Phonics-supporters have been struggling since the 1950s to restore phonics-based instruction to the schools.
Rudolf Flesch published his landmark Why Johnny Can’t Read and What You Can Do about It—in 1955. Still timely, it lays out the case for the superiority of systematic phonics instruction for beginning readers.
The educational powers (that were) lost no time ridiculing Flesch. They disparaged the notion of teaching children to read by teaching the sounds represented by the letters of the alphabet. The “whole word” approach (also called “look/say”) had been born. This misguided system of reading is responsible in great part for the miserable reading statistics that have haunted education since.
Typical instructions for the “look/say” approach told children to look at an illustration when they didn’t know the word, then look at the words they did know to see if they provided a clue. And then, if neither worked, they should try to sound out the word using the letters.
Journalist G.K. Hodenfield offered a succinct criticism of this system of reading instruction years ago, in The Oklahoman (Nov 19, 1981)
The idea that reading is only “a psycholinguistic guessing game” is most closely associated with Dr. Kenneth Goodman of the University of Arizona.
Goodman and those who agree with him insist that accuracy is not important in learning to read; children don’t make mistakes in reading, they make miscues, most of which needn’t be corrected; and children don’t need to be taught to read anyway, they’ll pick it up naturally, just as they do walking.
A Goodman example: A child sees a sentence: “The boy jumped on the horse and rode off.” But he reads “pony” instead of “horse”.
Goodman says the child didn’t make a mistake, only a miscue, and should not be corrected.
Phonics is back, under a classier name
Phonics, the method of teaching people to read since the invention of the first alphabet, can be defined as “a method of teaching people to read by associating sounds with letters or groups of letters in an alphabetic writing system.”
Many states are urging schools to transition to phonics. In Ohio, Governor Mike DeWine isn’t urging. He wants phonics implemented in all classrooms by Fall 2024 and is planning to ban all other strategies for teaching reading.
Now that the teaching establishment has accepted the evidence that has been there all along, they are reintroducing phonics instruction as “the science of reading.” Here’s the definition:
The science of reading is a vast, interdisciplinary body of scientifically-based research about reading and issues related to reading and writing. This research has been conducted over the last five decades across the world, and it is derived from thousands of studies conducted in multiple languages.
Underlying all those big words and pronouncements is the simple fact that Rudolf Flesch pointed out in 1955. Johnny couldn’t read “for the simple reason that nobody ever showed him how.”
“Whole Word” not gone yet
The influence of the ineffective method of reading instruction that has ruled the schools for eight decades is not going to disappear overnight. Some teachers will embrace the new doctrine, but others will continue to use the method they were trained in.
Parents will do well to inform themselves about phonics instruction and monitor their young readers to be sure that they are in fact being taught to read the words on the page. The place to begin is with the alphabet. Reading is the process of turning written symbols into the sounds of spoken words. The most efficient way to teach children to read is to teach them how to write and interpret the sound code.
New parents can begin as soon as their baby is born to lay the foundations for reading success.