From The VG Bookshelf: Why Johnny Can’t Read

From The VG Bookshelf: Why Johnny Can’t Read

From The VG Bookshelf: Why Johnny Can’t Read

The subject of the book from the VG Bookshelf this week is literacy. I am not reviewing the book “Why Johnny Can’t Read”. I am issuing a clarion call for parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and anyone else who wants an educated populace in the United States of America. Of the famous three “R’s”, reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmatic, reading is first because everything else flows from reading. If a child cannot read, that child is doomed to intellectual slavery.

The book “Why Johnny Can’t Read and what you can do about it” was first published in 1955 shortly after the author Rudolf Flesch received his Ph.D from Columbia Teachers College. Flesch was a proponent of both literacy and clear writing. From his New York Times obituary:

Among his targets were ”Federalese,” the language of bureacrats, and ”gobbledygook,” a description of meaninglessness.

Tests on Government material, he said, furnished ”objective evidence that the mass of Government writing is incomprehensible not only to the average American, with his eighth-grade education, but also to the better-educated Government employee.”

Good thing Flesch died in 1986, the government writing has gotten so much worse, it would kill him.

So why should you click on Amazon immediately and order a sixty-four year old book? Because the truth is the truth. Johnny still can’t read and we are spending a metric shit ton (technical term) of money to make sure that Johnny or Jilly stays functionally illiterate.

Here is the 411 from the book:

Before 1920, there were no remedial reading programs in United States schools. Pretty much there still are no remedial reading programs in industrial countries that use alphabetic languages today. France, Germany, Switzerland, Laos. For reference, the Chinese written language has a word symbol rather than an alphabet. Why do we need remedial reading programs today? Because a bunch of geniuses decided that learning phonics and other rote learning was “heartless drudgery” and invented the whole word or “look-say” method of teaching reading. The geniuses didn’t ask teachers.

What is phonics? From

Learning phonics will help your children learn to read and spell. Written language can be compared to a code, so knowing the sounds of letters and letter combinations will help your child decode words as he reads. Knowing phonics will also help your child know which letters to use as he writes words.

You can’t break the code, if you don’t know the code. In “Why Johnny Can’t Read”, Flesch compares learning to read phonetically to learning American Shorthand, Braille or Morse Code. You learn to understand each symbol before you can made whole words, right? You learn to write the symbols and the sounds they stand for in each word.

What is the whole word or “look-say” method of reading? From Teaching Treasures:

With the ‘look and say’ method children learn to recognize whole words or sentences rather than individual sounds. Your student will look at a word which you sound, and in turn will repeat the sound (the word). Flashcards with individual words written on them are used for this method often accompanied with a related picture.

If you don’t use a picture with the word the child will probably make a wild guess as to what it says trying to remember what sound you made previously. This is not a good method if you don’t include pictures.

A typical “look-say” flashcard used to teach American children. vector/123rf License Agreement

If you think about the fact that there are nearly 200,000 words in the English language. The “look-say” method doesn’t make sense. If you learned a foreign language or shorthand in school, did you learn the letters and letter groups and their sounds first, or did you learn the whole word?

Which is easier? Flashcards with 200,000 words. Or, 200 letter and letter groups that stand for 44 sounds. No contest. And, then there is context and comprehension and I could go on for hours. Sorry, not sorry. Learning phonics is a really huge building block for raising a literate adult.

Learning that individual letters make certain sounds is the first step. This video might be appropriate for your two or three year old.

There are great phonics computer programs like Reader Rabbit. I personally used Reader Rabbit to teach my son Phonics from ages three to six in the 1990’s. If you are a more patient and enterprising parent than I was, Rudolf Flesch included 72 exercises and review at the back of “Why Johnny Can’t Read”. For the price of a paperback, you get an educational tool that will insure that your child reads, write and comprehends.

Language, communication, history and everything else that makes us competent history begins with learning to read. I am begging you buy this book and use it.

Photo Composite: Darleen Click for Victory Girls

Written by

  • GWB says:

    It sounds like you’re setting the two up against each other. If so, that’s dumb.

    Reading requires whole word learning AND phonics. Either one alone reduces literacy. Phonics alone reduces reading speed, and whole word alone limits you to known vocabulary. And neither one actually produces as large a vocabulary as etymological training (word roots – i.e., knowing that “psy” is a Greek root for ‘mind’, hence psychology and psychiatry and psionics).

    Phonics partly assumes you are translating written speech to oral, or vice versa. This is not necessary (unless you move your lips when you read) purely for literacy*. It is necessary if you want to be well-spoken as well as well-lettered.

    (* Our current teaching paradigms encourage sounding out words in your head as you read them, which actually slows reading speed significantly. It’s unnecessary. A better paradigm would provide two tracks, written and verbal, and connect them frequently, but only when necessary.)

    But, yes, it sure would be nice to have people who can read unfamiliar words out loud, even if they don’t fully understand them, because they can make intelligent guesses as to phonetics. People are often “amazed” that I can read Scripture so “well”. Because I learned all those phonetics, and make informed guesses.

    (English is primarily difficult because of its multiple linguistic origins. I’m constantly misspelling words with ie/ei combinations, because my brain follows the logical German rule: the sound it has is the second of the two letters. So I’m ok with field. And premier. Weird and ceiling are troublesome. Note that weird is an exception to the “i before e, except after c” rule, as well. Weird is strange. All those words have different origins. This makes phonics with English more difficult than it otherwise might be.)

    • GWB says:

      Heh, I missed the obvious one, of using “phon” for the etymological training.
      “phon” being Greek for sound, so…
      phonograph for “written sound”
      telephone for “long distance sound”
      cacophony for “loud, unpleasant sounds”
      euphonic for “good sound”
      saxophone for “sounds from that thing invented by Adolphe Sax”

      (And, it’s a shame we ever lost the word ‘phonograph’ to ‘record’. ‘Phonograph’ is such a much more complete word, and could still be used related to digital music. idiocracy, here we come.)

  • Kathy says:

    And whatever they do learn gets mashed into texting abbreviations and shorts. And most is lost…

  • Charles N. Steele says:

    Whole word “look say” is pseudo science. It treats an alphabetical language as if it is pictograms, like written Chinese. GWB, you are mistaken, it is the “look-sayers” who posed their method as “instead of” phonics.

    Teach spelling. Teach cursive. And…

    Eliminate social media. It is destroying young people (oh, the irony of posting this on a blog):

    • GWB says:

      The comment was directed at this post, regardless of “who did it first.”

      And the idea of words as whole units is not pseudo-science in any way (unless it’s posed as the only way to learn reading). It’s the best way to read quickly – heck, I guarantee it’s how you read this post and the comments. You certainly didn’t sound out each word from the phonetic units, then decide what it said. That should not be something that is achieved only over long periods of learning, but as part of the reading program.

      IMO, you want to read using a whole word approach, then when you encounter an unknown word, your brain should shift to word-parts (with context) to determine meaning, and possibly pronunciation. Failing word-parts for pronunciation, then your brain shifts to phonics. (Note, phonics tells you nothing about *meaning* unless it’s a word you’ve heard before, but never seen written.)

      Again, this concerns reading. For verbal expression, phonics is an excellent way to learn pronunciation of unknown words. But all the rules will get thrown out the window for some words, because you’re speaking English, not Esperanto.

  • My point wasn’t “who did it first?” Look-Say advocates proposed it to replace phonics, not as an adjunct.

    Mi estas Esperantisto.

    • GWB says:

      “Look-say” wasn’t initially proposed by anyone. It’s how you teach your kids to read when you read to them at home. At least every parent I knew did. You put your finger under the words and read aloud to them – they pick up whole words that way. Phonics comes alongside that.

      As to “who did it first”, my only point was not to pit the two against each other. They are complementary. Arguing that “the other side did that” comes across as “they did it first!” (Calling it “pseudo-science” also tends to reinforce the idea you want phonics all alone, by itself.) I think primarily we miscommunicated our intentions with that.

      And I’m impressed at how old you are, if you actually learned Esperanto. 😉
      (Does anyone even advocate for Esperanto any more? I think I had an Esperanto-English dictionary back when I was … much younger.)

  • Brian Brandt says:

    I looked at the Reader Rabbit link on Amazon. The reviews were great – if you could get it to work on your computer. It appears to be old software that will not work on MAC or Win 64 bit. A shame, because it looks like a great learning program.

  • JS says:

    If you know the likely sounds that individual letters and groups make then you have a head start in reading an unfamiliar word.
    You hear as a child many most words before you see them on a page and learn how to spell them. If a child reads out a word that looks unfamiliar they will often quickly recognize that it is a word that they already know – both its sound and meaning.
    Having to say the word aloud, or even in your head, becomes unnecessary very quickly as you become more familiar with the word.
    In other words, phonics is a far more adaptable and quicker method of achieving the very same end – that you can look at a word and know its meaning and sound instantly. The difference being that it helps far more with unfamiliar words.
    Most of humanity learned how to read alphabet languages without look-say and it would really have to offer something more useful if it is to divert precious time away from phonics. Does it?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Become a Victory Girl!

Are you interested in writing for Victory Girls? If you’d like to blog about politics and current events from a conservative POV, send us a writing sample here.
Ava Gardner