James A. Chapman's Grammar and Composition series and vocabulary books are used by Christian schools across the country: over 100,000 high school students (grades 7–12) are using his Grammar and Composition worktexts. Besides writing textbooks, he also taught English and Literature at Pensacola Christian College for 20 years.
Is the teaching of beginning reading so mysterious and complicated that we still do not know for sure how to proceed? Such is the conclusion of Robert C. Aukerman after he reviewed 165 different approaches to beginning reading. He says that he suspects that some of the 165 different approaches may be more effective than others, but at this time we cannot know which ones, because it appears “next to impossible” to apply “adequate research techniques” to the evaluation of reading methods. He says that until we can understand and apply the psychology of learning to the methods of research, we must be content with our “primitive means” and go ahead and do “the best we can”. He gives one note of optimism: “We certainly can do better than we are doing at present.”1
That we “can do better than we are doing at present” seems to be an understatement, considering the growing numbers of Americans who cannot read or write properly. “Today, a staggering 23 million Americans—1 in 5 adults—lack the reading and writing abilities needed to handle the minimal demands of daily living. An additional 30 million are only marginally capable of being productive workers…. Demographers say the number of illiterates is steadily mounting, swelled by 1 million school dropouts a year.”2 The National Assessment of Education Progress survey published in 1976 says that in 1975, 35 percent of the nation’s fourth graders, 37 of the eighth graders, and 23 percent of the twelfth graders could not read.3 The Adult Performance Level study of 1975 shows that only “46.1 percent of the population between 18 and 65 were fully proficient and fluent readers. As you can see, the illiterates plus the slow readers are now a majority of the U.S. population.”4
Considering these statistics, there can be little doubt that our schools need to do a better job of teaching reading. But Professor Aukerman’s conclusions about what one must do in order to try to do better must be extremely disheartening to those who do not know the “secret” of teaching reading. He says that a “surprising number of ‘others’ have entered the field of reading from such areas as business, linguistics, speech, hearing, sociology, technology, languages, homemaking, television, psychology, physical therapy, audio-visual materials, programming, statistics, medicine, and optometry,” and that we would do well to heed what all of them have to say. He thinks that it is necessary that we have knowledge of all of the new approaches, and that “each new approach deserves a chance to prove itself under reasonable research conditions and in normal classroom environments.” We must make “every effort to explore the good in each approach and give each a chance to prove itself in our own hands.” If we do otherwise, we “may be rejecting the very messiah for whom we have so long been watching and waiting.”5 Earlier, in his introduction, Professor Aukerman set the stage for his reviews by saying that any findings presented in his book “as evidence that one approach to beginning reading is superior to another, or that any approach is effectual as a means of helping children learn to read are, at best, educated guesses.”6 These are discouraging words, if true. Aukerman’s conclusions indicate that even that even if one were able to personally experiment with all known approaches to reading and listen to the ideas of experts from every field imaginable, one still would be able only to guess at how to go about teaching reading.
But is this pessimism justified? Let us first point out that although Aukerman refers to 165 approaches, most of those approaches generally fit into one of two basic approaches to beginning reading: the whole word approach or the phonics approach. Within these two systems there are, of course, variations which may be difficult to evaluate, but the central elements of these two approaches not only can be evaluated but already have been. It is unconscionable and silly to pretend that we still do not know which of these two basic approaches is superior. The earlier whole-word (look-and-say or sight-reading) method has been thoroughly discredited and shown to be the major cause of the reading problems in America today (see the overwhelming evidence in the books by Blumenfeld, Chall, Flesch, and Terman and Walcutt listed at the end of this article). But now we have a modified whole-word approach that came into being after Rudolph Flesch and others made such a strong case for phonics. The whole-word establishment decided to camouflage their old approach to make it appear that they are now teaching phonics. In reality they are not. According to Aukerman, they are including some strands of phonics, but the phonics elements are only casually related to the whole-word approach which they still use.7 Flesch says, “In contrast to the phonics-first texts, which teach all of phonics; look-and-say materials teach only a small part…. By now I estimate that on the average they offer 20 to 25 percent of the phonic inventory…. ”8
This new whole-word approach has, among other things, been called “gradual phonics” because it spreads its few phonics elements out over several years. True phonics, in contrast, has been called “intensive phonics” because it teaches all of the main sound-symbol relationships intensively from the very beginning of reading instruction. Because of the “slick” promotion of this new method, many people may not realize that the method is the still the whole-word (look-and-say or sight-reading) method. They may believe that since it has some phonics in it, it may now be all right. The intent of this article is to show why the whole-word (gradual-phonics) method should be scrapped, and intensive phonics put in its place.
Rapid adult readers can register whole phrases or short sentences at a glimpse because, and only because, they have perfect images of the words already stored in their brains…. But the adult reader sees all the letters (never a mere shape or outline) because he has learned the words as left-to-right sequences of letters, and he understands them that way. Now he sees them as “whole-word units.” But he did not learn them that way.10
…The illustration drawn from the animal, or a tree which is more commonly given, fails, we think, to meet all that is required in teaching a child to read. Grant, that he does not, in learning to distinguish a tree from a rock, or any other dissimilar object, form his idea of it by inspecting the parts separately, and then by combining trunk, bark, branches, twigs, leaves, and blossoms. In learning to read, however, he is to distinguish between objects which resemble each other, and in many instances, very closely, as in the case of the words, hand, band; now, mow; form, from; and scores of others. To make the illustration good, it would be necessary to place the child in a forest, containing some seventy thousand trees, made up of various genera, species, and varieties, among which were found many to be distinguished only by the slightest differences. Or, if it will suit the case any better, let him be placed in a grove, containing seven hundred trees, having, as before, strong resemblances; if, then, this general survey of each of them, as a whole object, will enable him to distinguish them rapidly from each other, whatever may be their size, or the order in which he may cast his eyes upon them, we will acknowledge the aptness of the illustration.12
Workers at the Haskins Laboratories in New Haven, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sweden’s Royal Institute of Technology and elsewhere have shown that the speech signal is a complex of acoustic units; brief segments bounded by momentary pauses or peaks in intensity….
Experimental results confirm that in the perception of speech we are ordinarily aware of discrete phonemic categories rather than of the continuous variation in each acoustic parameter: we perceive speech categorically….
…categorization occurs because a child is born with perceptual mechanisms that are tuned to the properties of speech. These mechanisms yield the forerunners of the phonemic categories that later will enable the child unthinkingly to convert the variable signal of speech into a series of phonemes and thence into words and meanings.13
When I entered the district in 1966, the student population was 40,000 (40 percent minority). Now it is 35,000 (57 percent minority). I am sure that you have often heard it said that the percentage of children who are minority influences the degree of reading failure in a given school or district. Reality is that whether children are “advantaged” or “disadvantaged,” black or white, rich or poor, does not have anything to do with how successfully children learn to read. Based on my professional experiences, such statements are only excuses for not teaching children to read….
…At that time, only look-say and eclectic programs (not phonics-first) were used in the school…. In spite of the teachers’ hard work and the children’s readiness and willingness to learn, children were having trouble learning to read. In fact, remedial readers were being generated in my school faster than I could remediate them.
Five years later (after replacing the old reading programs with three phonics-first programs). Rochester’s students are readers. Our students’ average reading performance is above grade level at grade one and at grade level in grades 2 through 6 as measured by the Metropolitan Reading Achievement Test. Please note that this test measures reading comprehension. This is a dramatic change from only five years ago when one of the major topics of conversation was the number of non-readers in our schools. Today, students automatically decode logically, systematically, and successfully. This enables them to use their energy to read for meaning and understanding, which of course is the ultimate purpose and joy of reading.14
I have seen enough excellent teachers of phonics systems in action to be in awe of them. They teach class after class in which no child reads below grade level, and the classes average two or three years above grade level. They have never seen a “dyslexic” child, nor produced a “learning disabled” or non-reader…. The one thing the sight-word advocates have never been able to prove is that children don’t learn to read with intensive phonics. They can’t prove it, because the evidence is over whelming that children can and do learn to read when properly taught with a good phonics system.15
[Note: There are of course dyslexic children, but not many. My first-grade teacher, with whom I talked recently, told me that in her forty-three years of teaching reading she had had no more than five dyslexics.]
In 1974, Dr. Robert Dykstra of the University of Minnesota published the results of his research concerning the best way to teach beginning reading. Here are his conclusions:Reviewing the research comparing (1) phonic and look-say instructional programs, (2) intrinsic and systematic approaches to helping children learn the code, and (3) code-emphasis and meaning-emphasis basal programs leads to the conclusion that children get off to a faster start in reading if they are given early direct systematic instruction in the alphabetic code. The evidence clearly demonstrates that children who receive early intensive instruction in phonics develop superior word recognition skills in the early stages of reading and tend to maintain their superiority at least through the third grade. These same pupils tend to do somewhat better than pupils enrolled in meaning emphasis (delayed gradual phonics) programs in reading comprehension at the end of the first grade…. There is no evidence to justify the assertion that early instruction in the code brings about decreased reading speed. We can summarize the results of sixty years of research dealing with beginning reading instruction by stating that early systematic instruction in phonics provides the child with the skills necessary to become an independent reader at an earlier age than is likely if phonics instruction is delayed and less systematic. As a consequence of his early success in “learning to read,” the child can more quickly go about the job of “reading to learn.”17
My review of the research from the laboratory, the classroom, and the clinic points to the need for a correction in beginning reading instructional methods. Most school children in the United States are taught to read by what I have termed a meaning-emphasis method [gradual phonics]. Yet the research from 1912 to 1965 indicated that a code-emphasis method—i.e., one that views beginning reading as essentially different from mature reading and emphasizes learning of the printed code for the spoken language—produces better results, at least up to the point where sufficient evidence seems to be available, the end of the third grade.
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 goals 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. On the contrary, the evidence indicates that better results in terms of reading for meaning are achieved with the programs that emphasize code at the start than with the programs that stress meaning at the beginning.19
That to read is to say just what is on the page, instead of to think, each in his own way, the meaning that the page suggests.…It may even be necessary, if the reader is to really tell what the page suggests, to tell it in words that are somewhat variant; for reading is always of the nature of translation and, to be truthful, must be free…and until the insidious thought of reading as word-pronouncing is well worked out of our heads, it is well to place the emphasis strongly where it really belongs, on reading as thought-getting, independently of expression [i.e., the individual words].21
one major difference between orthodox Christianity and paganism is the fact that Christianity is a linguistic religion: it stresses doctrine, content, the importance of linguistic communication; in short, the primacy of the Word. The Bible is a revelation in words, and calls for an intelligible ...response…. 24
To Dewy, the greatest enemy of socialism was the private consciousness that seeks knowledge in order to exercise its own individual judgment…. High literacy gave the individual the means to seek knowledge independently. To Dewey it created and sustained the individual system which was detrimental to the social spirit needed to build a socialist society.…What better way to undermine this independent individualism than by denying it the necessary tool for its development: high literacy…. Thus the goal was to produce inferior readers with inferior intelligence dependent on a socialist elite for guidance, wisdom, and control.27
Most private schools, particularly the religious ones, where Biblical literacy is central, teach reading via phonics. But since many private schools recruit their teachers from the same pool of poorly trained professionals and use many of the same textbooks and materials found in the public schools, their academic standards may reflect more of the general culture than one might expect…. The quality of a private school’s reading program therefore really depends on the knowledge its trustees and principal may have of the literacy problem and its causes. It is this knowledge that can make the difference between a mediocre school and a superior school.28
Blumenfeld, Samuel L. NEA: Trojan Horse in American Education. Boise, Idaho: Paradigm Co., 1984.
___________. The New Illiterates—And How You Can Keep Your Child from Becoming One. New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1973.
Chall, Jeanne. Learning to Read: The Great Debate. Updated ed. New York: McGraw- Hill Co., 1983.
Flesch, Rudolph. Why Johnny Can’t Read—And What You Can Do about It. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1955.
___________. Why Johnny Still Can’t Read: A New Look at the Scandals of Our Schools. Foreword by Mary L. Burkhardt. New York: Harper and Row, 1981.
Gurren, Louise and Hughes, Ann. “Intensive Phonics vs. Gradual Phonics in Beginning Reading: A Review.” The Journal of Educational Research 58 (April 1965):339- 347.
Terman, Sibyl, and Walcutt, Charles C. Reading: Chaos and Cure. New York: McGraw- Hill Co., 1958.
1Robert C. Aukerman, Approaches to Beginning Reading, 2nd ed. (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1984), p.604. 2Stanley N. Wellborn, “Ahead: A Nation of Illiterates?” U.S. News and World Report, 17 May 1982, p. 53. 3Rudolph Flesch, Why Johnny Still Can’t Read: A New Look at the Scandal of Our Schools, with a Foreword by Mary C. Burkhardt (New York: Haper and Row, 1981), p. 62. 4Ibid., p. 63. 5Aukerman, Approaches to Beginning Reading, pp. 7, 606, 608. 6Ibid., p. 6. 7Ibid., pp. 322-23 8Flesch, Why Johhny Still Can’t Read, pp. 72, 75. 9Charles C. Walcutt, Joan Lamport, and Glenn McCraken, Teaching Reading: A Phonic/Linguistic Approach to Developmental Reading (New York: Macmillian Publishing Co., 1974), p. 30. 10Ibid., pp. 31-32. 11Samuel L. Blumenfeld, The New Illiterates—And How You Can Keep Your Child from Becoming One (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1973), p. 340. 12Ibid., pp. 341-42. 13Peter D. Eimas, “The Perception of Speech in Early Infancy,” Scientific American, January 1985, pp. 46, 48-49. 14Mary L. Burkhardt, Foreword to Why Johnny Still Can’t Read, by Rudolph Flesch, pp. xiv-xv, xix-xx. 15Kathyrn Diehl and G. K. Hodenfield, Johnny Still Can’t Read—But You Teach Him at Home (New York: Cal Industries, 1979), pp. iii, 46. 16Louise Gurren and Ann Hughes, “Intensive Phonics vs. Gradual Phonics in Beginning Reading: A Review,” The Journal of Educational Research 58 (April 1965):339, 341, 344. 17Walcutt, Lamport, and McCracken, Teaching Reading, p. 397. 18Jeanne S. Chall, Learning to Read: The Great Debate, updated ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1983), p. 43. 19Ibid., p. 307. 20Walcutt, Lamport, and McCracken, Teaching Reading, p. 28. 21Ibid., pp. 28-29. 22Frank Smith, Reading Without Nonsense (New York: Teachers College Press, 1979), pp. 9, 117, quoted in Flesch, Why Johnny Still Can’t Read, p. 26. 23Flesch, Why Johnny Still Can’t Read, p. 26. 24David Chilton, review of Fire in the Minds of Men, by James H. Billington, Preface 11, 1984, p. 3. 25Mario Pei, The Story of Language (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1965), p. 90. 26Samuel L. Blumenfeld, NEA: Trojan Horse in American Education (Boise, Idaho: Paradigm Co., 1984), pp. 95, 104-107, 120. 27Ibid., pp. 104-107. 28Samuel L. Blumenfeld, The Victims of “Dick and Jane” (New Rochelle, N.Y.: America’s Future, 1982), p. 21; reprint from Reason, October 1982.
Copyright © 1986 Pensacola Christian College. Used by Permission. All rights reserved.
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