Friday, August 9, 2013

Phonics, Whole Language and Illiteracy: What Is Your Child Being Taught?

Trouble Reading?

For decades, the "whole word" method of teaching reading has been predominant in American schools, leaving a large percentage of several generations of children since the '30's barely able to read the label on a prescription medication bottle. The rate of illiteracy in this country has been increasing ever since this method took over the public school systems years ago.

In my search to find out about learning disabilities and dyslexia, I ran across Rudolph Flesch's books Why Johnny Can't Read and the sequel written 25 years later, Why Johnny Still Can't Read. I was floored when I read what this man had to say about how schools teach children to read. The truth is, most schools have never used text books that use intensive phonics; they use books published by companies that promote what is referred to as the "see-and-say", "whole word" or "sight reading" method which is nothing more than rote memorization and guesswork.

I want to give you a brief overview of both methods, why phonics is the only logical method to use, and what you can do to insure that you and/or your children can read fluently.

Child with red hair is free image from Wikimedia Commons. Quotes are from Why Johnny Still Can't Read, Rudolph Flesch, New York: Harper and Row, 1983.

What Is the Difference?
Whole Language Method vs Phonics

To understand what I'm talking about, you need to understand how each method works. Confusion often results when people are told that phonics is indeed taught in their schools, but the primary method is still whole word. So here is a very basic explanation of each.

Phonics (or code-emphasis) teaches "decoding", or a basic understanding of the sounds of letters and letter combinations that allow the student to sound out words on his own. This opens the door to anything written regardless of how complicated it is. Learn the letters, learn the basic rules of phonics, and you can sound out any word, then find out its meaning if needed. Children come into first grade with a vocabulary of over 20,000 words. When they are taught phonics, every one of those words can be read and understood so that within a matter of months, the speaking vocabulary of a child is moved into a reading and writing vocabulary as well.

Children generally find the process like a puzzle, a game. They thoroughly enjoy unlocking the "code" to understand written words once they learn how. Sounding out words is a slower process at first, but becomes automatic as time progresses. The entire skill of reading should be accomplished within six months to two years, allowing the rest of the educational process to continue from there.

With the whole language method (whole word, sight reading, meaning-emphasis, see-and-say), students are basically taught to memorize by sight what words look like, thus the use of flashcards. And when students are stumped, they are told to guess from both the pictures and the context of the sentence. Believe it or not, guessing is encouraged. A limited number of words are memorized every year, dragging learning to read into a years-long process, with a huge percentage of students never really learning to be fluent readers. This system obviously favors those who memorize easily, and then there are those people who manage to catch onto the phonics process on their own and go on to become fluent readers as well. But these are a very small minority. If phonics is introduced at all, it is just minimal teaching which is interspersed with this whole memorize-and-guess process.

The resulting problems include very inaccurate reading, confusing similar-looking words, a great deal of frustration and discouragement, a slowing down of the learning process, and many have even been labeled as learning disabled, dyslexic or even minimally brain-damaged because those children were unable to memorize as well as others. Over the years, textbooks for higher grades were "dumbed down" to accommodate the limited vocabulary taught by this method. Indeed, this method has resulted in the "dumbing down" of America.

Logically, who can memorize thousands of words by what they look like? It's just common sense to teach phonics,to teach the "code" of the alphabet that is key in unlocking the written word. But apparently our school systems have, by and large, chosen the illogical route. And that route leads to illiteracy while padding the pockets of the whole language book publishers. It is an absolute disgrace, allowing this mess to continue for generations, leaving countless thousands of people without the skills they need to function in life.

ABC blocks are free clipart from

How Did All This Start?
Dick and Jane Become Famous

The beginnings of this trend can be traced back to 1791 when the first primer was written in Germany. Flesch takes the reader through the following centuries recounting all the people who wrote text books and/or otherwise promoted the whole word method. In the 1830's, as the phonics method was sweeping Europe, sight reading once again resurfaced in America for a time. But seeing how ineffective a method it was, phonics again gained ground for a time. But ever since, it has been a battle between the methods, with sight reading coming out on top most of the time, particularly since the 1930's. Remember the Dick and Jane readers?

By the middle thirties, look-and-say had completely swept the field. Virtually all leading academics in the primary reading field were now authors of basal reader series and collected fat royalties. They had inherited the kingdom of American education. (p. 23)

For look-and-say educators reading is now a matter of "guessing," "cues," "strategies"- never of simply looking at what's on the page and if necessary sounding out the words. (p. 25)

Of course money is one of the main motivating principles behind this movement. Since reading is drawn out into a years-long process, there's plenty of money to be had in text books alone. The resulting reading problems have turned into an industry with such things as very expensive diagnostic reading tests that would otherwise be completely unnecessary and entire conferences to dissect "miscues", the new term for mistakes in reading. Mistakes which could be completely circumvented if children had been taught phonics in the first place.

An interesting article, History of the Reading Wars, recounts the battle in California over the years.

Money picture is free image from Wikimedia Commons.

Dr. Seuss

Interestingly enough, the Dr. Seuss books were commissioned as sight readers. I found this quote from the author:
They think I did it in twenty minutes. That d -- ned Cat in the Hat took nine months until I was satisfied. I did it for a textbook house and they sent me a word list. That was due to the Dewey revolt in the Twenties in which they threw out phonic reading and went to word recognition, as if you're reading Chinese pictographs instead of blending sounds of different letters. I think killing phonics was one of the greatest causes of illiteracy in the country. Anyway, they had it all worked out that a healthy child at the age of four can learn so many words in a week and that's all. So there were two hundred and twenty-three words to use in this book. I read the list three times and I almost went out of my head. I said, I'll read it once more and if I can find two words that rhyme that'll be the title of my book. (That's genius at work.) I found "cat" and "hat" and I said, "The title will be The Cat in the Hat.” [emphasis mine] from Dr. Seuss and Dyslexia

Study after Study after Study. . .

Studies over the decades have consistently shown phonics to be the superior method of teaching reading. According to Professor Jeanne Chall of the Harvard University Graduate School of Education:
. . . the research from 1912 to 1965 indicates that a code-emphasis [phonics] method- one that . . . emphasizes learning of the printed code for the spoken language- produces better results. . . The results are better, not only in terms of the mechanical aspects of literacy alone, as was once supposed, but also in terms of the ultimate goal of reading instruction- comprehension and possibly even speed of reading. The long-existing fear that an initial code-emphasis produces readers who do not read for meaning or with enjoyment is unfounded. pp. 29-30
Study after study has been done comparing the two methods, and the results are just simply undeniable- phonics always comes out on top. I have a hard time understanding why studies are even needed- it's just simple common sense logic that you need to know the sounds that make up words. Honestly, who can memorize the hundreds of thousands of words in the typical adult vocabulary by sight alone? It's just illogical.

I remember an incident in French class in high school years ago. Of course French have words that require accent marks, but some in the class couldn't remember which way to angle them. Out of exasperation, the teacher finally gave us the rule- an accent over an "e" at the end of a word will always be one that tilts up on the right, making that "e" sound like a long "a". Always. Know the rule, know how to write it, and it's the same with phonics. Once you understand the logic, it's a piece of cake. But try to memorize every one of those words, and mistakes are inevitable.

It's the same principle with phonics. Yes, there are exceptions, but that doesn't mean that all words must be memorized. For example, hundreds of four-letter words that end in "e" will have a long vowel sound preceding the "e", as in kite, mane, note, bite, dude, etc. Sadly, those of you taught whole language may not even know what a long vowel sound is. A double consonant in the middle of a word like "middle" will have a short vowel sound preceding it, but if you're not taught that particular rule, you may be forever misspelling words like that.

Studies abound, along with all kinds of research that dissect the reading process down to the smallest detail, studies that just seem so unnecessary, but the results just keep coming in showing phonics the superior method of learning. The numerous mistakes that are made when trying to sight read are no longer called mistakes; now they are called "miscues", and an entire industry has been created, devoted to miscue research and analysis. Try an online search and see for yourself. Sight reading is indeed big business. Want to stop "miscues"? Just teach phonics!

In spite of having absolutely no scientific evidence to back up their claims, the whole-language advocates still manage to push their way into the school systems across this country. How? Flesch calls Chapter Four The Great Coverup. The so-called experts haul out their excuses whenever their dogma is challenged, excuses that are completely discounted by Flesch, one at a time. If you listen to these arguments, they sound quite logical and reasonable which is probably why well-intentioned, young teachers fall for it. They have a very slick presentation, and have even managed to come up with reasons why phonics isn't advisable. These people have a large industry to protect, so beware of the sales pitch. Like I said, there is NO scientific evidence supporting sight reading. Never has been and never will be.

Clipboard is free image from Wikimedia Commons.

What to Do?

Remember that any claims that reading is taught with phonics in any particular school must be examined since most programs are sight whole word at the core with only a little phonics teaching sprinkled in to pacify parents. See What to Do When You're Told: We Do Teach Phonics (National Right to Read Foundation- another link below).

Unfortunately, Flesch's books are quite old by now. In looking for the recommended publishers he listed, I couldn't find any still in business. Only one, Distar, came up in a search; some of their materials are available through Amazon (link below). I have found others that are now publishing phonics textbooks; links are below, and I welcome any other input from you.

With all the publishers Flesch recommended now out of business, this could mean that it's a given that your school uses whole language. With that in mind, you may want to check out the books used in your school's classrooms for yourself. It they are loaded with repetitious non-stories with pictures in the Dick and Jane tradition rather than phonics rules and letter combinations, they are sight readers.

Some of you may be more civic-minded than others. If you can drum up support from other parents and get a voice in your school to change the textbooks, that would be the optimum. All the children will benefit. But if not, at least see to it that your own children have the advantage of learning to actually read, and not guess. According to both Flesch and Maria Montessori, children are well able to learn to read before they enter kindergarten. If you have a preschooler, you can beat the system by teaching them yourself or enrolling in a Montessori school.

Montessori is a system that encourages learning the individual letters, writing, reading and spelling. The system makes the process fun, and preschoolers are particularly well suited to catching on easily. Books on this method are included below, and it's quite easy to find schools in your area by searching for Montessori with your town name and state.

The internet is loaded with information about teaching and/or learning phonics. At the back of the book, Why Johnny Can't Read, Flesch has included a section on how to teach phonics, so that book is at the top of my list of recommended reading. There is a world of information available out there, and like I said before, I welcome any other recommendations and input.

Teach and Learn How to Read for Free with
The brand new online platform offering free phonics resources, activities and games for parents, educators and children!

Recommended Reading

Why Johnny Can't Read by Rudolph Flesch

Why Johnny Still Can't Read

Teaching Montessori in the Home by Elizabeth Hainstock

Dumbing Down Our Kids: Why American Children Feel Good about Themselves, but Can't Read, Write or Add by Charles J. Sykes

Reading Programs Available through Amazon

Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons by Siegfried Engelmann
This book is based on SRA's Distar method, a very successful program available to schools to teach reading.

Hooked on Phonics is one of the most popular programs available. Complete kits are available for 4 different grade levels; the Master Reader program is the next step.

Hooked on Phonics Pre K

Hooked on Phonics Learn to Read Kindergarten

Hooked on Phonics Learn to Read First Grade

Hooked on Phonics Learn to Read Second Grade

Hooked on Phonics Master Reader

Blast Off to Reading by  Cheryl Orlassino
This is a complete reading program based on the Orton-Gillingham method designed to help struggling readers.

Orton-Gillingham Overview by IMSE

Check out their website at


RLAC Phonics First
Phonics First [TM] is RLAC's very own nationally accredited Orton-Gillingham methodology to teaching literacy. Our dynamic and interactive professional development courses and workshops give special and general education teachers the knowledge and expertise to implement evidence based strategies that will improve student achievement. Based on the Orton-Gillingham approach to reading, Phonics First [TM] is language-based, multisensory, structured, sequential, cumulative, cognitive, and flexible.

A Beka Book
Three decades ago, A Beka Book began with the mission of providing Christian schools with high-quality textbooks and teaching aids to help each school fulfill its educational goals. The hundreds of traditional educational materials from A Beka Book have been developed and refined over a period of 50 years in the classrooms of Pensacola Christian Academy, one of America's largest and most respected Christian schools. As a result, throughout the nation A Beka Book is recognized as the standard of excellence in the publishing of textbooks and other scholastic materials.

The A Beka Book approach to education keeps learning lively, interesting, and memorable. Our materials reflect sensible theory that is firmly anchored to practicality. Skilled researchers do primary research in every subject. Thus our publications are built upon a firm foundation of absolute truth and sound scholarship, and are written by dedicated and talented scholars well grounded in the practical aspects of classroom teaching. For excellence in education, you can trust A Beka Book.

SRA Direct Instruction and Intensive Intervention
This program which was originally the Distar Program has apparently been bought by McGraw-Hill.

Dorbooks, publishers of Phonics Pathways
Dorbooks, Inc. was founded in 1985, and is dedicated to the proposition that everyone can learn how to read, no matter what their age or problem.

Today, the Calvert program is used successfully in more than 160 schools, including brick and mortar, cyber, private, and international schools. Our partners value our independent, non-profit status that allows us to focus on our mission to inspire the best in students. Over 500,000 children located in more than 90 countries-in virtually every corner of the world-have been educated using the Calvert program.

Orton Gillingham Multisensory Phonics Programs
Go Phonics Program is Orton Gillingham based Systematic, Multisensory Phonics, Reading, Handwriting, and Spelling Instruction (ideal for struggling, dyslexic, and natural beginning readers). Multisensory techniques are used to promote better retention as students are taught the phonetic codes of the language. This is much easier than having to memorize thousands of words by sight. The 42 basic sounds and the letters that represent them are taught one at a time in building block fashion. Daily drill on the sounds and plenty of word decoding practice will help them to master this foundation.

Online Help
Some have free worksheets

ABC's for Literacy
Educators helping children ages 3-7 learn how to read and write easily. We teach the building blocks of children's literacy for a strong foundation.

At age 9, young Stephen Schutz was still struggling to read. What came easily for some children required many more hours of Stephen's work, and he was consistently toward the bottom of his class in reading. Now a PhD in physics and a successful publisher and artist, Dr. Schutz wanted to make sure children in his situation today have a resource that can help. He turned to the Internet and conceived a program that would be available online across the world to all children who are learning to read in English.
With more than 3 million visitors each month, is the fastest growing site in its class and the go-to destination for involved parents. From kindergarten readiness through college prep, gives parents the information they need and the ideas they want to help their kids reach their full potential and make learning fun. Free printable worksheets available- search their site for phonics materials.

Fun Fonix
Phonics worksheets for kindergarten, first grade, and second grade teachers, free printable worksheets, printable phonics workbooks, and online phonics games for kids from Fun!

A to Z Phonics
Great website with loads of helps and information. They have a post with the history of phonics (quite interesting), and many other helps including free printables.

Literacy Links

National Right to Read Foundation
The National Right to Read Foundation (NRRF) was established on January 8, 1993. The mission of NRRF is to return comprehensive, scientifically-based reading instruction and good literature to every elementary school in America. Through Reading First, the Congress provides more than $1 billion each year for needy schools to implement the findings of reading research. A comprehensive approach to teaching students to read, as stated in the Reading First law, includes explicit, systematic instruction in these five areas: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary development, fluency, and comprehension. Explicit and systematic instruction in phonics is a non-negotiable component of comprehensive reading instruction.

National Literacy Directory
The National Literacy Directory launched in 2010 with funding from the Dollar General Literacy Foundation. It is designed to help individuals find local literacy and education programs and GED testing centers in their areas. The National Literacy Directory contains over 10,000 educational agencies located across the United States. Another component of the directory is a toll-free number that individuals can call to get a local program referral.

Reading Rockets
Reading Rockets is a national multimedia literacy initiative offering information and resources on how young kids learn to read, why so many struggle, and how caring adults can help. I found this site through a link at a public library website.

Dyslexia post


  1. PHONICS: Learn letter sounds of the English alphabet with sign language. ... ASL for babies and toddlers.

  2. Very informative post, Please keep updated.

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