Americans do not learn to read well for more than one reason. One of the most influential is the fact that most public schools use an ineffective teaching method.
American schools cling to this ineffective method because it is entrenched in the teacher training institutions and because it produces a great deal of wealth for publishers and reading specialists.
The “sight” method was designed for deaf children
The method of reading instruction that dominates American schools began in the 1930s as a well-intentioned experiment. Based on a method used to teach deaf children, the new system of instruction was promoted as a less tedious way of teaching hearing children to read.
Although classroom teachers quickly found the new method to be ineffective and detrimental, the new education professionals like Horace Mann, John Dewey, and Arthur Gates, embraced it as a symbol of Progress. Future teachers at the University of Chicago, Columbia Teachers College, and the many normal schools that were being established all over the country in those days, were trained in its use.
The old method, which had been used effectively for hundreds of years, was dismissed as old-fashioned and unprogressive. The stone had begun its long, disastrous roll downhill.
The “sight” method creates unnecessary expense and failure
The new method quickly produced large-scale reading failure, but instead of questioning the method, the Education Professionals opened reading clinics, as if the problem lay in some deficiency that could be diagnosed in the child.
The new method required special reading materials. When the old method had been in use, children were taught the sounds that went with letters and then went on to practice by reading from books that were already available.
Under various names, the progressive method still dominates American elementary classrooms.
“Sight” instruction handicaps hearing children
A six-year-old child can have quite a large speaking vocabulary, 24,000 words by some estimates. Any newspaper can serve as reading practice for a child taught to sound out words.
With the “whole word” method, children are not taught to read all the words they know. Instead, words are doled out like food in an orphanage: 349 by the end of the first grade, 1,094 by the end of the second; 1,216 by the end of the third, and 1,554 by the end of the fourth grade.
When reading is taught in this way, special reading materials are a must. Lots of them.
A more efficient method would create a larger reading population
Training teachers to teach reading with a program like the Spalding method would save schools millions of dollars because they wouldn’t need basal readers, consumable peripherals, or wide-scale remediation for the children who inevitably fail with the “whole word” method.
A spin-off effect of trashing the basal readers would be to infuse new life into the publishing industry outside the textbook loop:
1) students would require real books for their reading
2) schools would produce graduates who could read well enough to find pleasure in books for the rest of their lives.