What Is the Best Way to Teach Reading?

A recent study published in the March issue of “Pediatrics” magazine found that instructions for installing child-safety seats in automobiles were composed in language “too difficult” for many adults. The problem: The instructional language is written at a 10th-grade level, but many U.S. adults, almost all of whom drive automobiles, are operating with an 8th-grade reading level or lower. As a result, many of these car seats have been installed improperly and do not provide the intended protection for their little occupants.

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The study, conducted by Dr. Mark Wegner and Deborah Girasek at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md., provoked much finger pointing, largely at lawyers, manufacturers and retailers. But the incident reminded me of Rudolf Flesch.

In two years it will be half a century since Rudolf Flesch published his blockbuster book, “Why Johnny Can’t Read.” Flesch’s thesis was that American educators were botching the job of teaching the nation’s youth how to read. He alleged that the teaching technique used in our schools was all wrong. He insisted that children could learn to become proficient readers if correctly taught.

Today the problem Flesch publicized is still with us and appears to be worse than ever.

Flesch maintained that the culprit in the illiteracy disgrace was the “look-and-say” teaching method. Children were not being led through the process of linking letters with sounds and combining these phonic symbols into words. Instead, the teaching they were receiving encouraged them to read by associating words with nearby textbook pictures or by looking at the shape of the print or by analyzing contexts.

The method might work for a simple basic vocabulary, Flesch argued, but eventually students are confronted with hosts of unfamiliar words. If they have not been given the tools to decipher the code, they will flounder and often fail. What he ridiculed as the “look-and-guess” method produces frustration, negativity and defeat in too many individual students and a national rate of substandard reading ability that is outrageous.

Flesch published a sequel to his book in 1981 entitled “Why Johnny Still Can’t Read — A New Look at the Scandal of Our Schools,” in which he detailed the response of the educational establishment to the issues he had raised 26 years earlier.

Not surprisingly, as is typical for monopolies, the education establishment’s primary response was to protect itself. It hunkered down into a defensive mode, rationalizing its policies and performance. It shifted blame onto other parties. Rather than implement real change, it worked to create only the illusion of change.

Flesch listed the “10 favorite alibis” he collected from “the whole stack of letters” he had received from educators, many of which “were full of personal abuse.” He devoted a chapter each to debunking these alibis.

“Everything Is Hunky-Dory” was one of them. Of course, this was sheer denial, and Flesch said so. Things were bad then, a fact as demonstrable as anything in educational research. They are worse today.

“We Do Teach Phonics” was another alibi. He pointed out that there had indeed been a change but only to “window-dressing token phonics” tacked onto fundamentally unaltered look-and-say methodology, which was continuing to do major damage.

Some letter-writers claimed that “No One Method Is Best.” Flesch countered that no method could work that did not correspond to the nature of the subject — that learning to read necessarily involves being able to decipher phonetic symbols in the same way that learning how to type involves becoming familiar with the keyboard.

An additional argument from his critics was that “English Isn’t Phonetic.” Flesch demonstrated that English is, in fact, almost entirely “phonetic and decodable.”

Another charge was that “Word Calling Isn’t Reading.” But word guessing isn’t either.

Then there was the blame-the-victim game, which yielded the most alibis: “Your Child Isn’t Ready,” “Your Child Is Disabled,” and “It’s the Parents’ Fault,” all of which are now embodied in school policies today. Next was “Too Much TV.” And the final alibi was “We Must Teach All Children,” as if there are some ineducables among us, “the sons and daughters of lowborn riffraff who are too dumb to learn how to read,” as Flesch characterized the implications of this mindset among educators.

In short, Flesch’s thesis — although wildly popular among parents certain that something was wrong with reading instruction in America — was denied, rationalized, obfuscated and ultimately ignored by America’s education establishment.

This refusal to admit fault and to deal with real problems is what ultimately gave rise to the school-choice movement. In an open marketplace the customers decide which services and products rise to the top and which get banished into oblivion. This principle needs to be fully applied in schooling.

Let the customers determine if Flesch’s “phonics first” approach should be scorned or not. If its results prove pitiful, the customers can take their business elsewhere. Likewise, if the instructional methods currently used by most schools don’t deliver, the marketplace will impose a harsh judgment.

What is the best way to teach reading? Give parents choice.

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(Daniel Hager is an adjunct scholar for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Michigan research and educational institute. He has published numerous articles and essays on economic history and free-market economics.)