During a stop in Michigan last summer, President Clinton proposed a $2.75 billion federal initiative to help American schoolchildren learn how to become good readers. The program would require 30,000 additional reading specialists and a million volunteer tutors. Without changing the way reading is often taught, however, we will just be throwing more money down the drain.

The proposal suggests that the nation’s taxpayers are not being well served by the high taxes they already pay for education. The public interest is to have schools achieve maximum student literacy at the lowest possible cost. Are additional billions of dollars necessary to improve literacy, or can the job be done by utilizing resources more wisely?

Student reading deficiencies are not a recent development. Collier’s magazine in 1946 published an article titled "Why Can’t They Read?" with a sub-head, "A third of all school children are illiterate." The author wrote, "Thousands emerge from high school totally unable to read and comprehend as much as the daily paper."

Rudolf Flesch in his 1955 book, Why Johnny Can’t Read, ascribed the problem not to a funding shortfall but to a method of reading instruction introduced in the 1930s. Teachers abandoned the foundation of systematic, explicit instruction in letter-sound relationships known as "phonics." Instead, students were taught to learn whole words by an assortment of strategies, including memorizing the words, using textbook picture clues, and guessing from the context of a story.

This "whole word" teaching system is faulty, says Annette Weinshank, Ph.D., a former member of the Michigan State University College of Education who left in 1989 to start her own remedial reading clinic in East Lansing. "Students need to learn that letters make sounds and that sounds make words," she says. "Whether this approach is called ‘phonics’ or ‘breaking the code,’ it means students are given the tools to read words they’ve never seen before. They can then read on their own." Her clients, despite their reading problems before enrolling in her clinic, have learned within a few months to become proficient readers.

Currently the phonics method is making a comeback. For example, after California tied Louisiana for last place in reading skills in 1995, a task force concluded that the state’s ten-year experiment with the whole word method was the cause. The state subsequently enacted a law requiring "systematic, explicit phonics" in reading instruction. More recent measures require that all new reading instruction materials in California public schools contain phonics and prohibit state money from being spent in support of the whole word approach.

The Mabel B. Wesley Elementary School, serving a minority neighborhood in Houston, Texas, consistently achieves high student reading scores through direct instruction in phonics and has become a magnet for visiting educators seeking models of success.

In Michigan, despite lack of a strong trend, Weinshank says, there are "pockets" of phonics instruction. An example is a private school named H.O.P.E. Academy in Lansing. Its income derives totally from tuition, unsupplemented by grants or donations, so it has to satisfy parents with positive outcomes or lose their patronage. The average reading performance of its students, most of whom are minorities, is well above grade level. The school offers a tuition refund to parents of any kindergartner not reading at first-grade level by the end of the school year, and since its founding in 1985 it has never had to make such a reimbursement.

A criticism of the phonics method is that students must initially go through uninteresting drills instead of actual reading. However, at H.O.P.E. Academy the pupils quickly move into reading books geared to their levels. Even four-year-olds in the pre-kindergarten class read stories containing simple sentences.

Reading programs have a wide range of price tags. The U.S. Department of Education published comparative cost analyses in a 1993 report, The Beginning Reading Instruction Study. It produced cost-per-pupil figures, based on 1991 and 1992 prices, for implementing various programs from kindergarten through third grade in 30-student classrooms.

Programs based on the whole word method were the most expensive. With two of them the costs exceeded $300 per pupil. Another was priced at about $295. Others were around $250 and lower. School systems purchasing the costliest programs can spend close to $10,000 per 30-student classroom.

By contrast, Weinshank points out, phonics-based instruction tends to be "materials-lean." H.O.P.E. Academy utilizes $18 flashcards for teaching students the linkages between letters and sounds. Officials at the school calculate that their implementation costs, including the flashcards, teaching manuals and supplementary reading materials, are less than $20 per pupil.

A high degree of literacy is necessary for a prosperous, effectively functioning democracy. Achieving that probably does not require a new multibillion dollar federal program. Replacing what doesn’t work with what worked well not so long ago seems to be a more sensible approach.