I Say Your Child Can’t Read

Dr Rudolf Flesch shouts an angry warning at today's teachers and parents

DR. RUDOLF FLESCH January 1 1955

I Say Your Child Can’t Read

Dr Rudolf Flesch shouts an angry warning at today's teachers and parents

DR. RUDOLF FLESCH January 1 1955

THE OTHER DAY I attended a meeting at our local school at which parents discussed reading problems with the school librarian and the reading teacher. One of the mothers stood up and made an interesting point. “Why is it,” she asked the librarian, “that my two boys, who are in first and second grade, never bring home any library books that they can read themselves? My husband and I have to read those books to them.”

There wasn’t much the librarian could say to that. She just didn’t have any such books in her library, she said. Publishers didn’t put out any hooks simple enough for first and second graders to read alone.

All of which was perfectly true. What was also true, but what of course nobody said, was that first, and second graders in almost all United States and most Canadian public schools are not taught to read at all, as shown by the fact that there is scarcely a single book outside of their classroom texts that they can manage to read by themselves. Instead, they are taught, to memorize the words in their readers.

I know a couple with a twelve-year-old boy named Johnny who started out last, year in Grade 7 at public school. After a few weeks he was put hack to Grade 6. The reason for this, his dismayed parents told me, was that Johnny was unable to read and couldn’t possibly keep up with Grade 7 work. I told them that I knew of a way to teach reading that was altogether different from what they do in the schools. They asked me to help Johnny.

Today the boy can read—not perfectly, but he will soon have caught up with other boys his age. He is happy now, and I think he will probably go to college and do well. But if Johnny learned something about reading, so did I. When I started to work with Johnny. I also started to look into the whole reading business. I worked through a mountain of books and articles, I talked to dozens of people and I spent hours in classrooms, watching what was going on.

What I found is fantastic. Th reading in North America, all over in most of Canada where the same tel are used — is, in my view, totally in the face of all logic and common sense. Johnny couldn’t read because nobody ever showed him how.

I was born and raised in Austria. There are no remedial cases such as Johnny in schools there. There are no remedial reading cases in Norway either, or in Spain, Germany or Italy—nor practically anywhere in the world except in North America. In fact, there was no such thing as remedial reading in the U. S. and Canada until they began to switch to their present teaching methods in the Twenties.

This sounds incredible, but it is true. In April 1953 Dr. Ralph C. Preston of the University of Pittsburgh reported on a trip through Western Germany where he visited classrooms in Hamburg and Munich. “After hearing German children read aloud,” he says, “I began to attach some credence to a generally expressed opinion of German teachers that before the end of Grade 2 almost any child can read orally (without regard to degree of comprehension) almost anything in print!”

Dr. Preston didn’t draw the obvious conclusion from what he saw. The explanation is simply that the method used there works, and the method used in our schools does not. We too could have perfect readers in all schools at the end of second grade if we taught our children by the system used in Germany.

Now, what is this system? It’s very simple. Reading means getting meaning from certain combinations of letters. Teach the child what each letter stands for and he can read. The way to learn any such system is to learn to write and to read it at the same time. And how do you do that? By taking up one symbol after another and learning how to write it and to recognize it.

Our system of writing the alphabet was in-invented by the Egyptians and the Phoenicians around 1500 B.C. Before the invention of the alphabet there was only picture writing a picture of an ox meant “ox,” a picture of a house meant “house,” and so on. (The Chinese to this day have symbols that stand for whole words.) As soon as people had an alphabet, reading and writing were tremendously simplified. Before that you had to have a symbol for every word 10,000, 20,000 or whatever the vocabulary range was. Now, with the alphabet, all you had to learn was the letters. Each letter stood for a certain sound and that was that. To write a word any word all you had to do was break it down into its sounds and put the corresponding letters on paper.

Why We Don’t Use the Alphabet

So, ever since 1500 B.C., people all over the world wherever an alphabetic system of writing was used — learned how to read and write by memorizing the sound of each letter in the alphabet. When a schoolboy in ancient Rome learned to read, he didn’t learn that the written word mensa meant a table. Instead, he began by learning that the letter m stands for the sound you make when you put your lips together, that e means the sound that comes out when you open your mouth about halfway, that, n is like m but with the lips open and the teeth together, that s has a hissing sound, and that a means the sound made by opening your mouth wide. Therefore, when he saw the written word mensa for the first time, he could read it right off and learn that this collection of letters meant a table. Not only that, he could also write the word down from dictation without ever having seen it before. And not only that, he could do this with practically every word in the language.

This is the only natural system of learning how to read. The ancient Egyptians learned that way, and the Greeks and the Romans, and the French and the Germans, and the Dutch and the Portuguese, and the Turks and the Bulgarians and the Estonians and the Icelanders and the Abyssinians - every single nation throughout history that used an alphabetic system of writing. 

Except, as I said before, twentieth-century Americans and Canadians. And what do we use instead? Why, the only other possible system of course the system in use before the invention of the alphabet. We have decided to forget that we write with letters and learn to read English as if it were Chinese. One word after another after another. If we want to read a vocabulary of 10,000 words then we have to memorize 10,000 words; if we want to go to the 20,000 word range, we have to learn, one by one, 20,000 words. We have thrown 3,500 years of civilization out the window and have gone back to the Age of Hammurabi.

You don’t believe me? I assure you what I am saying is literally true. Go to your school tomorrow morning—or if your child has brought home one of his readers look at it. You will immediately see that all the words in it are learned by endless repetition. Not a sign anywhere that letters correspond to sounds and that words can be worked out by pronouncing the letters. No. The child is told what each word means and then they are mechanically, brutally, hammered into his brain. Like this:

“We will look,” said Susan.

“Yes, yes,” said all the children.

“We will look and find it.”

So all the boys and girls looked.

They looked and looked for it.

But they did not find it.

Or this:

“Quack, quack,” said the duck.

He wanted something.

He did not want to get out.

He did not want to go to the farm.

He did not want to eat.

He sat and sat and sat.

All the reading books in all our schools, up through fourth and fifth and sixth grade, are collections of stuff like that. Our children learn the word sat by reading over and over again about a duck or a pig or a goat that sat and sat and sat. And so with every word in the language.

Every word in the language! You know what that means? It means that if you teach reading by this system you can’t use ordinary reading matter for practice. Instead, all children for three, four, five, six years have to work their way up through a battery of carefully designed readers, each one containing all the words used in the previous one plus a strictly limited number of new ones, used with the exactly “right” amount of repetition. Our children don’t read Andersen’s Fairy Tales any more or The Arabian Nights or Mark Twain or Louisa May Alcott or anything interesting and worth while because they can’t. It so happens that the writers of these classic children’s books wrote without being aware of our Chinese system of teaching reading. So Little Women contains words like grieving and serene and Tom Sawyer has ague and inwardly, and Bulfinch’s Age of Fable has nymph and deity and incantations. If a child that has gone to any of our schools faces the word nymph for the first time, he is absolutely helpless because nobody has ever told him how to sound out n and y and m and ph and read the word off the page.

So what does he get instead? He gets those series of horrible, stupid, emasculated, pointless, tasteless little readers, the stuff and guff about Dick and Jane visiting the farm and having birthday parties and seeing animals in the zoo and going through dozens of totally unexciting activities that offer opportunities for reading “Look, look” or “Yes, yes” or “Come, come” or “See the funny, funny animal.”

To understand what is happening in our schools it is necessary to understand what those readers are, how they are produced and what effect they have on our children.

To begin with, you have to realize that what is now commonly known as a reader is not the reader of thirty or forty years ago. In those days a reader was simply a collection of reading matter suitable for children in school. Today a reader is a special tool for fixing a “sight-reading vocabulary” in children’s minds. This “sight-reading vocabulary” is the essence of the word method of teaching reading. Without the readers, the word method cannot be used at all.

According to the basic theory of the word method, children learn to read by looking at words again and again until they know them by sight. It is therefore necessary to make them fix their eyes repeatedly on certain predetermined words. For example, during first grade a reading “expert” decides to give them, say, four hundred words. He draws up a list of those four hundred words and then proceeds to write a book of “stories” containing no word outside that list and repeating each one of the four hundred words as often as possible. He then repeats the process for the second grade reader of his series: he adds another four hundred words to the first four hundred, draws up a list of those eight hundred words, and writes a somewhat thicker book of “stories” staying within his eight-hundred-word limit and repeating each of the eight hundred words to the utmost. Now he goes on to his third, fourth, fifth and sixth reader, and winds up with a package suitable for large sales.

Teaching Becomes a Cinch

Let me say here that I checked the vocabulary contents of two leading sets of readers—those published by the Scott, Foresman Company and the Macmillan Company. (In Canada almost all the readers used in public schools originate in the U. S. although they are printed and bound by Canadian firms.) The Scott, Foresman set includes 1,280 words in the first two grades and adds 498 in third grade, reaching the grand total of 1,778 at the end of third grade. The Macmillan Company, however, is ahead by a considerable margin. The latest edition of their set of readers is pared down to not more than 1,284 words by the end of third grade.

It is important to add that the trend is definitely toward fewer and fewer words. A sharply limited vocabulary seems to be the most potent sales argument for school readers.

The effect of this in the classroom is best described in the words of Gertrude Hildreth, author of Teaching The Three Rs. She is the senior author of a set of readers that gets along with 1,147 words for the first three grades. “Experience has proved,” Dr. Hildreth writes, “that keeping the vocabulary of new words relatively small even a little below the children’s demonstrative assimilation threshold— without neglecting the other important factors, virtually revolutionizes the teaching of primary grade reading.”

In other words, teaching children 1,147 words in three years is a cinch. Never mind the fact that those third graders can’t read a single blessed book and are unable to decipher a simple note to the milkman—what does it matter as long as the teacher’s work is now a joy instead of a chore?

And now let’s take a look at what’s in those books. Don’t underrate their importance in the life of your child. They are all he has to read—all he can read -during the first two or three or four years that he comes in contact with books. For all he knows, this is what books are like.

Here, for example, is the full text of a “story” called A Funny Ride, taken from the reader, Fun With Dick and Jane: Father said, “I want something. I want to get something. Something for the car. We can get it here.”

“Oh, Father,” said Sally, “what do you want? What do you want for the car?”

Father said, “You will see. You will see.”

Up, up went the car. “Oh, oh,” said Jane. “See the car go up. The car can go for a ride. It can ride up.”

Sally said, “Oh! See Tim! He went up, too. He and Spot and Puff went up.”

Sally said, “Look, Father! Spot and Puff want to jump. Please make the car come down. Can you make it come down?”

“Yes, Sally,” said Father. “We can make the car come down. We will get Spot and Puff and Tim.”

“Look, Sally,” said Dick. “See the car come down. See Tim come down. See Spot and Puff come down.”

Sally said, “Down comes the car. Down comes Spot. Down comes Puff. And down comes Tim.”

“Oh, Spot,” laughed Dick. “You ride up. You ride down. You ride up and down. This is a funny ride for you. A funny ride for Puff. And a funny ride for Tim.”

Father went to the car. He said, “The car can go. The family can go. The family can go away.”

“Away we go,” said Sally. “We will not ride up and down. We will ride away.” Away went the car. Away went the family. Away, away, away.

This sort of strung-out prose has no resemblance any more with normal English. It is a language found exclusively in the books manufactured for use with and on our school children. It is not the language used in telling a story. No normal writer ever wrote a book like that, no poet ever wrote such a poem, no mother ever told such a bedtime story. Our literature is composed in English, not in “Oh, oh! Come, come! Look, look!” language.

Who writes these books? Let me explain this because there is the nub of the whole problem.

There are one or two dozen textbook houses in North America. By far the most lucrative part of their business is the publication of readers for elementary schools. There are millions of dollars of profit in these little books. Naturally, the competition is tremendous. So is the investment; so is the sales effort; so is the effort that goes into writing, editing and illustrating these books.

Now, with our Chinese word-learning system you can’t produce a series of readers by printing interesting collections of stuff children might like to read. Oh no. Every single story, every single sentence that goes into these books has to be carefully prepared and carefully checked to make sure that each word is one of the 637 that the poor child is supposed to have memorized up to that point.

Naturally, the stupendous and frighteningly idiotic work of concocting this stuff can only be done by teamwork of many educational drudges. But if the textbook people put only the drudges on the title page that wouldn’t look impressive enough to beat the competition. So there has to be a “senior author” someone with a reputation who teaches how to teach reading in a major university.

And that’s why each and every one of the so-called authorities in this field is tied up with a series of readers based on the Chinese word-learning method. As long as you use that method, you have to buy some $30 worth per child of Dr. So-and-so’s readers; as soon as you switch to the common-sense method of teaching the sounds of the letters, you can give them a little primer and then proceed immediately to anything from this magazine to Treasure Island.

I have personally met some of the leading authorities in the field of reading. They are all obviously sincere and well meaning. But they are firmly committed to the application of the word method, and it would be inhuman to expect from them an objective point of view.

The Primer Nobody Wanted

Take the case of the late Dr. Leonard Bloomfield, professor of linguistics at Yale. He was universally recognized as one of the greatest linguists of modern times. His masterpiece was a book called Language, published in 1933.

In the last few pages of that book Bloomfield dealt with the teaching of English and reading. “Our schools,” he wrote, “are utterly benighted in linguistic matters . . . Nothing could be more discouraging than to read our ‘educationalists’ treatises on methods of teaching children to read. The size of this book does not permit a discussion of their varieties of confusion on this subject.”

Several years later Bloomfield took time out to prepare an alphabetic phonetic primer carefully designed to teach children quickly and painlessly. After Bloomfield’s death in 1949 his literary executor offered the manuscript to every single elementary textbook publisher in the United States. Not one of them considered it.

The introduction to this Bloomfield primer was, however, published in the Elementary English Review in April and May 1942. Here is what Bloomfield told elementary English teachers twelve years ago: “The most serious drawback of all the English reading instruction ... is the drawback of the word-method . . . The child who fails to grasp what he reads is usually a poor reader in the mechanical sense . . . If you want to play the piano with feeling and expression, you must master the keyboard and learn to use your fingers on it. The chief source of difficulty in getting the content of reading is imperfect mastery of the mechanics of reading . . . We must train the child to respond vocally to the sight of letters . . .”

And what did reading experts do after the greatest scientist in the field had explained to them their mistake? Absolutely nothing. Except that in 1948 Dr. William S. Gray, of the University of Chicago, noting Bloomfield’s paper, made this statement: “The recent trend toward . . . the old alphabetic or phonic methods is viewed with alarm by educators . . .”

Recently I spent some time in the library of Teachers College, Columbia University, tracking down every reference to a study of “phonics vs. no phonics” and looking for scientific evidence in favor of the word method. I found none.

I could give you dozens of examples of tests, but here is a typical one: In December 1943 Dr. David H. Russell of the University of California, who later wrote a word-method text, Children Learn To Read, reported in an educational journal a study of first and second-grade children in Vancouver, B.C. Sixty-one children were given day-by-day phonic work on sounds and extra practice in handwriting; fifty-five other children were taught little or no phonics. At the end of the experiment both groups were given twelve different tests of reading and spelling. The phonics-trained group did better on every one of the twelve tests. “The table (of test results) clearly reveals,” comments Dr. Russell, “that the early and rather direct type of instruction in the phonics group has a favorable influence on achievement in spelling and reading.”

How did this whole thing come about? Here I have been telling you that there is only one way to teach reading (by the alphabetic or phonic system) and that U. S. and Canadian schools obstinately persist in using another method (the word system) that doesn’t work. On the face of it that’s an incredible accusation. Surely modern education is based on science: there must have been experiments and laboratory studies and years of weighing the advantages of the new method and the disadvantages of the old one. This important shift cannot just have sprung full-grown from the brain of some educator; it must be the result of modern educational psychology. 

The trouble with this is that the word method was not adopted as a result of laboratory findings. Far from it. It started with a cow.

In 1846 a young man named John Russell Webb published a primer in the U. S. called The New Word Method; it discarded the principle of “letters first” and was based on whole words. And how did Webb arrive at his method? A later edition of his primer revealed that he had been a village schoolteacher and one morning he was sitting in his boardinghouse waiting for his breakfast when his landlady’s small daughter climbed onto his lap. Her father was in the yard milking the cow.

The teacher laid down a newspaper he had been reading to talk to the child. He pointed to the cow in the yard and just then his eye caught the word "cow” in the paper. He pointed this out to the child and again indicated the cow. She jumped from his lap with the paper and ran to her mother “I know what it means,” she said, pointing to the word. “It is a cow, just like what papa is milking.”

I don’t doubt this charming story. No, that’s what happened. Young Mr. Webb ate his breakfast, the child climbed onto his lap, the cow was outside the window and—lo and behold —the word method was born.

Not that the word method immediately swept the field. Far from it. In those early years Webb’s primer —like other primers based on the word method—was a novelty taken up only by experiment-minded teachers and schools. The phonetic method was still very much in the saddle and, as the word method gained ground, it too became embroidered with all sorts of new experiments, teaching children novel phonetic symbols, diacritical marks, and so forth. The word method people replied that this sort of stuff was ridiculous—which it was —and proclaimed the blessings of the whole-word approach more loudly than ever.

Phonics Was on the Way Out

Things began to change in earnest only in 1908 when a man by name of Dr. Edmund Burke Huey published a book called The Psychology and Pedagogy of Reading. Huey was a tremendously persuasive evangelist for the word method. He preached the new gospel as vigorously as nobody preached it before or since. For him, the word method was the dawn of a new world. “Reading, to be truthful, must be free of what is on the page,” he wrote. This is the purest statement of the word method I have seen anywhere.

And now the curtain rises on the last act of this long-drawn-out drama. We are in the middle of the 1920s, and here is Dr. Arthur I. Gates doing research in reading at Teachers College, Columbia University. Gates is a true believer in the whole-word method; what’s more important, he is also filled with the fervent belief that systematic instruction in phonics is a pure, unadulterated evil that must be destroyed. At this point the word method is in the ascendant, but most schools still haven’t given up good old-fashioned phonic drills. So Gates tackles the problem by proposing something that will take the place of those drills. Of course we need phonics, he admits; by all means, he’s all for it. But let’s give children phonics in such a way that they hardly notice it; let’s make it unobtrusive; let’s sneak it in casually, while the children are paying attention to something else. Let’s not teach them systematically that the letter m says mmmm and the letter s says ssss; let’s teach them the wind of m while they are reading about a monkey and the sound of s when they get to the word sit.

And so the great idea of “intrinsic” or “incidental” phonics is born. Dr. Gates sets up an experiment: one first grade is taught by his new “incidental phonics,” another first grade—the control group—is exposed to conventional phonic drills. After a few months the two groups are tested. Hurrah! the new method has won. And Dr. Gates is on his way to drive phonics out of schools.

This Gates experiment was the only test ever made in which systematic phonics came out second best. There was a special joker in it that helps to explain why: every test was timed.

What does that mean? It means this: You give a child, say, two minutes to read aloud a group of twenty words.

If the child has been taught phonics he’ll tackle each of these words letter by letter to make sure he reads the word that’s actually there. Within two minutes this first-grader may manage to read in this fashion eight of twenty test words. But a child who has been taught by the word method (plus “incidental” phonics) isn’t concerned at all with getting the words right. He has been trained to guess, and guess he does. He races through all the twenty words, guessing wildly, and by pure chance combined with his memory of words he has “met,” he guesses fifty percent right. Result: The first child’s score is eight, the second child’s ten.

I analyzed Dr. Gates’ test scores and found that they were all of this type.

From there on the great battle turned into just a mopping-up operation. In 1949 Dr. David Russell in his book, Children Learn to Read, described “seven different ways to recognize new or partly known words”:

1. The general pattern, or configuration, of the word.

2. Special characteristics of the appearance of the word.

3. Similarity to known words.

4. Recognition of familiar parts in longer words.

5. The use of picture clues.

6. The use of context clues.

7. Phonetic and structural analysis of the word.

You see? Phonetics has become a tool to be used only after everything else has failed.

Recently, though, the pendulum has begun to swing in the other direction.

In most parts of Canada the phonics system is by no means completely neglected. Children get it from Grade 1 through Grade 3. But even here it is used for the most part in support of the word method and not as a teaching device on its own.

Also, the clamor of parents about their non-reading children seems to have got on some educators’ nerves. Witness Dr. John J. DeBoer, editor of Elementary English, reviewing a book on Emotional Difficulties in Reading in February 1954: “The book,” writes Dr. DeBoer, “should serve as a powerful corrective for the view that the answer to most reading problems is ‘more phonics.’ ” And Dr. Emmett A. Betts of Temple University, Philadelphia, in the January 1954 issue of Education, has this to say:

“For the past 150 years the phonics fad has come and gone. Right now, the fad has again taken over reading. While there is a need for improving the phonics programs through the teachers, it should be obvious that this one gimmick will not make much of a dent in the reading problem.”

In 1783 Noah Webster proclaimed that “it is necessary to begin with the elements of the language and explain the powers of the letters.” Now we are told that phonics is just a gimmick.

Which wouldn’t really matter if our children were taught to read. But they are not.

This is an excerpt from Dr. Flesch’s new book, WHY JOHNNY CAN'T READ, to be published later by Harper and Brothers, New York.