In 1955, Dr. Rudolf Flesch — an Austrian-born immigrant who fled the Nazis and became a naturalized American citizen — threw a monkey wrench into public education. The wrench in question was a book: Why Johnny Can’t Read. Horrified to discover that a 12-year-old boy he was tutoring could not decipher the word “kid,” Flesch blamed the American system of education. Across the country, kids all learned to read from the same books and they all learned the same words. Mostly by memorization. See Jip run. Run Jip, run. But confronted with an unfamiliar word, as “kid” was for Flesch’s student, most students were at a loss to decipher it.
The solution, said Flesch, was for schools to teach phonics. Phonics is the system of deciphering words by “sounding them out” … by knowing what individual letters and certain letter combinations sound like.
Flesch’s book became a best-seller and launched a debate that continues today. Called the Reading Wars, it pits those who believe in phonics against those who support whole-world recognition. Schools gradually abandoned the so-called Dick and Jane books, but teachers overall were reluctant to teach phonics. One educator calls this “pedagogical insanity.”
In 2000, the federal government came down on the side of phonics, with offers of grant money to schools. Despite that, for the past 20 years, two-thirds of 4th- and 8th-grade students have scored “below proficient” on the NAEP, or National Assessment of Educational Progress, considered to be the gold standard measure of nationwide learning.
On Oct. 30 of this year, the New York Times reported that on the most recent NAEP results, the average 8th-grade reading score declined in more than half of the states, compared with 2017 results. The average 4th-grade score declined in 17 states. Math scores remained flat. Overall, 600,000 students took the test.
Drilling down, “Only 35 percent of fourth graders were proficient in reading in 2019, down from 37 percent in 2017; 34 percent of eighth graders were proficient in reading, down from 36 percent.”
In the halls of Congress and in school districts across the country, the Reading Wars rage on, with little agreement on how to solve the problem. And now a new twist has now emerged: whether it is a waste of time to teach reading comprehension. Dyslexia, a condition that was pretty much ignored during Flesch’s era, adds layers of complexity to the issue. So does the fact that students learning English as a second language in countries like China, Japan and India are better readers than their same-age counterparts in the US.
According to a survey conducted in 2007 by the National Endowment for the Arts, “the number of 17-year-olds who never read for pleasure increased from 9 percent in 1984 to 19 percent in 2004. About half of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 never read books for pleasure.”
Clearly, something needs to be done, but no one agrees on what or how.
BTW, at Morris Tutoring we teach phonics.
PS: Ray of hope? Tablets, smartphones and social media have become the umbilical cords of kids everywhere. It gets them to read. Will it help?