Most parents want to believe in the effectiveness of their children’s schools. Surveys consistently show that while people surveyed believe that American education is in a sorry state nationally, they believe that their own schools are above average.
Rather than accept the possibility that their children are being subjected to an ineffective method of reading instruction, many parents join teachers in labelling phonics-first proponents as cranks or nutcases. After all, they say, “my child is a good reader.”
Not everyone has the same kind of brain
In every group of children—or adults for that matter—there are a few who have brains that can look at the big picture and see the separate parts. Some children, looking at printed words over and over, discover the relationship of symbol to sound all by themselves. They remain undamaged by the word-by-word method of instruction because they leap over it.
Have you ever seen those trick pictures that look like one thing at first, but if you keep looking at them change into another picture in the same space? My son can see the hidden picture at once. I can hardly ever see the picture within the picture until someone helps me.
It is like that with reading. A portion of beginning readers will be able to make the sound/symbol connections on their own. That’s the kind of brain they have. Children with brains like mine need to be helped to see the connections. They have to be taught the sound or sounds that each letter represents. Only then will they be able to recognize in writing the words that they already use in speech or recognize in the speech of others.
There’s a limit to how many words a child can memorize
The word-by-word method doles out words grade by grade and restricts reading to carefully controlled materials. Children who cannot work out the sound/symbol relationships on their own, but who have good memories, are able to memorize quite a lot of words during the first three or four grades. These children shine as good readers for a time. Then comes the day that their memories for individual words are full. They want to move on to books that do not have controlled vocabularies, but they lack the information needed to sound out unfamiliar words. They lose confidence, begin to think that they are stupid, and become fodder for reading remediation.
Reading failure has social consequences
Then there are the children who can neither work out the sound/symbol connections for themselves, nor memorize hundreds of words. They seem to be dumb from the beginning. They lapse into various behaviors to conceal their misery at being unable to learn to read. The prisons are full of adults who were children like these.
A word to parents: A child of average intelligence who cannot read Black Beauty with pleasure and understanding by the age of ten is not a “good reader.”
The best introduction to this issue is still the 1955 Why Johnny Can’t Read (and what you can do about it) by Rudolf Flesch.