|source : jeudepaume.org|
Rudolf Flesch, Why Johnny Still Can't Read (1981)
Why Johnny Still Can’t Read
Are you worrying about your child's education? You should be. There's an 85 percent chance that your Johnny or Mary will never learn to read properly.
There are two schools of thought about how to teach a child to read. One is called "intensive phonies" or "systematic phonies" or, more recently, "decoding" or "code emphasis." In this book, to avoid confusion, I'll call it "phonics-first." The other is called the "look-and-say" or "whole-word" or "sight-reading" method or—so help me—"psycholinguistics." I'll use "look-and-say."
When I wrote my book Why Johnny Can't Read twenty-five years ago, look-and-say ruled supreme. Almost all American schools used it. Phonics-first was a poor orphan, used only in a handful of schools.
I said in my book that phonics-first worked splendidly and should be used in all schools, while look-and-say was wretchedly poor and should be abandoned at once.
Unfortunately my advice fell on deaf ears. With heart-breaking slowness, phonics-first crept into some 15 percent of our schools, but an estimated 85 percent of them still stick to old, discredited look-and-say.
The results of this mass miseducation have been disastrous. America is rapidly sinking into a morass of ignorance. The official statistics are appalling.
In 1975 the U.S. Office of Education sponsored the so-called APL (Adult Performance Level) study, conducted by Dr.  Norvel Northcutt of the University of Texas in Austin. It was designed to find out how many Americans had the skills to cope with modern life. It showed that 21.7 percent of adults between eighteen and sixty-five—or 23 million people—couldn't read a want ad, a job application form, a label on a medicine bottle, or a safety sign at a workplace.
Of those 23 million, 16 percent had never gone beyond third grade. This left 19 million who'd had four or more years of schooling but never learned how to read. Why? Because almost all of them were taught by look-and-say, and the method doesn't work.
And what happened at the other end of the educational scale? How did our brightest young people do at college age after they'd been taught reading by look-and-say in first grade? For them, look-and-say worked like a time bomb. In 1963 the nationwide college entrance test (Scholastic Aptitude Test or SAT) scores began to drop. They've been dropping steeply ever since, with no end in sight. Verbal SAT averages, which stood at 478 in 1963, were down to 424 in 1980—a staggering drop of 9 percent of the whole 200-800-point range in seventeen years.
In 1977 a blue-ribbon twenty-one-member advisory panel, headed by former Secretary of Labor Willard Wirtz, issued a report on the decline in the SAT scores. "The panel members," it said, "share strongly the national concern about the increasing signs of functional illiteracy . . . [but they could find] no one cause of the SAT score decline."
However, in an appendix to the report, Professor Jeanne Chall of Harvard University offered a clue to that one basic cause. The students' low SAT scores, she wrote, had a "clearcut" statistical relationship to the reading instruction program used ten years earlier in first grade. The program had been based on a series of "look-and-say" readers.
There's little doubt that we'll soon have doctors who can't easily read medical journals, lawyers who have difficulty researching a case, scientists who stumble through their professional literature. In the 1990s we'll have to import top professionals from abroad. We'll join the ranks of such undereducated Third World countries as the Ivory Coast, Saudi Arabia, and Zambia. And there'll be few, if any, Nobel Prize  winners who learned to read in an American school.
I've earned the right to say that these grim prospects are the direct results of look-and-say teaching in our schools. Twenty-five years ago I studied American methods of teaching reading and warned against educational catastrophe. Now it has happened.
Surely you don't want your Johnny or Mary to grow up as a functional illiterate or educational cripple. In this book I'll show you what you can do to help your child get a good education.
I’ll start with the difference between phonics-first and look-and-say.
Learning to read is like learning to drive a car. You take lessons and learn the mechanics and the rules of the road. After a few weeks you've learned how to drive, how to stop, how to shift gears, how to park, and how to signal. You've also learned to stop at a red light and understand road signs. When you're ready, you take a road test, and if you pass, you can drive.
Phonics-first works the same way. The child learns the mechanics of reading, and when he's through, he can read.
Look-and-say works differently. The child is taught to read before he's learned the mechanics—the sounds of the letters. It's like learning to drive by starting your car and driving ahead. You'd learn to recognize and remember certain landmarks. First, on your street, you pass by the big yellow garage, the house with a plastic stork on the lawn, and the dentist's house. You turn right and pass the plumber, the florist, and the Italian restaurant. You turn again and drive by the stationery store, the carpenter, the podiatrist, the funeral home, and the bank. Then you come to the big intersection with the Exxon and the Texaco gas stations. You turn again and pass the diner, the gift shop, the drugstore, the optometrist, the little knit shop, and the pediatrician. One more turn and you're back home.
Continuing that "look-and-say" method of learning how to drive, you would repeat that lesson for three or four months until you'd be fully familiar with all the landmarks—the yellow garage, the plastic stork, the dentist, the plumber, the florist, the Italian restaurant, the stationery store, the carpenter, the  podiatrist, the funeral home, the bank, the Exxon station, the Texaco station, the diner, the gift shop, the drugstore, the optometrist, the knit shop, and the pediatrician. You'd have learned to drive around the block.
Then you'd be allowed to go farther. Three months and you would have learned how to drive to the Catholic church and the supermarket. By the time you've fully learned those other landmarks, it would be the end of the school year and you would have a "landmark vocabulary" of 350 items. Next year you'd learn to drive to the railroad station and the Protestant church on the hill.
And the mechanics of driving? You'd pick those up as you go along. After three months you'd learn how to step on the brake, after another two months you'd learn how to signal. Next year you'd learn about traffic lights.
Now let's see how these two methods work with reading. With phonics-first the child is first taught the letters of the alphabet and what sounds they stand for. Since English has only twenty-six letters to express about forty-four sounds, this is done in a strict sequence so that the child sees only words whose letter sounds he has already learned. For instance, a sentence in the first Lippincott reader says, "Ann and Dan pin up the map." Before they get to that sentence, the children have learned the sounds of n, d, p, m, short a, short i, and short u. They've also learned the word the, one of a handful of special words taught out of sequence to make it possible to tell a story.
At the end of a semester or a year or two years, depending on which phonic system you use, children can read an estimated 24,000 words in their speaking or listening vocabulary. They can then go on to grammar, composition, literature, social studies, and science—in other words, they can start on their education.
And how does look-and-say work? It works on the principle that children learn to read by reading. It starts with little "stories" containing the most-often-used words in English and gradually builds up a "sight vocabulary." The children learn to read by seeing those words over and over again. By the end of first grade they can recognize 349 words, by the end of second grade 1,094, by the end of third grade 1,216, and by  the end of fourth grade 1,554. (I got those numbers from the Scott, Foresman series, but all look-and-say series teach about the same number of words.)
The Scott, Foresman cumulative fourth-grade list contains the words anteater, chariot, freckle, Hawaiian, laryngitis, peccary, Siberian, skunk, and toothpick. But it does not contain the words boil, cell, cheap, church, coal, cost, crime, due, fact, pain, pray, pride, puff, root, steam, stock, sum, tax, twelve, and vote. These are words a look-and-say-trained child may not be able to read by the end of fourth grade. Of course, if he'd been taught phonics-first, he'd be able to read his full speaking or listening vocabulary, which has been estimated at 40,000 words.
Look-and-say readers still start the way they used to. I looked at a pre-primer of the 1979 Ginn 720 series and found myself right back in the early fifties. The same repetitive little "stories," the same children, the same dog. The dog's name is Lad, and the three white children, Bill, Jill, and Ben, have been joined by two black children, Ted and Nan, and by Rosa, who is Hispanic. But the stuff inside is much the same as it always was:
I am Rosa.
I am Lad.
Lad and Rosa go.
Rosa and Jill go.
Go, Rosa, go.
Go, Bill, go.
There's one difference between the look-and-say readers of twenty-five years ago and those of today. Today they all offer some phonics. Not that they've gone over to the phonics-first camp, but since millions of parents now clamor for phonics, they give them a minimum of phonics—served up in a look-and-say sauce of "context clues" and guesswork.
Unfortunately, this bit of window dressing does the children no good at all. They still don't learn phonics before they learn the words spelled by the phonic rules. Instead, they get a little phonics that's too late, incomplete, thrown in more or less at  random. Along with being taught to read those measly 1,500 words, they're taught some phonics as if it were a separate subject like math.
For instance, the first line in the 1978 Scott, Foresman look-and-say pre-primer says, "Look and Listen." When are the children taught the sound of double o as in look? Two years later, when they're in third grade. Lesson 10 in their third-grade reader starts, "When you see a word with the letters oo . . ."
And when do they learn about the silent t in listen? I plowed through the whole sixteen-volume Scott, Foresman series, but in vain. Silent t is never explained. Nor are ph and qu, even though the first-grade reader contains the words elephant and queen.
All look-and-say readers do the same thing. In the Ginn 720 series, page 36 of the first-grade reader is wholly devoted to teaching the word this. The phonic "explanation" of the word is given one-and-a-half years later, in second grade. How is it done? By asking the children to circle a word to complete the sentence "I like bath / car best." (Phonics window dressing this_ taught by a look-and-say "context clue.")
In another Ginn 720 first-grade book they teach the word guess by repeating it eight times in a 124-word story. And when does the Ginn series get around to teaching the sound of gu as in guess, guest, or guide? Three years later, in fourth grade.
Again, in a 1979 Houghton Mifflin first-grade reader, children learn the word bus early in the year. When are they taught the sound of short u? One-and-a-half years later, in second grade. Then the teacher is told to put the words up, but, stuck, and lunch on the blackboard and tell the children, "Listen for the vowel you hear in each word."
In the same second-grade reader, the children are taught to memorize the word enough. And when are they taught the f sound of gh in enough, rough, tough, and laugh? The answer is, Never. Houghton Mifflin simply doesn't bother with such trifles.
So, in spite of all the phonic window dressing, look-and-say still teaches reading by pictures, by telling what the word means, or simply by letting the children guess. Since all those  methods have long been thoroughly discredited, they're disguised.
Instead of telling the children outright what a word means, teachers are told in a 1979 Harcourt Brace Jovanovich teacher's manual: "Write the word buy on the chalkboard. Point to the word and ask the children to pronounce it. If necessary, say Buy begins like boy and rhymes with why.' "
Instead of referring the children to the picture of a king they have in front of them, teachers are told, in a Scott, Foresman manual: "Point to the word king and say, `How do you know that this word is king and not kitchen?' "The children are supposed to answer "Because of the context," but of course they can tell by the picture.
A classic example of the look-and-say method is this instruction to teachers in a 1979 Houghton Mifflin third-grade manual:
Print disturb on the board and say, "You can find out what this word is. I am going to say a sentence but leave out this word at the end. When I stop, use what you know about the sounds the letters stand for to help you think of a word that would make sense with the other words. Here's the sentence: When I went past my brother's bed-room, I noticed that his door was shut and there was a sign up saying, 'do not ________ .' What is the word? . . . How do you know it isn't disposal? . . . ('Disposal doesn't make sense with what you said.') How do you know it isn't interfere? . . . ('interfere doesn't begin with the sound that d stands for.')"
When I went to Teachers College, Columbia University, I was taught that the worst thing a teacher can do is suggest mistakes. But the look-and-say educators love this device. It's in all their teachers' manuals. For instance:
Say: "He reached into his pocket and pulled out a ________.
Checking words: handicap (no sense), wallet (wrong sounds).
 Or this:
Say: "For lunch I ate a vegetable____
Checking words: salary (no sense)
Checking words: salary (no sense)
casserole (wrong sounds)
When I read this, my twenty-five-year-old anger came flooding back. Just think of it! At the end of third grade students are not expected to be able to read the word salad. Salad! A word that a phonics-first school teaches in the first weeks of first grade!
But the look-and-say educators don't care. They know full well that after three years their students are apt to read salad as salary or casserole. Why? Because they've kept it a closely guarded secret that the word salad can be read by sounding out the letters s, a, 1, a, d.
Did I say three years? I'm sorry I misled you. Many look-and-say-taught children never catch on to the letter-sound relationships of the English language. I can prove this—right out of the horse's mouth.
The Houghton Mifflin series of readers runs from kindergarten through eighth grade. In 1978 the publishers realized that junior high school English teachers may not be aware of the abominable situation in the lower grades. They may naïvely assume that all their students can read.
To deal with this problem, Houghton Mifflin inserted a full-page, boldface statement opposite the title page in both their seventh- and eighth-grade teachers' manuals. The statement is called An Important Statement Regarding the Decoding of Words Strange Only in Printed Form. I quote:
Some students have not yet learned how to decode easily and quickly the printed form of the language into the oral form with which they are thoroughly familiar. . . . They are probably not sufficiently aware that any specific reading passage consists of letter symbols in a sort of secret code.... They almost certainly lack mastery of a reliable strategy for decoding printed language. . . . For those students . . . provide the necessary instruction recommended on pages 455-458.
 Translated into plain English, this means:
Perhaps, as a junior high school English teacher, you don't know that some students in your class have been taught by look-and-say and don't know how to read. Many of them have never caught on to the fact that letters stand for sounds. Please do the exercises in the back of this manual with them to help them learn to read.
Sure enough, in the back of the seventh- and eighth-grade manuals are some quite useless instructions on how to teach, seven years too late, such words as demonstrated, rear, plumber, costume, gleam, stumbled, mending, pool, and brake. The word brake, for instance, is to be taught this way:
Context: "The car began to roll down the hill. Thinking quickly, Sally jumped into the car and put her foot on the brake."
Questions: "How do you know the word is not pedal?" "How do you know the word is not broom?"
So now it's official. The leading look-and-say publisher has let the cat out of the bag. Millions of junior high school students, taught by look-and-say, can't distinguish the words brake, pedal, and broom.
The moral of all this is clear. Go to your child's school tomorrow morning and find out what system it uses to teach reading. Check the textbooks against these two lists:
THE PHONIC FIVE
1. Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 2725 Sand Hill Road, Menlo Park, Calif. 94825
2. Distar, Science Research Associates, 259 East Erie Street, Chicago, Ill. 60611
3. Economy Company, 1901 North Walnut Street, Oklahoma City, Okla. 73125
4. J. B. Lippincott Company, East Washington Square, Philadelphia, Pa. 19105
5. Open Court Publishing Co., P.O. Box 599, La Salle, 61301
 THE DISMAL DOZEN
1. Allyn & Bacon, Inc.
2. American Book Company
3. Ginn & Company
4. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich
5. Harper & Row
6. Holt, Rinehart & Winston
7. Houghton Mifflin Company
8. Laidlaw Brothers
9. Macmillan, Inc. (regular series)
10. Macmillan, Inc. (Bank Street Readers)
11. Riversi de Publishing Co. ( Rand McNally & Co. ) Scott, Foresman & Company
If the school uses one of the Phonic Five series, Johnny or Mary will be all right. They'll soon read better than most American children.
But if the school uses one of the Dismal Dozen, you have a problem. Johnny or Mary may never learn to read without fumbling and stumbling.
Here's what you can do about it.
To begin with, give Johnny first aid. Since he won't be taught phonics-first in school, teach him phonics at home. Don't tell me you can't do it. It's only the look-and-say educators who have blown this thing out of all proportion and have made the teaching of reading seem like going to the moon. Actually, it's quite simple. All you need is a series of step-by-step exercises plus time and patience. Millions of nineteenth century Americans taught their children to read the same way with the aid of the famous little Webster's Blue-Backed Speller. Tens of thousands of mothers and fathers have done it successfully with the help of my book Why Johnny Can't Read—And What You Can Do About It (Harper & Row, 1955).
Of course you can do it. So can your parents, your older children, your twelve-year-old babysitter (if she's been taught phonics-first). I've taught each of my six children that way, each before he or she entered school, and those were among the happiest and most satisfying experiences of my life. It's  an unforgettable moment when a child first discovers the key to the "secret code."
However, even if you teach your Johnny successfully at home, he'll still be exposed to the poor education he's getting at his look-and-say school. He'll go to school with lots of children who can't read. He'll learn from textbooks that were carefully "dumbed down" one, two, or more grades. He'll attend feather-weight courses tailored to educational cripples. If possible, get him out of there and into a phonics-first school. Their number is growing, and if you're lucky, you'll find one not far from your home.
Don't think this suggestion is frivolous. I'm very serious about it. With our schools the way they are, this is possibly the most important thing you can do for your child's future career and happiness. If I had a child in a look-and-say school, I'd gladly have him bused thirty miles to be taught phonics-first.
But suppose you can't do that. What then? In that case I suggest you try to make your school switch from the Dismal Dozen to one of the Phonic Five.
You say you have never done such a thing? Well, there's always the first time to take a hand in community affairs. Become an active citizen. Go to the school board. Start hollering. Ring doorbells. Organize meetings. Where there's a will, there's a way. Thousands of parents throughout the nation have done it and so can you. Witness the famous case of the parents of Rochester, New York—black and white—who forced the City to adopt phonics-first readers. Dozens of other stories tell of parents who overcame a stubborn superintendent or won a majority on the school board—all to ensure that their children were taught phonics-first.
To give you an idea of what to expect if you succeed, I made arrangements to visit a phonics-first school. As soon as I contacted the five phonics publishers, I got lists of hundreds of schools that would be glad to have me visit their classrooms. (I wonder if any look-and-say schools proudly open their class-rooms to observers of what's going on.)
To save time, I decided to visit a school nearby and picked at random a phonics-first school in New York City. Yes, I know what you're going to say. New York, as everyone knows, is an educational desert where reading test scores have been  dropping year after year. But some ten years ago the city's school principals were at long last given a free hand and allowed to escape from the deadly grip of look-and-say. A few of them chose phonics-first and almost overnight made the desert bloom with educational "miracles."
One such school is P.S. 251, deep in the heart of Brooklyn. It serves the Paerdegat district, whose children are Irish, Italian, Jewish, black, Puerto Rican, Chinese, Korean, Haitian, Cuban—a great American ethnic mix.
I visited P.S. 251 in May 1979. The principal, Mrs. Cynthia Kamen, gave me a complete guided tour through a dozen or more classrooms. I saw a succession of "miracles"—only of course in a phonics-first school miracles happen every day. P.S. 251 uses the Open Court Publishing Company system and its pupils start to prepare for reading in kindergarten.
Each of the classrooms was filled with wide-awake, self-confident children. Each question produced a forest of eagerly raised hands.
I went into a kindergarten classroom. The children had learned the whole alphabet and treated me to rousing versions of the "H-song" and "W-song."
In first and second grade, the children proved to me that they could read anything. I had brought a list of six test words—flamingo, curlicue, delicacy, inert, stoic, and squabble. They read those words without trouble and pronounced them correctly.
Next I showed them a headline from that morning's New York Times. It said:
Senate Confirmation Role Sought
On Posts of Brzezinski and Aide
Out of five first- and second-graders I showed that headline to, four read and pronounced all the words correctly, including the name of President Carter's national security adviser. I remember particularly little Theresa in second grade, who rattled off the name as if it were her own.
My daughter Abby went with me on my trip to P.S. 251 and can testify under oath that these "miracles" actually happened.
Next, in a third-grade classroom, we listened to a bright boy  named Steven reading aloud a story he'd written. Its first paragraph read:
Gus is a flying hippo. He is big, fat, and klutzy. He is kelly green with lopsided spots. Just look for his crimson face peering of you. Last seen he was wearing a bright purple sweater. He talks like a hypochondriac.
Other third-graders read to us poems from the third-grade Open Court reader. They read "Daffodils" by William Wordsworth and "The Lost Shoe" by Walter de la Mare. They had no problems with Wordsworth's words continuous, margin, and sprightly, or with Walter de la Mare's references to Hindustan and Pernambuco.
The children in the fourth grade had read twenty books in the Random House Landmark series about historical figures and were eager to tell us about Benjamin Franklin and Clara Barton.
Then we looked in on a sixth grade, where the students were rehearsing a play. Among the books they'd read were plays by Thornton Wilder and William Saroyan, Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, and The Diary of Anne Frank.
We next went into a few classrooms where specially trained teachers tutored emotionally disturbed and learning-disabled children, transferred from other schools. They are taught with immense patience and loving attention to each child. Their progress is slow, but P.S. 251 simply doesn't tolerate nonreaders.
The school also has "magnet" classes for gifted children. We spent a happy quarter of an hour in a kindergarten filled with bright kids who read from a long list of outlandish words their teacher had taught them—words like digressing, ecology, decorous, and dactylology. I didn't know what that last word meant and the children explained to me that it meant hand-sign language. They also knew the definitions of all the other words. A vow meant "a promise," a kleptomaniac was "someone who steals and can't help it," a phenomenon was "like a miracle." When we came to the word mandatory, the teacher asked them whether kindergarten was mandatory. Happily they chorused, "No!!!"
It was 12:30 and we prepared to leave. But then Mrs. Kamen  casually mentioned a fourth-grade class whose teacher, Mrs. Mildred Cohen, taught a special unit about Greek mythology. That I had to see. So we went into the fourth-grade classroom. The children were asked to tell us the mythological stories they'd learned. Nine-year-old Mark told us with vim and vigor about Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, who went to Hades and brought back seven pomegranates. I interrupted Mark and asked him to spell pomegranate. He did so, hardly breaking his stride, and went on with his story. Next, charming little Shari told us about Prometheus stealing fire. She casually mentioned his obscure brother Epimetheus, pronouncing the name without the slightest hesitation.
Mrs. Cohen proudly gave us a collection of poems the children had written about the Greek gods. I particularly liked this one by nine-year-old Ruth:
Zeus drinks nectar
The Gods eat ambrosia
The Gods live on Mount Olympus
 Bibliographical information on references will be found by chapter at the end of the text, starting at page 171.
Chapter 1: Why Johnny Still Can't Read
1 Flesch, Rudolf. Why Johnny Can't Read—And What You Can Do About It. New York, Harper & Row, 1955.
1 Final Report on the Adult Performance Level Study. University of Texas at Austin, 1975.
2 Maeroff, Gene L. "Scores on Scholastic Aptitude Tests Continue to Drop." New York Times, October 5, 1980, p. 29.
2 On Further Examination. College Entrance Examination Board. New York, 1977.
2 Chall, Jeanne S.; Conrad, S. S.; and Harris, S. H. An Analysis of Textbooks in Relation to Declining SAT Scores. College Entrance Examination Board. New York, 1977, p. 62.