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
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.
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 the 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.
Laurie taught herself to read at age 4 by analyzing the spelling of the rhyming words in Green Eggs and Ham, by Dr. Seuss. She has worked as an editor in medical and academic publishing for more than 25 years. She is the author of five books: (more...)