In August of 2013, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed two new bills that are intended to make it easier to identify students who have dyslexia, which is defined as a neurologic disorder that makes it hard for children to learn to read. Yet dyslexia is not really a brain disease. Scientists have known since the 1920s that dyslexia is the result of using “sight words” instead of phonics for teaching children to read English. We need to use effective methods to teach reading, instead of telling healthy children that there is something wrong with their brains.
The word dyslexia implies difficulty in reading. The word originally meant the loss of the ability to read, in cases of brain injury. Yet today, this supposedly neurologic diagnosis is being applied to the 5 percent to 20 percent of otherwise seemingly normal children who are simply not learning to read in school. Yet is the problem really in the children’s brains or in their school?
To understand dyslexia, you must first understand the difference between a natural ability and an academic skill. Walking and talking are natural abilities. If a five-year-old child cannot walk or talk, you can safely assume that the child has some sort of physical or neurologic problem. But reading, writing, and arithmetic are not natural skills that develop spontaneously. They are academic skills that must be taught and learned. When children who have no other evidence of a brain disorder have poor academic skills, the problem is almost certainly in the schooling, not in the child.
Many of our public schools are using a method of reading instruction that does not work. Our schools should start by teaching the alphabet and then intensive phonics (how to sound words out). Instead, many schools encourage children to memorize whole words as shapes, while paying little or no attention to the sounds that the letters represent. Thus, children are taught to treat English words as if they are corporate logos or Chinese characters. This method has been called the look-say method, the whole-word method, and the use of sight words or Dolch words. It forms the basis of the whole language approach to education. And it has long been known to be disastrous.
This is how the text of a children’s book looks to a child who knows all of the commonly taught sight words but does not know phonics:
The proponents of the whole-word method claim that they want children to “read for meaning” and to enjoy reading. Yet you cannot read for meaning or enjoy reading if you do not know what the printed words say!
The whole-word method was developed in the 1830s as a way to teach deaf children to read. It was then introduced into Massachusetts’ public schools by Horace Mann, the state’s first Secretary of Education. It worked so poorly that in 1845 a group of 31 Boston schoolmasters published a book to protest it. They complained, “We love the Secretary, but we hate his theories. They stand in the way of all substantial education. It is impossible for a sound mind not to hate them.”
Methods of reading instruction are often built into the reading textbooks. The New England Primer from colonial Massachusetts used intensive phonics. So did Noah Webster’s blue-backed speller, which was a bestseller second only to the Bible in the nineteenth century United States. The McGuffey Readers also used intensive phonics. Unfortunately, some major textbook publishers embraced the whole-word method in the early 20th century. Serious epidemics of dyslexia broke out as a result.
In the 1920s, the Rockefeller Foundation sent a medical doctor named Samuel Orton to Iowa to study an epidemic of dyslexia. Orton found that the problem resulted from the use of the whole-word method of reading instruction. The more sight words that a school taught before teaching any phonics, the higher the rate of dyslexia was. Orton found that dyslexia often led to psychological problems. Fortunately, the psychological problems tended to clear up when someone used phonics to teach the child to read.
Despite Orton’s warnings, the sight word method remained entrenched in public schools in the United States. It remained entrenched even after Rudolf Flesch explained the problem in his 1955 bestseller Why Johnny Can’t Read. New Jersey’s Core Curriculum Content Standards for Language Arts Literacy still encourage the use of sight words. Thus, we should not be surprised that dyslexia remains common among our schoolchildren.
Photo by SiSter PhotograPher