For many adults, reading a book or newspaper seems effortless. Yet reading effortlessly comes from constant use of basic skills learned at an early age. Once children learn these basic skills, they can eventually read complex books like War and Peace.
What are these skills? To read, one must recognize thousands of words. Since all English words are built from only twenty-six letters, the huge task of recognizing letters and their sounds and putting them together to form words becomes greatly simplified. An English-speaking child only has to sound out the letters and then put the sounds together to read the word.
I do not wish to over-simplify the complexity of our rich English language, however. Like other western languages, English has its peculiarities. For example, many vowels have more than one sound, and many sounds can be spelled more than one way. However, even with these complexities, English is far easier to learn than Chinese, where children have to memorize thousands of word pictures, rather than twenty-six letters and their sounds.
Reading is difficult at first, but, once learned, the process becomes automatic and unconscious. When we can read quickly without sounding out every letter of every word, all the knowledge of the world opens to us. However, like learning to drive a car, if we don’t learn the basic skills, we don’t learn to read, or we read poorly.
Enter public-school education theorists who think otherwise. Don't adults read without sounding out every letter of every word, they ask? So why teach children phonics? Why put children through the alleged boredom, drudgery, and hard work of learning letter-sounds? How can reading be joyful if literature becomes drills? If children memorize whole words instead of putting together letter sounds, all this pain will be gone. Rather than teaching kids the alphabet and how to sound out M-O-T-H-E-R, teach them to recognize MOTHER and other whole words in a book, like Chinese word-pictures or ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Have the child read simple books that repeat each word over and over, so that they come to recognize the word. Do this for each word, they claim, and the child will learn to read. This is called “whole-language" reading instruction.
The only problem is that whole-language doesn't work. It is a disaster. Most young children are only able to “memorize" a few hundred relatively simple words. Even an adult's mind can only memorize at most, a few thousand words. That's the limit of the human mind's capacity to memorize abstract symbols. In contrast, children who learn to sound out the letters of words with phonics can read tens of thousands of words, and eventually read ANY word, because they can sound out each letter in the word and put the sounds together.
Author and education researcher Charles J. Sykes describes whole-language reading instruction in one first-grade classroom in his book “Dumbing Down Our Kids":
“Reading instruction begins with “pre-reading strategies” in which “children predict what the story is about by looking at the title and the pictures. Background knowledge is activated to get the children thinking about the reading topic. ” Then they read the story. If a child does not recognize a word, they are told to “look for clues. ”
“The whole-language curriculum gave specific suggestions that children: “Look at the pictures, ” ask “What would make sense?” “Look for patterns, ” “Look for clues, ” and “Skip the word and read ahead and then go back to the word. ” Finally, if all this fails, parents/teachers are told, “Tell the child the word. . . . ”
“When kids couldn’t figure out a word, educationists gave these further ions: “Ask a friend, skip the word, substitute another meaningful word. ” Sykes then asks, “Look at the pictures. Skip the word. Ask a friend. Is this reading?"
During the 1990s, when whole-language instruction was in full force, outraged parents bitterly complained about their children's deteriorating ability to read. In response, public schools across the country then reverted to their usual tactics - they kept the failed policy but changed its name to fool parents.
Many public schools today say they now teach kids to read with “balanced reading instruction. " What this means is they combine whole-language instruction with a smattering of phonics. “See, " they can say to parents, “we are now teaching your kids phonics. " The only problem is that too often the “balance" is still about 80 percent whole-language, and 20 percent phonics, if and when the teacher thinks phonics is “needed" in “special cases. "
If you were a doctor and were treating a patient for a serious infection, would you give the patient a “balanced" cure of arsenic and antibiotics? That is the moral and practical status of “balanced" reading instruction where whole-language instruction still predominates, because whole-language is the arsenic of reading-instruction methods.
Parents, don't let public-school officials fool you with their glib talk of “balanced reading instruction. " You need to personally investigate how your local school teaches your kids to read. The best thing to do is to test your children's true reading abilities with an outside, independent testing company. You may be shocked by the outcome of the test. The Resources section of “Public Schools, Public Menace, " lists many such independent reading-testing companies.
Joel Turtel is an education policy analyst, and author of “Public Schools, Public Menace: How Public Schools Lie To Parents and Betray Our Children. " Contact Information: Website: http://www.mykidsdeservebetter.com , Email: email@example.com , Phone: 718-447-7348, Article Copyrighted © 2005 by Joel Turtel, NOTE: You may post this Article on an Ezine, newsletter, or other website only if you include Joel Turtel’s complete contact information, and set up a hyperlink to Joel Turtel’s email address and website URL, http://www.mykidsdeservebetter.com.