Rudolf Flesch, Why Johnny Still Can't Read (1981)
[XIII] Since I was already "taught" to be a reading failure by the time Dr. Flesch wrote Why Johnny Can't Read in 1955, I think that I am especially suited to write the foreword to his second book on the subject, written twenty-five years later. Unfortunately, I not only know about the reading problem in our schools, but I am well aware of how it feels to be labeled a reading failure. Feeling is a lot more acute than just knowing! Needless to say, when Dr. Flesch asked if I would be willing to write the foreword, my response was an enthusiastic "Yes!" In doing so, I hope my professional experiences will support Dr. Flesch's findings, and at the same time have an important message for you and your children.
First, I would like to share with you a few personal experiences and the hope that your children never have to suffer as I did in school. The year 1947 found me in North Carolina where I entered kindergarten and learned to play and socialize better than I had. Reading was not allowed. The next year I was placed in a look-say reading program. Entering first grade was going to be such fun because I would finally learn to read.
All too soon the reality was that reading was nothing more than a difficult guessing game. The teacher would show me a picture of a dog and then the word dog. The next day when the teacher asked me to read, I would read dog for the word did. In front of the class I would be stopped by the teacher and told that I missed a word. Throughout my first-grade year, I repeatedly had this type of negative experience.
Whenever I was at home and tried to read one of my books, my interest was killed because I could not read many of the words. My grandmother would tell me just to sound out the words! I did not know what she meant because I was being taught to read by looking at a picture and then trying to remember the word that matched. In desperation she asked my [XIV] teacher if she could teach me to sound out words, but was told that this would only confuse me, and in the long run hurt my ability to read.
Several years later (even though my family was afraid to help me) my grandmother decided that enough guessing and stumbling on words was enough. Night after night, she sat me down and taught me how to sound out words. I will never forget how she could sound out a word she had never seen before. Once she pronounced the word, she would say, "Oh, I have heard of that word," and then tell me what it meant. The nightmare was over. I understood the mystery of words and reading was easy. From that day on, none of the teachers talked about the possibility of my repeating a grade. I was a successful reader, visited the library several times a week, and read books, books, books. However, there was still one problem in school: The stories in my look-say readers were dull and boring; but that's another problem I will address later.
By the time I entered college, I had decided that I wanted to teach reading in a large City school district. Furthermore, I wanted to make sure that all the children I taught would easily and quickly learn to read. Since I was an only child, books had become close friends and an endless joy in my life.
Most of my professional career has been spent as a reading teacher, Title I Reading Supervisor, and Director of Reading (Kindergarten through Grade 12) in the City School District of Rochester, New York. When I entered the district in 1966, the student population was 40,000 (40 percent minority). Now it is 35,000 (57 percent minority). I am sure that you have often heard it said that the percentage of children who are minority influences the degree of reading failure in a given school or district. Reality is that whether children are "advantaged" or "disadvantaged," black or white, rich or poor, does not have anything to do with how successfully children learn to read. Based on my professional experiences, such statements are only excuses for not teaching children to read.
My first teaching assignment in Rochester was as a teacher of reading, English, and history in a large inner-city high school, grades 7, 8, and 11. Many of my students had previously been told that maybe reading just wasn't their thing, that they should just keep working and try not to worry about their reading [XV] problem. I tested each of my students with a diagnostic reading test and the results were that most of them had a decoding problem. They were expending a great deal of time and energy guessing at words rather than being able to sound them out. Another frustration was that they spent so much of their energy struggling with the unknown words that the meaning of the passage was lost. When this happens, you can observe the child reading in a hesitant manner and often even mumbling the words. The child is not able to read fluently, confidently decoding the more difficult words, reading complete phrases and thus reading for meaning. Reading could and would be my students' "thing to do," and by the end of each year their reading performance improved tremendously.
After my second year of teaching in a junior-senior high school, I wanted to teach at the elementary level and discover how so many children were getting to high school with so few reading skills. Fortunately, my next assignment was as a Title I remedial reading teacher in an inner-city elementary school with a population of more than one thousand Kindergarten through Grade 7 students. I spent four challenging years working daily with children who needed remedial reading instruction. Again and again, the problem was that even sixth graders were still guessing at words
I learned so much in those four years that it is hard to summarize my findings briefly. First, point out two important observations: (1) my students were alert and anxious to learn, and (2) the teaching staff was extremely dedicated and worked long, hard hours. At that time, only look-say and eclectic programs (not phonics-first) were used in the school. These types of programs were also in use in all of the other 45 elementary schools. In spite of the teachers' hard work and the children’s readiness and willingness to learn, children were having trouble learning to read. In fact, remedial readers were being generated in my school faster than I could remediate them.
My experience as a Title I Elementary Reading Teacher raised some crucial questions in my mind. Why should children receive one reading program in the classroom, and then have to go out of the classroom to receive remedial instruction in phonics? Why not teach reading so that children learn successfully the first time they are taught?
[XVI] I will never forget little Michael. He was a fifth grader with a smile and eagerness to learn. Michael came to me each day, along with nine other students, for remedial instruction. Since the students were still having trouble decoding, I spent part of each day's half-hour lesson developing phonics skills.
Michael said something during one of our remedial sessions that should be a lesson to us all. One of the words in the store we were reading was astronaut. To make my students use the phonics skills I taught them, I did not pronounce words for them but, instead, had them apply their skills by sounding out the unknown words. When I asked one of the other students in Michael's group to sound out astronaut, he slowly but surely did so. Just as he pronounced the word, I heard Michael say, "So that's what the word astronaut looks like!" The word had probably been in Michael's listening and speaking vocabulary for a long time. Perhaps he understood and could say astronaut before he ever came to school.
Obviously, the lesson for us is that children come to school with a tremendously rich listening and speaking vocabulary. As soon as they are able to sound out words, they can enter them into their reading and spelling vocabulary. Once they can decode a word, they then may automatically know the meaning. If the word read is totally new to the child, he can then immediately be taught its meaning.
I moved on to become the Title I Reading Supervisor for Elementary and Secondary Reading Programs. Those were fast and furious years. The Title I Reading Teachers worked with me to remediate students as rapidly and successfully as possible. Title I students daily received an extra "shot" of reading instruction. The reading teachers worked to teach them the phonics and comprehension skills they needed. Each student was tested throughout the entire school year. The teacher was teaching-testing; teaching-testing; and individualizing instruction to meet each student's reading needs. After three years, the proof was again evident. Students who were thought of as having limited reading capabilities made significant progress every year. Again it was clear that reading is not a mysterious act. The Title I remedial assistance was providing children the instruction they should have received in their regular classroom reading program. When taught logically and systematically, [XVII] reading becomes a natural accomplishment for the child. If we could only recognize and appreciate the very logical auditory and visual process the child goes through when learning to read, we could save ourselves from all the reading "fads," "bandwagons," and "shortcuts" that add to the great confusion about how children learn to read.
Now the year was 1974 and the Title I remedial programs were accelerating the students more rapidly than the regular look-say or eclectic programs. The Board of Education took a stand. Students' reading performance in Rochester, New York, was to improve. By the end of grade one, students' average reading performance was already three months below grade level as measured on standardized tests. Sixth graders were almost twenty months (two full school years) below grade level. Reading instruction was in trouble and students were the losers.
Finally, there would be a Reading Department K-12 with a reading teacher / trainer in each school and a districtwide Director of Reading to be responsible for providing a local reading program that would teach children to read. To this day, I have been thankful that I was the person chosen to serve as Director of Reading. Every moment has been filled with challenge and reward. I will try to explain the process the Rochester City School District engaged in, since its educators have been seriously committed to teaching all children to read.
During the first year in my new position, I frequently visited the 46 elementary schools. My visits revealed that kindergartners were not being challenged in a formal reading readiness program; students received a minimum of phonics instruction (only what was provided in non-phonics-first programs); entirely different programs were being used at various grade levels within the same school; the time allocation for reading instruction was often disturbed by numerous interruptions; there was little or no day-to-day measurement of students' reading skills and progress; and finally there were frustrated students, teachers, and parents.
Based on these observations, it appeared to me that students' reading difficulties were not of their own making and could be solved by improving the reading instructional program within the schools. It was time to stop asking, "What's wrong [XVIII] with Johnny?" It was time to ask ourselves, "What must we do to teach Johnny to read?"
The following school year a committee of forty members was asked to join me in a comprehensive study to end reading failure in the Rochester City School District. It included parents, community group representatives, teachers, and administrators. Letters were sent to over fifty publishers to submit their reading programs for our consideration and study.
After an exhaustive study, the committee members voted unanimously to select what they judged to be the three best programs on the market: Lippincott, now published by Harper & Row; Open Court Correlated Language Arts Program, published by Open Court; and Distar, published by Science Research Associates. This recommendation was approved by the Board of Education, and the newly adopted programs were placed at the kindergarten through third grade levels in the 1976-77 school year and in grades four through six in 1977-78. The cost of the materials was $250,000 per year. Thus, a commitment to improved reading instruction had been taken by a district and its Board.
All teachers and school administrators received extensive in-service training in the proper delivery and supervision of the programs before they were implemented in the schools. Even the best programs will fail if they are not delivered by well-prepared teachers and monitored by well-informed administrators. Too often, teachers are expected to deliver new programs with little or no training.
Each school faculty was asked to select the reading program to be used with their students. They had the option of selecting: Lippincott (Kindergarten-6); Open Court (Kindergarten-6); Distar and Lippincott (3-6); or Distar (Kindergarten-2) and Open Court (3-6). Six of the elementary schools now use Distar, grades K-2, followed by Lippincott or Open Court, grades 36. Of the remaining schools, approximately one half use Lippincott in grades K-6 and the other half use Open Court in grades K-6.
Even though the committee's decision was unanimous, you should not think the change to using only three reading programs (and phonics-first programs at that) was an easy one. Previously, there were seven look-say or eclectic reading programs approved for use with students.
[XIX] More than once I was told that, in a big city, to think of students' reaching grade-level standards was not realistic. Furthermore, if we didn't provide for students' reading needs through many different reading programs, the scores would go down rather than up. During the summer between the time the new reading programs were adopted and implemented, I remember one teacher, who had worked in Rochester for twenty years, stopping me several times in the local drugstore and supermarket to say that we were making a big mistake. Her concern was that many children could not learn phonetically and this would cause reading performance to decline.
My explanation to that veteran teacher was that if we were determined to improve student performance, we must stop asking what was wrong with our students and judging what they can't do and learn. Instead, we must have the courage to organize for change: first, by believing that all children can and will learn to read; second, by taking an educational stand through selecting the best teaching tools (programs) for teacher and student use (even if it means incurring initial criticism); third, by sticking with the task of using programs for a length of time, since the substantial correction of a problem does not happen overnight; and finally, everyone involved in educating the child must work extremely hard. The alternative to that position is dismal and unacceptable. Children continue not to read well and suffer the consequences for the rest of their lives.
The three phonics-first programs were implemented and we all lived through the first months of teaching only one program and a new phonics-first program at that. As usual, change came hard. That Christmas Eve found me rushing out of the post office, when I came face to face with the veteran teacher I spoke of earlier. Her first words were, "Mrs. Burkhardt, I just have one thing to tell you." I took a deep breath and expected the worst. Instead, she said, "I have taught reading in this district for twenty years, but my first graders have never been as far advanced as my students are this year. I just thought I was teaching reading before!" Had I really heard what I thought I heard? As we continued to talk, she told me all the reasons a good teacher's teaching is enhanced by a phonics-first program. At that moment, I knew that every day Rochester's [XX] students were receiving a special present from their teachers. That gift was effective reading instruction.
Five years later, Rochester's students are readers. Our students' average reading performance is above grade level at grade one and at grade level in grades 2 through 6 as measured by the Metropolitan Reading Achievement Test. Please note that this test measures reading comprehension. This is a dramatic change from only five years ago when one of the major topics of conversation was the number of non-readers in our schools. Today, students automatically decode logically, systematically, and successfully. This enables them to use their energy to read for meaning and understanding, which of course is the ultimate purpose and joy of reading.
I am convinced, without a doubt, that a superior program taught by well-trained teachers enables all children to learn to read. In other words, when the better programs are used by teachers, fewer children fall behind in reading performance. Instead, all students are better able to progress and achieve rather than stumbling, guessing, and meeting with less and less reading success. The child who is truly reading disabled (dyslexic) is very rare. When children are taught to read in a structured, teacher-directed instructional program, they read. When this is not done, many children experience difficulty and are then mislabeled as dyslexic, an excuse. Throughout this country, our teachers desperately need to take the best reading programs into the classroom with them. Then they will be able to eliminate the mystery of reading and ensure that children become independent readers. Distinguished researchers, as cited by Dr. Flesch, have completed numerous research studies that document exactly what Rochester's students have demonstrated. One program is not as good as another. Instead, phonics-first programs that are logical and responsibly developed make a significant positive difference. One major difference is independent readers who read by Christmas of their first-grade year rather than remaining dependent on instructional programs that delay decoding and thus treat it as a secret to be kept from students. We must not underestimate our children. If the standards are high, children will achieve.
An elementary school librarian recently made a point of [XXI] stopping to tell me that second graders come into the library and ask for "chapter books" by well-known authors. Young students also come into the library to find materials on certain topics they research throughout the school year as they develop their "Experts Journal" which is a part of the Open Court Correlated Language Arts Program. Her parting comment was, "Our second-grade students are now reading like our fifth graders used to read. When a child comes into our school, teachers can immediately tell if the student is entering the school from outside the district. Students coming into our district can't read nearly as well as our City children."
Rochester's teachers and students have also clearly shown the positive results that can be realized with junior and senior high students that were reading below grade level. All grade 7-12 students who read below grade level receive daily reading instruction in Open Court Reading Program materials. Once our high school students (these are students who are new to our school or did not have the benefit of phonics-first programs starting in Kindergarten or first grade) are taught to improve their decoding skills and are exposed to quality literature, they too rapidly improve. In fact, some of our students' greatest reading gains have been at the high school level. Never let it be said that if students have not learned to read by the time they are in high school, they will never learn. While it is more difficult to correct a reading problem that has existed for so long, such students should not be considered to be poor readers for years to come. Exceptional instruction and pro-grams can correct almost all reading disabilities. After observing student after student, I know that children and young adults who are taught in synthetic phonics-first programs are then able to read "real" writing rather than writing that is only written at a certain grade level for basal readers. The beauty of the written language is usually lost in graded stories which are in look-say or eclectic programs. Thus, the stories are often repetitious and boring. As reading becomes a successful experience in phonics-first programs, children enjoy reading and it becomes a habit. The reading habit is the best insurance that your child will improve his or her comprehension and critical thinking skills. Also, well-written literature serves as the child's model when writing.
[XXII] Each week for the last couple of years, I have received one to three calls from educators in other school districts (such as New York City and Cincinnati) who have heard about the reading phenomenon in Rochester, New York. Most of those interested callers have then visited our schools to see for themselves what is taking place. What do they see? Our visitors are delighted to see eager, confident children who are being taught the very logical and simple process of learning to read exceptional classical and contemporary literature. The determination and excitement in the faces of the teachers and students is both encouraging and inspiring.
Dr. Flesch has thoroughly documented his findings. His book should be considered a message of logic and great hope to America's parents, children, and teachers. Through his careful attention to the research literature, the great confusion regarding effective reading instruction could be ended. Reading has become big business in our schools. It is a business that will succeed if the children are not allowed to fail. My special thanks to the courageous Board of Education members, administrators, principals, teachers, students, and parents who have worked with me. The success rate that was thought by some to be the impossible is clearly within our reach. Educators can make the crucial difference for today's children. In Rochester, we have labored to make sure that all children are winners.
You are your child's greatest protection. Any teacher who has ever taught children using a phonics-first program can explain the reasons for the high success rate to you. Like Rochester's students, make sure your children are among the winners. They are just waiting to be taught!
MARY L. BURKHARDT
Director, Department of Reading K-12
City School District, Rochester, N.Y.
Rudolf Flesch, Why Johnny Still Can't Read (1981)