The Reading Wars

Millions of seemingly normal people who grew up in the United States cannot read, even though they have spent up to 13 years in public school. Many “experts” blame the students’ parents or even the students’ brains. However, the real problem is in our schools. The teachers in our elementary schools have been trained and often forced to use a bad method of teaching reading. Instead of teaching children to sound words out letter by letter (phonics), teachers are told to ask children to memorize whole words as shapes (sight words).

What happens when you try to memorize words as shapes instead of sounding words out letter by letter? You make exactly the same kinds of mistakes in reading and spelling that “dyslexic” people make. The Web site gives this illustration of how dyslexic people might try to spell “teapot”:

How dyslexics misspell teapot.
The spelling mistakes that are supposedly signs of dyslexia are simply the result of poor grasp of phonics and even poor knowledge of the alphabet.

People with “dyslexia” also tend to scramble the order of the letters in a word. They simply are not sounding the words out from left to right. Dyslexia is not a brain disease. It is just the result of a bad method of teaching reading.

It makes no sense to have people memorize English words as shapes, as if English words were like Chinese characters. Chinese characters were originally based on meaningful drawings. For example, the Chinese character for the word that means “to imprison” is written by drawing a stick figure (the symbol for man) inside a box. I guessed correctly that this character had something to do with prison, even though I cannot speak a word of Chinese.

Chinese character for the word prisoner
The Chinese character for the word prisoner consists of the symbol for man, inside a box.

In contrast, English words are written by using letters that stand for the sounds that make up the spoken word. As a result, we use a 26-letter alphabet rather than meaningful drawings when we write words in English. Note also that the overall shape of an English word can change radically if the word is written in all capital letters, in a strange typeface, or in cursive writing. Notice how much the shape of the word teapot changes as the case or typeface changes.

The word teapot in different typefaces
The same word can look different in upper case or in a strange typeface.

A printed word looks totally different when it is in all capital letters or in a different typeface. Thus, even a familiar “sight word” can become unrecognizable. In contrast, people who have learned phonics can easily adjust to changes in case or typeface. Children who have been taught by the “sight word” method cannot read cursive writing. So it’s no mystery why so many schools are no longer teaching cursive writing!

The sight word method was developed in the 1830s by Thomas Gallaudet, who ran a school for the deaf in Connecticut. Gallaudet believed that children who had been born deaf would not be able to use phonics to learn to read. (Of course, deaf people have to learn phonics in order to read lips!)

Horace Mann introduced the sight word method to the regular public schools in Massachusetts in 1837. Mann’s sight word method worked so badly that the schoolmasters rebelled. In 1844, a group of 31 Boston schoolmasters published a book to explain that Massachusetts’s literacy crisis was the result of the bad teaching method being used in the public schools. Unfortunately, Mann got the last word. He used his influence to get the teachers’ colleges to teach the next generation of teachers to use sight words.

Why Bad Teaching Methods Survive

To understand how and why such a bad teaching method can survive, you need to understand something about the politics of education. Schools are public institutions. As such, schools are created and run through political processes to serve political purposes. Schools can serve good political purposes, such as teaching children to read. However, schools can also be used for bad political purposes. The kind of schooling that a private school provides depends on the political goals of the people who own and run the school. The kind of schooling that a public school provides depends on the political goals of the people who run the society in which that school exists.

If you look at U.S. history, you can find examples of the three basic approaches to schooling:

  • Colonial Massachusetts established free public schools for all children and used an effective method of teaching reading. As a result, practically everyone who grew up in Massachusetts learned to read.
  • The Southern states had a radically different policy. Wealthy Southerners did establish colleges and seminaries for educating the sons and eventually the daughters of prominent families. (Thomas Jefferson was a graduate of the College of William and Mary.) However, the Southern states neglected to provide schooling for poor whites and made it illegal to teach slaves or even free blacks to read and write. As a result, few poor whites and hardly any blacks in the South learned to read.
  • After slavery was abolished, educators found ways to go through the motions of providing Massachusetts-style universal free public education, while achieving Southern-style suppression of education for the poor white children and especially for children of color. One key strategy was the use of ineffective methods for teaching reading. Children who do not learn to read cannot read to learn.

Each of those basic approaches to schooling serves a particular political agenda:

  • The founders of Massachusetts Bay Colony wanted their Commonwealth to serve as a safe and prosperous refuge for Calvinist Protestants within the British Empire. Thus, they wanted everyone to be able to read the Bible and the laws of the Commonwealth.
  • The Southern slave-owners wanted to control their slaves. To do that, the slave-owners had to prevent slaves from learning to read and write. The wealthy slave-owners also wanted to exploit the poor whites. As a result, wealthy Southerners established schools only for the children of the privileged.
  • The big industrialists in the late 19th and early 20th century wanted a productive workforce. However, they did not want the working class or even the middle class to gain bargaining power or political empowerment through education. For that reason, the wealthy elite set up an educational system that provides an excellent education to the privileged but little or no education to the children on the bottom rungs of society. The wealthy industrialists also promoted an ideology of social Darwinism to make everyone believe that the poor people themselves were to blame for the bad schools in poor neighborhoods.

The people who are currently running your society have great power to shape what goes on in your public schools. If you want to bring about some sort of positive change in your society, you must start by reforming the schools. That’s why education has always been a political battleground, and always will be.

Universal Free Public Education in Massachusetts

Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded for a political and religious purpose: to create a peaceful and prosperous refuge for Calvinist Protestants within the British Empire. To ensure peace and prosperity, the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony established the town hall system of direct democracy. In 1647, they established universal free public education with the passage of the Old Deluder, Satan Act:

It being one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures, as in former times by keeping them in an unknown tongue, so in these latter times by persuading from the use of tongues, that so that at least the true sense and meaning of the original might be clouded and corrupted with false glosses of saint-seeming deceivers; and to the end that learning may not be buried in the grave of our forefathers, in church and commonwealth, the Lord assisting our endeavors.

It is therefore ordered that every township in this jurisdiction, after the Lord hath increased them to fifty households shall forthwith appoint one within their town to teach all such children as shall resort to him to write and read, whose wages shall be paid either by the parents or masters of such children, or by the inhabitants in general, by way of supply, as the major part of those that order the prudentials of the town shall appoint; provided those that send their children be not oppressed by paying much more than they can have them taught for in other towns.

And it is further ordered, that when any town shall increase to the number of one hundred families or householders, they shall set up a grammar school, the master thereof being able to instruct youth so far as they may be fitted for the university, provided that if any town neglect the performance hereof above one year that every such town shall pay 5 pounds to the next school till they shall perform this order.

The teachers in colonial Massachusetts used a simple, yet effective method of teaching reading. Children were taught the letters of the alphabet, and then how to combine the sounds of the letters into syllables. At first, hornbooks were used for teaching reading.

A hornbook showing the alphabet, a syllabary, and the Lord’s Prayer. Courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

In the 1680s, a publisher in Boston introduced a reading textbook designed specifically for use in Massachusetts. It was called The New England Primer. Thanks to the universal schooling and the use of an effective method for teaching reading, Massachusetts quickly achieved practically universal literacy.

The New England Primer was used to teach reading, along with a Calvinist form of Christianity.

Besides teaching reading, The New England Primer taught a Calvinist form of Christianity. By the time of the Revolutionary War, Calvinists were starting to lose their grip on power in New England. After the United States achieved its independence, there was a demand for a reading textbook that promoted nationalism rather than Calvinist orthodoxy as a unifying force. In 1790, Noah Webster published An American Spelling Book, which came to be called the blue-backed speller. Webster’s book used phonics for teaching reading. It also introduced some spelling reforms, for the purpose of creating a uniquely American form of the English language. Throughout the nineteenth century, Webster’s blue-backed speller was a major best-seller in the United States, second only to the Bible.

Webster's Blue-Backed Speller was used to teach reading and spelling.
Webster’s Blue-Backed Speller was used to teach reading and spelling.

Education Ruins a Slave

The founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony had political reasons for promoting universal literacy. In contrast, the ruling class in the South had political reasons for suppressing literacy, particularly for slaves. In the wake of a major slave uprising in 1739, the South Carolina legislature passed a law declaring all “Negroes” to be absolute and permanent slaves. According to that law, slaves could not leave their master’s plantation without written permission. To prevent slaves from writing their own passes, the law forbade anyone to teach a slave to write. As a result, practically no black people learned how to read and write. The same pattern was repeated throughout the South. The Southern states also neglected to provide primary education for poor whites.

After a slave uprising called the Stono Rebellion, South Carolina passed a law that, among other things, made it illegal to teach black people to read.

After a slave uprising called the Stono Rebellion, South Carolina made it illegal to teach any black person to write. Similar laws were eventually passed throughout the South.

Segregation and Suppression

Slavery was abolished in many Northern states before the Civil War. It was abolished in the last remaining states at the end of the Civil War. The ratification of the 13th Amendment on December 7, 1865, made slavery unconstitutional throughout the United States. Once there were no longer any slaves, the laws against teaching slaves to read became void. Laws against teaching free black people to read were rendered unconstitutional by the 14th Amendment, which was ratified on July 9, 1868.

During the period of Reconstruction that followed the Civil War, large numbers of black people in the South learned to read and write. Eventually, however, the ruling class in the South figured out another way to suppress education for black people: segregation.

State and local governments went through the motions of providing schools for black children, but the black children’s schools were separate from the schools for white children. The black children’s schools got much less funding, and often they were in session only when there was no field work to be done. This suppression of education was politically motivated. Up until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, literacy tests were used to keep black people from registering to vote.

In 1957, the Supreme Court unanimously decided in Brown v the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, that segregation in the public schools is unconstitutional. This decision put an end to “de jure” (by law) segregation. Nevertheless, “de facto” segregation continues, particularly in the North. Jonathan Kozol wrote his 1967 book Death at an Early Age: The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools about the racial segregation and inequality in the public schools of Boston, Massachusetts.

Dumbing Down the Schools

As time went on, ordinary taxpayers became willing to spend ever larger amounts of money on their local public schools. The result of the larger school budgets should have been higher academic achievements. Yet some powerful people did not want working class children (white or black) or even middle-class white children to get “too much” education.

Wealthy industrialists supported colleges and universities because they needed some white-collar workers: scientists and accountants and so on. Yet they did not want the people who worked in their cotton fields, coal mines, and factories to learn too much about the world. To suppress education among the general population, some philanthropists persuaded the teachers’ colleges to promote a method of reading instruction that does not work. In her semiautobiographical novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee described how these teaching methods were being introduced into the public schools in Alabama in the 1930s. The narrator of the story is Scout, a young girl who was based on Lee herself. In the novel, Scout’s older brother Jem explains why Scout’s first-grade teacher, Miss Caroline, is behaving so strangely:

Our teacher says Miss Caroline’s introducing a new way of teaching. She learned about it in college. It’ll be in all the grades soon. You don’t have to learn much out of books that way—it’s like if you wanta learn about cows, you go milk one, see? … It’s called the Dewey Decimal System!”

… Having never questioned Jem’s pronouncements, I [Scout] saw no reason to begin now. The Dewey Decimal System consisted, in part, of Miss Caroline waving cards at us on which were printed “the,” “cat,” “rat,” “man,” and “you.” No comment seemed to be expected of us, and the class received these impressionistic revelations in silence.

Jem was mistaken. Clearly, Miss Caroline’s teaching methods had nothing to do with the Dewey Decimal System, which was Melvil Dewey’s system for shelving library books. Rather, the methods that Miss Caroline learned in college were based on the educational theories of John Dewey. Lee showed that these new teaching methods were ineffective. Scout notes that many of the children were repeating first grade because they had not learned to read the year before.

To Kill a Mockingbird shows how the use of bad teaching methods turns public schools into a means of class-based oppression. Scout, like other children of educated parents, learned to read and write at home. Children of illiterate parents often did not learn to read at all. People who cannot read cannot go on to study the liberal arts—the studies that are appropriate for free people, as opposed to slaves.

Why would John Dewey, who was considered to be the foremost philosopher of education in the United States, have been so enthusiastic about the sight word method, a method that defies common sense and had long been known to be ineffective? Dewey simply did not think that reading was important. Dewey argued that the focus on teaching children to read in primary school was “a fetich.” He wrote,

The plea for the predominance of learning to read in early school-life because of the great importance attaching to literature seems to me a perversion.

John Dewey’s educational theories were influential because Dewey was being supported by wealthy and powerful people, mainly the Rockefellers’ General Education Board. As a result, Dewey’s sight-word method of teaching reading was heavily promoted by teachers’ colleges throughout the United States. The sight-word method was even built into the reading textbooks that were sold to school districts throughout United States. Yet the Rockefellers had to have known, from personal experience, that the sight-word method is a disaster. Not only had the Rockefellers funded the research that proved that the sight-word approach is the cause of dyslexia, but four of John D. Rockefeller Jr.‘s sons had serious problems with reading because they attended the Lincoln School, the laboratory school that was run by Columbia Teachers College. Even as an adult, Nelson Rockefeller, who served as Governor of New York and later Vice President of the United States, could not read well enough to use a teleprompter while giving a speech.

Nelson Rockefeller
Nelson Rockefeller and some of his brothers went to a “progressive” school that failed to teach them to read.

Thanks to their “progressive” education at a primary school run by the Columbia Teachers College, Nelson Rockefeller and three of his brothers had lifelong problems with reading. The brother and sister who were educated elsewhere had no trouble with reading.

Many professors at the teachers’ colleges have claimed that the sight-word method teaches children to “read for meaning,” while phonics just teaches children to “grunt and spit” at the page. Yet the sight word method works so poorly that many children end up unable to read at all. In contrast, when first graders are taught intensive phonics, they generally learn to read real stories on their own halfway through their first-grade year.

In 1995, forty Massachusetts residents (who also happened to be among the world’s top linguists, psychologists, and psycholinguists) wrote a letter to the Massachusetts Commissioner of Education. They were concerned that an alternative to phonics was going to be incorporated into the state’s standards for reading instruction. In a cover letter, two of the signers wrote:

Both empirical research and common sense teach us some elementary facts about reading and reading pedagogy. Written language is a way of notating speech. The basic principles of alphabetic writing systems guarantee that letters and letter groups correspond quite well (even in English) to the fundamental units of spoken language. To become a skilled reader, a learner must master this notational system, learning how the sounds and oral gestures of language correspond to letters and letter groups. Once this happens, the same system that “constructs meaning” from spoken language will quite naturally “construct meaning” from written language and the learner will be a reader. Learning how to decode the speech sounds notated by the writing system (“phonics”) is fundamental to reading.

How the Cure for “Dyslexia” Has Been Suppressed

In the 1920s, Dr. Samuel Orton showed that Dewey’s sight-word method is a recipe for dyslexia. Nevertheless, the textbook publishing industry heavily promoted the use of sight-word based “readers” in the 1930s, including the famous Dick and Jane books.

The Dick and Jane books had dull stories that used the same words repeatedly, to drill the sight words into the child’s memory.

The sight-word method uses pictures to help the child guess the words. It relies on sheer repetition to drill a few common sight words into the child’s memory. That’s why the meaningless “stories” they contain are not worth reading. Children who seem to be able to “read” these books are often baffled by real storybooks, which have more words and fewer pictures.

Once children learn the basic rules of phonics, they can sound out tens of thousands of words. In contrast, children who are being taught by the sight-word method learn a few hundred words through a long and boring process of sheer repetition. That fact explains why the text in the Dick and Jane books was so maddeningly repetitive.

The proponents of the whole language method claim that they want to enable children to enjoy literature. In reality, many of their students end up unable to read anything but the “readers,” which are books with a tiny, controlled vocabulary and lots of pictures to enable the children to guess the words they cannot read. These “readers” fool the child’s parents into thinking that the child is learning to read. However, this ruse cannot last forever. Eventually, the child will have to start reading real books, without pictures. At that point, the parents will be told that the child has a learning disability because of some defect in the child’s brain.

The advocates of the sight word methods of reading instruction claim that they are teaching children to “read for meaning.” Yet a child cannot understand the meaning of a printed word if he or she does not know what the printed word actually says. Proponents of sight-word approaches often urge teachers and parents to teach children to recognize 220 commonly used words (Dolch words) and 95 common nouns as sight words. Unfortunately, even a child who manages to memorize all of those words but cannot use phonics cannot read even a simple children’s book. Here’s the opening paragraph of a famous children’s book, but with everything but those common sight words rendered in Greek letters. Can you even figure out what book it is?
Of course, some children eventually learn to read, even if the sight word method is used in their school. Either the parents teach the child phonics at home, or the child simply notices that letters stand for sounds and then figures out how to sound words out on his or her own. (I figured out the letter-sound relationships on my own when I was four years old.) The other children remain “learning disabled,” even though they seem perfectly normal in all other respects.

In 1955, Rudolf Flesch’s bestseller explained that children were not being taught how to sound the words out when they read.

In 1955, Rudolf Flesch wrote a best-selling book Why Johnny Can’t Read, which explained that the use of sight words instead of phonics was the reason why so many children in the United States were failing to learn to read in school. The public was outraged by Flesch’s revelations. In response, William S. Gray, who had made a lot of money as the author of the “Dick and Jane” textbooks, which used the sight-word method, founded the International Reading Association, whose initial purpose was to discredit Flesch and to stop the reforms Flesch recommended.

When Flesch published this follow-up book more than 20 years later, nothing had changed.

The promoters of the sight-word method fought hard to discredit Flesch and stifle his message. Flesch’s book Why Johnny Still Can’t Read, published in 1983, explained that the sight-word method was still being used. It is still widely used today.

Gray’s counterattack was successful. In 1983, Flesch published a follow-up book (Why Johnny Still Can’t Read), which explained why the problem had not been solved. Today, many public schools in the United States are still using some variation of the sight-word method, and a huge proportion of the children are failing to learn to read. Many parents have solved this problem for their own children by tutoring them at home, sending them to a private school, or home-schooling the children. But it’s high time that we solved this problem so that all of the children in the United States learn to read.

Teach Children (and Adults) to Read

If you want a child to do well in school, you must ensure that the child learns to read well. If you live in a neighborhood with a bad school, you can teach your child to read at home. However, your child will fare much better if you improve his or her school, to ensure that your child is growing up in a culture that promotes and values education. If you belong to a church or civic organization, you can set up a literacy program to teach children and adults to read.

Many children with reading problems simply have a poor grasp of the alphabet. My friend Don Potter always begins his assessment of a child’s reading problems by giving the child a piece of paper and a pencil and having the child write out the alphabet. The child’s parents are usually stunned to discover that the child cannot do that simple task.

Children must be able to recognize the letters of the alphabet before they start studying phonics. If the child can write the alphabet, this test can reveal whether the child understands phonics. It provides a list of simple but unpredictable sentences with no pictures or other contextual clues. Children and adults who do poorly on this test need instruction in phonics, such as with Samuel Blumenfeld’s Alpha-Phonics or with Hazel Logan Loring’s Reading Made Easy With Blend Phonics for First Grade. Here’s an explanation from my friend Don Potter on why he promotes Blend Phonics, which is free 25-page book that provides a simple yet powerful method for teaching reading.