Rudolf Flesch, Why Johnny Still Can't Read (1981)
“Everything Is Hunky-Dory”
 On February 13, 1979, Dr. Harold Howe II, Vice President for Education and Research of the Ford Foundation and former U.S. Commissioner of Education, appeared before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Education, Arts and Humanities to testify on the teaching and learning of basic academic skills in schools. He started his testimony with the following statement: "The significance of the much reported decline of learning in American schools is exaggerated and is not as serious a matter as the popularization of it suggests."
This is the most high-sounding version I've seen so far of the old standby Alibi No. 1—"Everything is hunky-dory."
There is no need in this book to give you a lot of statistics to prove what's happening. Like every other American, you know that our educational system is in very bad shape and that we have a lot of illiterates in this country.
What most people don't know is how staggering the figures really are. Before I started this book, I made it my business to find the exact size of the problem.
There are no official statistics, I learned, but the nearest thing to them is the data that came out of the Adult Performance Level study (APL), which was done at the University of Texas in 1975. A recent survey, Adult Illiteracy in the United States (1979), sponsored by the Ford Foundation, also refers to that APL study as a basic source.
I asked the University of Texas to send me the report and the questionnaire that was used. Here's what I found:
The APL statistics were based on the findings of interviews with 7,500 U.S. adults, conducted nationwide. Each interview lasted about an hour. The house-to-house survey was done by  the Opinion Research Center of Princeton, New Jersey, a well-known polling firm.
The questionnaire consisted of forty items, dealing with what the researchers called "functional competency"—the sum total of competencies important to success as adults. One of those competencies, of course, is the ability to read.
It was found that 21.7 percent of U.S. adults between 18 and 65 couldn't correctly answer such questions as these:
If the label on a medicine bottle says, "Take 2 pills twice a day," how many pills should you take in 1 day?
A government brochure about termites says, "No matter what protective measures you take, periodic inspection should be made at least every six months if you live where termites are common." You live in such an area. How often should you have your house inspected?
I studied all the other items in the questionnaire and found that they were just as clearcut. Obviously, a person who can't answer such simple questions is functionally illiterate. Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary (1973) defines a functional illiterate as "a person having had some schooling but not meeting a minimum standard of literacy."
As I said, the APL report said that 21.7 percent of U.S. adults between 18 and 65 fell into that category. This meant 23 million people.
This number is a sweeping indictment of the U.S. school system and the reading instruction method used in most schools. According to the APL data, 19 million of those 23 million have had at least four years of schooling. Virtually all of them were taught reading by the look-and-say method. How can this enormous failure possibly be defended?
The chief defender among the educators, the man who has made it his life's work to prove that "everything is hunky-dory," is Professor Roger B. Farr of Indiana University, senior author of the Laidlaw Brothers look-and-say readers. In his article, "Is Johnny's / Mary's Reading Getting Worse?," which appeared in the April 1977 issue of the magazine Educational Leadership, he wrote, "If we are concerned about national  'basic literacy,' we can forge ahead seeking improvement confident that we are doing quite well."
How did he reach that conclusion in the face of the crushing facts uncovered by the APL and other studies?
The number-one statistical 'proof' used by Professor Farr in his article—and also when he appeared before the Senate subcommittee I mentioned earlier—is the National Assessment of Educational Progress survey, published in 1976.
Here's the story behind that survey. In the early 1970s, when the public clamor about American education got louder and louder, the look-and-say educators—that is, the Education Commission of the United States—with $40 million in private and federal funds, set up the National Assessment of Educational Progress in Denver, Colorado. The NAEP collected educational statistics on school achievement in the 1970-1971 academic year. Four years later, in 1974-1975 it repeated the process. Then, on September 21, 1976, it published a press release. It bore the following headline:
It's a Fact—Johnny, Age 9, Is Reading Better
The first paragraph said, "Who says Johnny—and Mary—can't read? Contrary to popular opinion, Johnny and Mary, at age 9 at least, are reading better than their counterparts of a few years ago."
That sounded fine, except for the awkward fact that it was totally misleading. Dr. Richard L. Venezky wrote in the April 1977 Reading Teacher that the NAEP press release and report were "inexcusable."
What did the report actually say? It said that three age groups of students had been retested after the four-year interval—nine-year-olds, thirteen-year-olds, and seventeen-year-olds. There were a number of different tests, one of which was reading comprehension. The nine-year-olds, in this one test, did better in 1975 than in 1971. They answered on the average 65 percent of the questions correctly. In 1971 they'd gotten only 64 percent right. At the other two age levels and in all other categories there was no progress, and in some cases there was some further decline.
Why did those nine-year-olds make their 1 percent progress over four years? Professor Farr's article gives us a clue. He  says progress in the lower grades is "almost certainly due to federally funded supplementary reading programs"—which means the recent slight inroads of phonics-first.
Instead of focusing on the 1 percent progress of one group in one category, let's look at what the NAEP survey actually shows. It says, in plain English, that in 1975, 35 percent of the nation's fourth graders could not read. Of the eighth graders, 37 percent could not read. Of the twelfth graders, 23 percent could not read.
What does "could not read" mean? It means that they couldn't answer correctly such items as this one: "The label on a cat food can says 'Until they reach three months old, feed kittens Meow-Wow Dinner about every four hours. Let them eat all they want.' How should you feed a two-month-old kitten?"
Please note that the test was given only to students in school. It didn't cover children not in school, that is, dropouts. (According to the New York Times of October 17, 1979, the New York City Board of Education officially estimated the high school dropout rate at 45 percent.) Which means that the percentage of functionally illiterates among high school seniors and other seventeen-year-olds was maybe as much as 40 percent or more—far higher than the adult illiteracy rate reported by the University of Texas APL study. Clearly the U.S. literacy rate, now down to that of Burma and Albania, will drop even lower.
And what did Professor Farr have to say to all that? He was head of the NAEP evaluation panel. He wrote, "I think all ages are doing exceptionally well on the items that are straightforward, basic, literal." Most of his colleagues on the evaluating panel were associated with the Ginn & Company look-and-say series. One of them, Professor William Blanton, was even more enthusiastic than Farr. He wrote, "Performance on the functional literacy items, items that involve activities like reading a telephone bill or following the directions on a container of cat food, is so high that it does challenge a lot of what has been said in the last few years. Seventeen-year-olds are definitely doing well—better than previously—on these kinds of items."
 Let me repeat: Among high school seniors attending school, 23 percent could not read simple directions. Specifically, 21 percent flunked the cat food item. And this catastrophic result is what Professor William Blanton of Ginn & Company proudly announced to the world as a sign of progress!
But all this—about one quarter of the nation sinking into illiteracy—is just the tip of the iceberg. A mountainous tip, but still a tip. Underneath are all those millions, students and adults, who can read but just barely. Look-and-say training has enabled them to work their way slowly through a piece of simple prose and understand it after a fashion, but that's about all. They've never developed the skill of fluent reading. Their reading is slow, halting, and uncertain.
How many of those slow readers are there? Again the Adult Performance Level survey has an answer. According to their statistics—and remember, their findings were fully confirmed by the pro-Establishment National Assessment survey—in 1975 there were 32.2 percent U.S. adults who could read but were only just above the borderline. They could read a label on a medicine bottle or a want ad in the paper, but nothing more complicated. These 32.2 percent, in 1975, added up to 34 million people. They were "minimally proficient." Only the remaining 46.1 percent of the population between 18 and 65 were fully proficient and fluent readers. As you can see, the illiterates plus the slow readers are now a majority of the US. population.
How can you tell a slow reader from a fast one? In the Journal of Learning Disabilities for May 1972 a Canadian physician, Dr. Carl L. Kline, gave a good description:
A common prototype of reading disabilities seen in adolescents is the bright high school student who reads at or near grade level, but who has a spelling disability, is a slow reader, who misreads some words, omits words, substitutes words, and occasionally reverses (reads words from right to left instead of left to right).. . . In working with [those students] one must anticipate that there will be a residual spelling problem, even after the reading problem is largely overcome. Once the reading problem  is alleviated, one is faced with a student who knows how to read, at last, but who doesn't know how to study. Having avoided reading for years because of the reading problem, a considerable gap often exists in terms of general knowledge, vocabulary and ability to scan material in order to pick out the important facts from an assignment.
The most obvious sign of a slow reader, brought up on look-and-say, is his or her bizarre spelling. As Dr. Kline says, even if such a student learns how to read fluently, he'll probably stay a poor speller all his life. In the November 1974 issue of the Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, Dr. R. Arthur Gindin, Associate Professor of Neurosurgery at the Medical College of Georgia, writes of common spelling errors of freshmen in medical school. Here is a partial list of the misspellings he found in their papers:
These millions of slow readers and bizarre spellers also account for the decline in recent years of the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) scores. As I mentioned in the first chapter, the average scores on these college entrance tests have been steadily going down since 1963. The average on the verbal part of the test was 478 in 1963 and fell to 424 in 1980. Since the full range of scores is from 200 to 800, this means a 9 percent drop in seventeen years—an enormous decline in the verbal capacities of high school students who want to go to college. (Their math scores dropped almost as much.)
In 1977 a group of educators formed a twenty-one-member panel, chaired by Willard Wirtz, former U.S. Secretary of Labor, to study the reasons for this alarming decline. The panel found a number of possible reasons but couldn't pinpoint a  specific source of the trouble. It specifically excluded the post—World War II influx of less-qualified applicants.
I am convinced that the main reason for the decline is the look-and-say method. Let me explain why. According to the Wirtz report, one of the typical vocabulary questions follows this pattern:
The question below consists of a word in capital letters, followed by five lettered words or phrases. Choose the word or phrase that is most nearly opposite in meaning to the word in capital letters.. . .
RECTITUDE: (A) deliberation (B) laziness (C) prejudice (D) laxity of morals (E) weakness of intellect
The correct answer to this sample question is D. Only 23 percent of typical students making a score of 450 had the right answer. That's only 3 percent above the pure chance score of 20 percent.
Now let me show you how a student's answer to this type of question depends on how he was taught to read in first grade. Suppose he was taught by the phonics-first method. If so, he was taught the complete alphabetic code so he could sound out any unfamiliar word he came across.
The word rectitude is a rather rare word. According to the Thorndike-Lorge frequency list, it occurs about once in a million words of general reading matter.
Suppose our phonics-trained student comes across the word for the first time while he is in fourth grade. He'll look at it, silently sound it out, and decide from the hint of "correct" that it must mean something like righteousness. He'll store this tentative meaning in his memory. Next time he comes upon rectitude—a year later, maybe—he recalls this stored memory and confirms it in this new context. He does the same thing the third, fourth, and fifth time he encounters the word, until its meaning is fixed in his mind. Maybe he hears it spoken or tries it out as an item in his own speaking vocabulary.
This, in essence, is how a phonics-trained child learns the meaning of words and builds his vocabulary.
Now consider the look-and-say trained reader. The word rectitude is of course not among the 1,500 or 3,000 words he learns to recognize by sight during his first three or four school  years. By the time he's in fourth grade, he's never seen the word in print.
Suppose he comes across the word while he's in the fourth or fifth grade. This is unlikely to occur in one of his school textbooks, since they've been carefully cleansed of all but the simplest words. But suppose he comes across rectitude elsewhere—if he does any reading beyond what he has to.
He looks at rectitude and does what he's been trained to do. He tries to guess its meaning from the context and the first letter r. Maybe he also uses the second letter e as the basis of his guess. He may come up with reserve, reputation, resistance, religion, reticence, reluctance, regularity or some other re word he knows. Or he may stop cold. He may decide that the word must be reticence or reserve, or reluctance, or he may simply skip it and go on. In any case, since he has no way of deciphering rectitude, he does not learn its meaning from this first encounter.
Next time he comes upon rectitude while he's, say, in fifth grade. He still doesn't know what it means and goes through the same futile approach he used the first time. The same happens whenever he sees rectitude again in his reading. (This won't be often, since a look-and-say trained reader avoids reading as much as he can.)
Finally, as a high school junior or senior, he takes the Scholastic Aptitude Test. One of the questions deals with the word rectitude. With his background of repeated guessing, he can't possibly tell whether it means the opposite of prejudice or laziness. So he guesses. Four times out of five, he guesses wrong.
I went into all this detail because I know from experience that people who were taught reading by phonics or have discovered the secret of the alphabetic code by themselves don't understand the reading habits of those who were taught by look-and-say. It's almost impossible for them to imagine the difficulties of someone who doesn't know the alphabetic code. Since you, as a reader of a serious nonfiction book, are probably among that minority of Americans who do know the code, I'll illustrate this important point by two case histories.
The first is a letter I got from a woman called Karen Field.
I'll reprint it here with all the original spelling errors (including my name): 
I'll reprint it here with all the original spelling errors (including my name): 
November 23, 1979
Harper & Row
10 E. 53rd Street
New York, N.Y. 10022
Attention Mr. Flech:
After reading your article in the November 1, 1979 Family Circle magazine, Why Johnny Still Can't Read made me feel a little better about my self. For a while I thought it was all my fault I couldn't read or spell better. I would like to know if you could help me learn phonics and how to break the words into syllables.
I am a 34 year old female. I graduated from high school June 1963. I have always had problems in reading and spelling. It all started in my early years of schooling. I was one of the victim of look and say or sight reading not by phonics or syllables. I remember, the childern in my class all had books with pictures and words in them. We could look at the pictures, for example an apple. The teacher would tell us to remember the word apple because it had two P's in it. This meant every time I saw a word with two P's in it, I thought it said apple.
As the years went by I had to study very hard and longer periods of time then someone else because I had to memorize the spelling of words to pass my test. When I went to junior high school, I ask if I could take a special reading course but the class was full. I was not alone my girl friends had the same problem.
After graduting from high school, I still have spelling and reading problems. Sometimes it has been very up setting to me. I sometime don't understand my problem. I can read the every day newspaper but get stuck on spelling and reading of names. When I'm finished reading an article in the newspaper and someone ask me to spell a word I just read, I can't spell it. I guess I'm still trying to memorize the words. I saw an ad in the newspaper for a tutor for reading and spelling but when I called, the lady only would teach childern.
 I would like to get a better job but I feel very insecure because of my spelling and reading problem. I do not like to play any spelling games for fear I will not be able to spell the words. I keep telling myself that their are probably some people worse off then me. I guess you are wondering how I spelled some of the words in this letter. All I can say is Thank God for the Websters Dictionary.
I would appreciate it very much if you would please respond to my problem by sending me Free Information. Enclosed is a self address envelope with postage.
Very truly yours,
I leave it to you to find all the errors in spelling, grammar and usage. Please note that Miss Field is a high school graduate and has a job, although not a good one. She is obviously an intelligent woman. As Dr. Kline says in his article, even if she learns to read better by a program in phonics-first, she'll probably never be a good speller.
Remember that Miss Field and her fellow victims of look-and-say are now the majority of the U.S. adult population.
Now let's move to my second case history. This is an excerpt from an unpublished article by Mrs. Margaret Bishop, who runs a reading tutoring program for ex-offenders at The Fortune Society in New York City. Mrs. Bishop was taught by the look-and-say method and retaught herself to read by phonics-first at the age of thirty-six. This is her story:
I was never a functional illiterate, exactly. I could read well enough to get by, if I bluffed energetically all along the way. But believe me, that's not the life-style anyone would choose, given the choice.
As a pre-schooler, I was bright, gay and outgoing, full of life and full of questions. I was a faculty child, my father a university dean, and our home was full of books and the love of books. My parents read to me regularly, and I listened eagerly. The last thing anybody anticipated was reading difficulty.
But after a few months of public school, things had changed. I had become sober and timid. My eyes hurt  all the time. And my progress in reading was very slow. My mother was upset by this development. But my father persuaded her to give the school more time. You see, they had a new system of teaching reading in the school, and he felt sure I would be all right by the end of the year. Any difficulty I was having could be explained by my poor eyesight, which had made it necessary for me to begin wearing glasses at the age of three and a half.
Things went the same during my second and third years in school. Then, on returning from my last day in third grade, I asked my mother, "What is the skip of your teeth?" The teacher had told me that I had passed by that margin. So ended my mother's patience with the public schools. I was transferred to a local Protestant school. They had me repeat third grade, partly to give me a fair chance with French, which began in third grade there, and continued through the upper grades.
I did moderately well at the new school, especially in French, and my reading and writing in English seemed to improve, though they were still "weak." In seventh grade, we started Latin, and again I did very well with it. Again, my reading in English seemed to improve a little. But my spelling was still quite poor, and I was a "reluctant" reader. Despite the eye doctor's best efforts, my eyes still bothered me, and I never read any more than absolutely necessary.
. . . I don't have any memory of personal worry over my reading disability while I was a child. But when I entered the middle teens, I began to find it a burden. A young person who reads well reads widely in fiction and non-fiction, picking up a varied assortment of general information, which supplements the material presented at school. I was completely lacking in this fund of casual information. I began to be embarrassed by the way my ignorance contrasted with my friends' knowledge of the world. Moreover, my parents, who had never made me feel bad about my deficiencies in earlier years, could not conceal their shock and disappointment when they encountered examples of my lack of general knowledge. Even my father began to doubt my potential, in spite of my good school record. But my Latin teacher had been  for many years my mother's best friend. She insisted that my intelligence was unusually high, and persuaded my parents to send me to a good college.
Accordingly, I went to Barnard, where I majored in French, and took courses in Spanish, German, and Russian, as well. Again, I used my old tricks to get by. The lecture system was still in force, and I handled all courses given in English by listening to the lecturer and doing a minimum of reading. The foreign language courses were so little problem that I made an average of 3.5 there, whereas my average in courses given in English was only 2.8. (A straight A average works out to 4.0.)
On campus, I was, as usual, constantly embarrassed by my general ignorance. I kept feeling that if only I had the gumption to try harder, I could read as widely and know as much as my peers. But my eyes would not permit that. It never occurred to me then to wonder why I could spend a whole evening devouring a French novel without eye-strain. That fact never penetrated until much later. . .
. . . I never faced the fact of my reading deficiency until my son Peter was almost through second grade. My husband and I were beginning to be concerned over Peter's reading by then. He still wanted us to read his comic books to him after almost two years of "satisfactory progress" in school. At the spring parent conferences, his teacher told me she was trying one of the books recommended by Rudolf Flesch in his famous book, Why Johnny Can't Read. I had heard much about this book, but, true to my deficiency, had never "had time" to read it. Since it appeared to be having a direct impact on Peter, however, I heaved a sigh and buckled down to find out what Flesch was up to.
. . . For me, all this was a weird mixture of news and old story. I knew all about phonics and how to sound out in French, Latin, Spanish, German, and Russian. That's why reading in those languages came so easy. But it was news of the most startling and illuminating sort that phonics could work in English. A detailed reading of the word lists at the back of the book convinced me that English phonics was only slightly more complicated  than French, and French is no problem at all, when you know the French letter-sounds.
I was fascinated by English phonics, and began to play with it in every spare moment. I didn't have too many of those, since my daughter Molly was four at the time. But I made every one of them count. My game was to take any handy bit of print and sound out every word strictly by the spelling, noticing all the regular spellings and all the irregular ones, and seeing where context was really needed to help identify a word.
I enjoyed this game for about three weeks. Then suddenly, I couldn't play it properly any more. The meaning of what I was sounding out kept coming through so strongly that it distracted my attention from the game. Well, no toy remains shiny forever. I decided to stop fooling around and start catching up on my neglected reading.
I was in the habit of grabbing one solid half-hour for myself during Molly's morning at nursery school. On this occasion I got a cup of coffee and a stack of reading material, more than enough to last me; set the kitchen timer, and sat down at my ease. That morning, I finished my whole supply of reading matter, and the timer had not rung. I thought it was broken. But my watch said only 15 minutes had passed. Was my watch broken, too? I found the timer still purring away, and agreeing with my industriously ticking watch. It was my own internal time-sense that was out of kilter. In 15 minutes, I had read what would normally have taken me more than twice that time. What's more, I was sure of what all of it had said, an entirely novel experience. I had finally learned, at the age of 36, to read my native language!
Ever since then, I have read well and rapidly, and with the comprehension and recall that were so lacking before. I now read ten times as much as I used to, and enjoy every minute of it. Better still, my eyes never hurt anymore, because now I know how to use them for reading. Best of all, I no longer feel guilty and baffled by my general ignorance. Much of it has been overcome, and I know that what remains is not my fault, but the fault of those who introduced the word method, that "new reading system," into the school I attended for the first three grades.
59 Howe, Harold II. Testimony before Senate Subcommittee on Education, Arts and Humanities, February 13, 1979.
59 Final Report on the APL Study (see Chapter 1).
59 Adult APL Survey (American College Testing Program). University of Texas at Austin, 1976.
59 Hunter, Carmen St. John, and Harman, David. Adult Illiteracy in the United States. A Report to the Ford Foundation. New York, McGraw-Hill, 1979.
60 Farr, Roger. "Is Johnny's/Mary's Reading Getting Worse?" Educational Leadership, April 1977, pp. 521-527.
61 National Assessment of Educational Progress. Reading in America: A Perspective on Two Assessments (Reading Report No. 06-R-01). Denver, Colo., October 1976.
61 Venezky, Richard L. "NAEP—the Messenger Who Brings Bad News?" Reading Teacher, April 1977, pp. 750755.
62 Chambers, Marcia. "High School Dropout Rate at 45%, Macchiarola Reports to City Board." New York Times, October 17, 1979, pp. Al, Al2.
63 Kline, Carl L. "The Adolescents with Learning Problems: How Long Must They Wait?" Journal of Learning Disabilities, vol. 5, no. 5, May 1972, pp. 14-36.
64 Gindin, R. Arthur. "Spelling Performance of Medical Stu-dents." Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, vol. 50, no. 10, November 1974, pp. 1120-1121.
64 On Further Examination (see Chapter 1).
68 Bishop, Margaret. "Case History of a Reluctant Reader" (unpublished article).
Rudolf Flesch, Why Johnny Still Can't Read (1981)