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Why Chicago Can't Read

January 15, 2009

The appointment by Barack Obama of Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education is notable for many reasons, not the least of which is that Duncan has served as Superintendent of Chicago Schools, only 17 percent of whose eighth grade students are reading at or above their grade level. The virtual institutionalizing of illiteracy among Chicago's schoolchildren is the legacy of the gradual takeover of American education by the liberal Left during the latter half of the 20th century. The reason it is truly egregious is that it's almost impossible not to teach a child how to read.

To this point: The literacy rate in colonial Boston is estimated by most historians to have been about 99 percent. At the birth of our nation, virtually everyone knew how to read, and this at a time when formal education was decidedly the exception and not the rule. So straightforward is the process of learning to read English that during slavery it was necessary to outlaw teaching slaves to read in order to prevent them from doing so.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the illiteracy rate in our country remained at about one percent; today, many estimates put it at greater than 20 percent among American K-12 students. The causes of the precipitous decline have been institutionalized with the rise of America's largest labor union, the National Education Association (NEA).

By the 1930s, a new "technology," the "look-say" or "whole language" method of teaching kids to read (or rather not to read) had begun to be implemented in the classroom. Based on experimentation by the Russian father of behavioralist psychology, Ivan Pavlov, and furthered in America by John Dewey - the "father of progressive education" - and the NEA, the look-say method treats words as though they were ideographs, much the same as the symbols in Chinese and Japanese writing. It teaches children to "read" by teaching them to identify on sight many hundreds of different short words as ideographic symbols rather than as collections of letters of the alphabet which have individual sounds.

In this it differs from the phonetic method of teaching reading, which, broadly speaking, teaches young learners the sounds of the letters of the alphabet and how to put them together to form words. Since the English alphabet, unlike the Chinese system of representing words, invests each letter with one or several sounds, which can be "decoded" by readers who learn how to do it, English does not admit of being taught in the same way learning to read Chinese might be taught.

Something happens in the brains of early "readers" who learn words as ideographs rather than as collections of letters representing sounds. Once the developing brains of three-, four-, and five-year-olds have learned this way of deciphering words, they often have extreme difficulty changing over to learn the phonetic skills demanded of more advanced reading in English. So damaging is the whole language method of learning to read to the prospects of those who are taught with it that, in many cases, it damns them to a life lived under the label "learning disabled."

It is now widely acknowledged that, because the look-say approach to early reading trains kids' brains to see words as ideographs rather than as collections of letters with associated sounds, this approach actually causes young readers to be unable to switch to a linear/logical approach to reading. As they progress to more difficult reading tasks, which involve the need for them to combine syllables together into longer words, their look-say training prohibits their brains from accomplishing those tasks, and this in turn results in their being diagnosed with dyslexia, among other disorders.

Dyslexia was virtually unknown in the United States until almost mid-century. The term was first used in educational literature in 1942 - within a decade or so of the fairly widespread introduction of the look-say method into American classrooms - to describe students who were unable to learn to read because they had difficulty recognizing letters and associating them with specific sounds. In fact, an entire mini-industry centered on reading remediation has now grown up around this phenomenon of artificially induced dyslexia.

Rudolf Flesch's book, Why Johnny Can't Read, further documented the problem in 1955, offering a phonics-based solution that is still in wide use today by people who recognize the often permanent damage the "whole language" approach to reading can do to their children. Like so much other bad science foisted on its adherents by leftist apologists throughout the 20th century, the whole language method of learning has consigned a significant percentage of the American population who were exposed to it to a lifetime of illiteracy, characterized by frustration and underachievement.

The solution is simple: Jettison the cobbled-together instructional methodology for teaching our kids to read that has produced illiteracy rates that would have been condemned as criminal a hundred years ago and re-institute an entirely phonics-based instructional methodology that has a proven 99 percent success rate. Until we wholeheartedly pursue that solution, we'll continue to throw good resources after bad in the attempt to solve a problem that simply does not need to be a problem at all. And we'll continue to turn out students who haven't mastered the single most important skill - the ability to read - we can impart to them.

One hopes that new Education Secretary Duncan will have the wisdom and the courage to confront the teachers' unions over their willful mismanagement of our children's reading education in order to restore his city's - and the rest of America's - children's right to master the single skill that has such extraordinary power to liberate.

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