Why Did the Educators in the U.S. Abandon Phonics?

In 1955, Rudolf Flesch published a book titled Why Johnny Can’t Read, and What You Can Do About It. Flesch explained that the only sensible way to teach anyone to read English, or any alphabetic language, is to teach them the relationships between letters and sounds, then teach them how to combine those sounds into words. He called it intensive phonics. That’s the method that was used in Colonial America and was still being used on the European continent. That’s why the schoolchildren in Europe tended to be about two years ahead of American schoolchildren academically. Yes, it’s harder to learn to read English than to learn to read Spanish or German or French. Flesch explained that the British compensated by starting their reading instruction a year earlier than everyone else.

Flesch explained that all of the research—yes, every single study published up until that time—solidly supported the phonics approach. Not even one study provided any scientific support for the “look-and-say” method, which has also been called sight reading or whole word. Instead of teaching children how to sound out any word they encounter, the practitioners of the look-and-say method teach children to memorize whole words by shape, as if English words are like Chinese characters.

Unfortunately, children who are taught to read by memorizing whole words by shape tend to end up functionally illiterate or even dyslexic. Children can memorize only a limited number of word-shapes, and they might accidentally reverse the shapes, such as mistaking was for saw. Worse yet, familiar words often take on an unrecognizable shape if they are in cursive writing or set in all caps or even in a different typeface. Fortunately, even some children in a look-and-say classroom figure out on their own that English letters stand for sounds. They break the letter code on their own. I broke the code on my own when I was four years old, before I ever set foot in any classroom. Many children learn despite what goes on in their classrooms.

The look-and-say method is the basis for the “whole language” curriculum that California adopted in the late 1980s, with disastrous results. Even though the scientific evidence had shown since the 1920s that the look-and-say method was the cause of our epidemics of functional illiteracy and dyslexia, the prominent professors in the teachers’ colleges solidly supported look-and-say and used their influence to suppress phonics instruction. After Flesch’s book created a public outcry in the mid 1950s, the “experts” redoubled their efforts to suppress phonics and did what they could to destroy Flesch’s reputation.

Flesch warned his readers that the educational establishment’s refusal to let teachers use an effective method to teach children to read was “gradually destroying democracy in this country. It returns to the upper middle class the privileges that public education was supposed to distribute evenly among the people. The American dream is, essentially, equal opportunity through free public education for all. This dream is beginning to vanish in a country where the public schools are falling down on the job.”

Flesch was quick to point out, “Mind you, I am not accusing the reading ‘experts’ of wickedness or malice. I am not one of those people who call them un-American or left-wingers or Communist fellow travelers. All I am saying is that their theories are wrong and that the application of their theories has done untold harm to our younger generation.”

It was refreshing to see someone point out that we should evaluate a theory on its own merits. According to Robert’s Rules of Order, “It is not allowable to arraign the motives of a member, but the nature or consequences of a measure may be condemned in strong terms. It is not the man, but the measure, that is the subject of debate.” But it makes no sense whatever to imagine that the people who opposed phonics were left-wingers. The anti-phonics crusaders were, to use a phrase that became popular a few years later, the Establishment. They weren’t labor organizers or grassroots activists. The people who led the anti-phonics crusade were the ones getting the big royalty checks from the big publishing companies and who were depending on wealthy philanthropists for their jobs and for the funding for the colleges they ran. Thus, the faculty of the teachers’ colleges must have faced overwhelming temptation to serve their wealthy and powerful benefactors instead of following Flesch’s example of standing up for schoolchildren.

When people serve the upper middle class (i.e., the bourgeoisie) at the expense of the working class, they are being bourgeois, not left-wing. Left-wingers serve the working class at the expense of the upper classes. That’s what those words mean. Flesch certainly knew that. However, he was writing in the United States in the mid 1950s, and he must have realized that anti-Communist hysteria was making it impossible for many people to think about the real meaning of such words.

It makes no sense to imagine that the war against phonics was a Communist plot. In reality, Communists (and many people who have been inaccurately labeled as Communists) seem to love phonics. In the early 1960s, the Communist government of Cuba wiped out illiteracy in Cuba by using phonics to teach poor people to read. The democratically elected government of Brazil had a similar phonics-based literacy program in the early 1960s, until said government was overthrown in a U.S.-supported coup d’état, supposedly in the name of fighting Communism. In 1980, the Sandinista government of Nicaragua launched a highly effective literacy campaign based on phonics. The Reagan administration’s desire to overthrow the Nicaraguan government, again in the name of anti-Communism, led to the Iran-Contra Affair.

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

Of course, Communists aren’t the only ones who love phonics. Phonics is as American as apple pie. The number two bestselling book in the U.S. in the 19th century was Noah Webster’s Blue-Backed Speller. Webster created this phonics-based method for teaching reading and spelling because he wanted to create a truly American language for the newly independent United States. The United States achieved high literacy in the 19th century even though most households had at most two books: the Bible and Webster’s Blue-Backed Speller.
I admire Flesch for speaking out about phonics. He was absolutely right about the importance of phonics for reading instruction, and the people who opposed phonics teaching or who want to “balance” it with other methods were (and still are) absolutely wrong. There’s no “middle ground” on this issue. I particularly admire Flesch for speaking out in the political context of the mid 1950s. As a Jewish lawyer who fled Austria in 1938 when the Nazis took over, Flesch knew about political oppression from first-hand observation.

As a Jewish man who was involved in education in New York in the 1950s, Flesch must have known that many American Jews were being unfairly fired from their teaching jobs and blacklisted by anti-Semitic McCarthyites. Yet Flesch stood up for the children of the United States and published Why Johnny Can’t Read, and What You Can Do About It. Tragically, his warning went largely unheeded. In 1981, he published Why Johnny Still Can’t Read: A New Look at the Scandal of Our Schools, which showed that practically nothing had changed in the interim. In 1987, the state of California threw phonics out the window and implemented a “whole language” curriculum statewide. As a result, California’s children’s reading scores dropped to the third lowest in the United States, ahead of only Louisiana and Guam. This tragedy would never have happened if the people of California had listened to Rudolf Flesch and demanded that their schools use effective teaching methods.