being labeled with incorrect psychiatric diagnoses and given unnecessary medications when the real problem is that no one has taught them to read.
I’m not saying that no children ever need medication for a neurological problem. I am saying that many simple, practical problems are easily mistaken for neurological problems. We can solve many of these practical problems without resorting to psychiatric labels or prescription drugs. It’s quite simple. Some children have trouble learning to read because they have trouble seeing or hearing. Others have trouble learning to read because no one taught them phonics. We need to screen all children for vision and hearing problems, give them glasses or hearing aids as necessary, and teach them their ABCs. It sounds simple, and it is.