Rudolf Flesch, Why Johnny Still Can't Read (1981)
5 The Ten Alibis
 The first chapter of this book was published, slightly cut, as an article in Family Circle magazine (November 1, 1979). It brought thousands of letters.
Most of them were from mothers, thanking me for writing the piece and telling tales of woe of how their children were miseducated at school and how they were given the brushoff when they complained.
The letters from educators were sharply different. They were full of personal abuse. They called me "a liar," "grossly misinformed," "dastardly," "criminal," "libelous,': "alarmist," a "demagogue," a user of "scare tactics" and "half-truths." They said the magazine was doing a great disservice to its readers by printing the article. They said I knew nothing about children, about education, about the English language. They said I was "simplistic" and "absurd."
One reading teacher wrote it was "a negative article that was unnecessarily distressful to parents and inciteful to educators."
A school principal took the magazine to task for printing such an "irresponsible" article. He said it "was filled with misinformation, which, unfortunately, some parents will believe."
A university professor wrote to the editor he "was amazed that you would condone, indeed even permit such ‘factual’ junk to sully your pages."
A reading coordinator wrote the magazine had "reduced its standards by publishing a fact-distorted attention-getter."
And so on and on and on. The educators were "shocked," "disturbed," "infuriated." One of them summed it all up by saying that the article was a "pedagogical trough of swill."
 In short, the look-and-say educators' letters were prize examples of the aggressive tactics they have used for fifty years.
This doesn't mean their letters didn't offer any arguments. They were full of them. All the old standbys were trotted out—the old, old alibis that have been used to defend look-and-say ever since it was first shown up as phony seventy years ago.
I went through the whole stack of letters and sorted out the ten favorite alibis. They were:
1. "Everything Is Hunky-Dory"
2. "We Do Teach Phonics"
3. "No One Method Is Best"
4. "English Isn't Phonetic"
5. "Word Calling Isn't Reading"
6. "Your Child Isn't Ready"
7. "Your Child Is Disabled"
8. "It's the Parents' Fault"
9. "Too Much TV"
10. "We Now Teach All Children"
Let me explain briefly exactly what each of these slogans means.
Alibi No. 1 "Everything is hunky-dory."
As everybody in the country knows by now, the statistics on illiteracy and declining reading achievement are appalling. Every few months there is another front-page story about a new batch of statistics or scientific data. It is common knowledge that millions of children and grownups can't read, write, or spell.
But if you're an educator, this is all propaganda, made up by critics of the schools. American schools, they insist, are doing fine—just fine.
One of them writes, "I believe if you canvass the schools across America you would find that with the advent of reading assessments, state and national funding, use of libraries, and a heavy emphasis on how reading should be taught in the schools, one would find students are better readers than ever before."
 Another one writes, "Children not only read better but are doing so at a younger age."
And a reading consultant says proudly, "Historically and statistically, our students are reading better than ever!" (The italics and the exclamation point are hers.)
They sound so convinced they clearly have fallen for their own propaganda. In Chapter 6 I’ll tell exactly what the statistics show and how they were juggled in the educational journals and public statements.
Alibi No. 2 "We do teach phonics."
As I showed in Chapter 1—with plenty of examples—there's an astronomical difference between the real phonics-first series and the window-dressing token phonics being offered in the look-and-say readers. To be shown up like this makes the educators particularly mad. For decades they've been trying to bamboozle the public and pretend they teach phonics. And here I am again accusing them of using old, discredited look-and-say. Heavens no, perish the thought. They're "eclectic," they use all methods combined, they give each child all the phonics he or she should know.
A reading teacher writes, "I am using one of your `dirty dozen' . . . and it is anything but a look-and-say series."
Another: "Your categorization of certain publishers as 'look-and-say' publishers is totally unfounded. In fact the major reading series on your look-and-say' list have been strong proponents of increased instruction in phonies."
A third: "Half the curriculums on the list under the `Dismal Dozen' do utilize a synthetic approach to the teaching of reading (phonics-first)."
They've apparently been completely taken in by the sales-talk of the look-and-say publishers. A good many of them, of course, have never seen any of the good phonics-first series and have no way of knowing how bad the look-and-say readers really are. More on all this in Chapter 7.
Alibi No. 3 "No one method is best "
This alibi says, in essence, that anyone who says reading should be taught with phonics is a nut—a crank who peddles phony patent medicine or a panacea. We, the educators, know  best and teach our children with a carefully designed mixture of all available methods, fine-tuned to give each child what's best for him or her. Those phonics nuts are just ignoramuses who think one method is the answer to all the complexities of the reading problem.
This alibi has it all upside down. It's the look-and-say method—Gedike's old gimmick—that's peddled as a panacea and the phonics method that's based on common sense and scientific research. It matches the nature of the subject. If you teach typing, you familiarize the student with the keyboard; if you teach driving, you tell him or her how the gears work; if you teach cooking, you start with a few basic recipes. You don't tell students to just go ahead and type, or drive, or cook. In the same way, you start to teach reading by teaching what sounds the letters stand for.
But the educators don't see it that way. A teacher writes, "All of us are individuals, and we learn in different ways. To assume that one way of teaching is the answer for all ignores this very important fact. Simple answers to complex problems very seldom, if ever, exist."
A principal echoes this: "There is no 'one way' or 'best way' to teach reading to all children. To suggest such a panacea is to display a certain innocence and naïveté about the hard realities of teaching all of the children of all the people to read."
"Only a person who has never taught reading," another teacher writes, "would say that all children should learn to read by the 'phonics-first' approach. Children have different learning styles. A competent reading teacher will match a reading approach to the individual student."
A principal says, "There are as many learning styles as there are children. A teacher uses 'many' methods to meet these individual needs. If a child is an auditory learner then a phonics approach may work very well for him. If he is a visual learner, then he needs many materials he can 'see'; and 'look and say' may have a place in the construction of a curriculum for him."
Finally, here is an outburst from still another teacher: "There is no 'best' way to teach reading in our schools for one simple reason—CHILDREN DO NOT ALL LEARN THE SAME WAY!"
I'll have more to say about all this and about the myth of "the auditory and the visual child" in Chapter 8.
 Alibi No. 4 "English isn't phonetic."
Another old, old standby. You can't teach children by phonics because English isn't phonetic. Actually, as I'll show later, English writing is 97.4 percent phonetic and decodable, but the educators have never looked at the research that proves this. To them, English is just like Chinese—you have to teach it word by word.
"The English language," a teacher writes, "is not phonetically regular. For practically every rule, there are exceptions."
And Ginn & Company, one of the look-and-say publishers, came out with a defensive "fact sheet" containing this gem: "Mr. Flesch paints an unrealistic picture of the English language. While the [Ginn & Company] basal reader has words in it which are approximately 80 percent decodable by a phonics process, the real world language is not as regular. Therefore, care must be taken to teach children to decode words in other ways than phonics first so that they have other strategies to use when phonics fails them."
This sounds as if the Ginn & Company basal reader series taught phonics first and look-and-say only later, as an emergency strategy in those unfortunate cases when phonics doesn't work. One look at their materials shows that nothing could be further from the truth.
Alibi No. 5 "Word calling isn't reading."
To understand this, you have to know what educators mean by "word calling." Ever since look-and-say was invented, they've insisted that phonics-trained readers don't understand what they read. When a phonics-trained child reads a word like cat, he pronounces the sounds, they say, but has no idea what kind of animal is meant. Children have to be taught meanings; they must understand, they must comprehend. Otherwise what they do can't be called reading. They're not readers but word callers.
This is so ridiculous that it's hard to discuss it with a straight face. Of course a child will understand a word that's in his speaking and listening vocabulary, when he reads it off the page. But he has to get it off the page first, by pronouncing the letters, before he can apply his knowledge of vocabulary.
 This simple truth should be obvious to everyone, but it isn't to thousands of people in the American educational Establishment. Listen to them:
A principal: "Lacking a basic definition of reading, you confuse reading with recognizing words."
A teacher: "Reading is much more than being able to break down a word phonetically. Reading is comprehending the printed words. Reading tests understanding."
Another teacher: "You seem to consider the ability to pronounce words properly to be reading. Reading is comprehension—understanding! Without it there is no reading; there is only word calling. This may be a useful skill for showing off six year olds to relatives but of little value to tomorrow's doctors and lawyers. For a person to be able to pronounce `poisonous—not to be taken internally' may make him sound educated but to understand those words could save his life!"
A school superintendent writes: "You say that 'reading means getting meaning from certain combinations of letters. Teach the child what each letter stands for and he can read.' Sounds reasonable? Read the following: 'The autochthonous hominid was imperturbable.' I am certain you were able to translate the sequence of letters into sounds, but did you derive any meaning from the process? Your approach to reading omits the most critical part of the entire reading process—meaning. Parents should not be as concerned with how their children are being taught but rather with whether they are being taught to read for meaning, for enjoyment, for a broadening of their horizons."
A reading specialist and Title I instructor writes: "You say that children who have been taught to read via phonics can read anything presented. This absolutely is untrue. What you mean is that children can pronounce / sound out / decode (they all mean the same) but this is not, I repeat, is not reading. I can just see parents reading the article and believing their offspring can read when they are in reality just sounding out words. In the reading business, we call that word calling. In order to say that reading is taking place, comprehension must, absolutely must, take place. So a child can pronounce words like catastrophe or any word in the dictionary, reading simply  is not taking place without comprehension."
This is not only ungrammatical, it's incoherent. Of course a phonics-trained first grader will be able to read catastrophe off the page, but he probably won't know what it means. The point is that a look-and-say-trained child won't be able to read the word catastrophe at all. Maybe, when he's in senior high school, he'll be able to figure it out from the first two letters c and a and from the context—if he's learned by then the meaning of the word, and if he doesn't wildly guess calamity, or caterpillar, or cafeteria, or whatnot, and if he doesn't simply skip the word and read on.
It's hard to decide which of the ten alibis is the most ludicrous, but I've always felt that this one deserves the prize.
Alibi No. 6 "Your child isn't ready."
This alibi has to do with "reading readiness." It's so simple: if a child is still in first or second grade and the mother complains he can't read, you just say the child isn't ready yet. No fuss, no bother—just an easy stall. Next year, when the child still can't read, we'll think of something else.
My letter writers phrased this in dozens of different ways:
"Why can't Johnny read?" one of them wrote. "There are a multitude of answers to this question. As a first grade teacher I see many children who are just plain not ready yet. There is no magic age at which all children are mature enough to start the difficult task of learning to read. Yet children are sent off to first grade at age six. 'Ready or not here I come.' Children should be evaluated before beginning school to determine if they are ready. In this way the child would not be doomed to fail first, second or third grade."
Another teacher echoes this: "Not all children are ready to begin reading at the age of six. For reasons too numerous to mention, the child may not have the necessary background of experience necessary for the successful beginning reader."
A reading specialist tops this by the following sentence about the look-and-say-trained illiterate junior high school students I'd mentioned in my article: "The paragraph about the Houghton Mifflin series and its attempts to improve the reading of Tate bloomers is carping to the point of being amusing."
Junior high school students? Late bloomers indeed!
 Alibi No. 7 "Your child is disabled."
The easiest thing to do with a child who can't read is to put him into a special education class. In the past twenty or thirty years, our schools have labeled hundreds of thousands of children "dyslexic," "minimally brain-damaged," "learning disabled," or what have you. They didn't learn to read by whatever standard was used, therefore there was something wrong with them and they had to be put into separate classes. By now, the federal government has shelled out billions of dollars for this procedure, and millions of children have been made miserable, and their parents worried and scared.
I don't mean to say that there are no children with organic disorders, but they are few and far between. The vast majority of those unhappy, stigmatized children are simply the victims of look-and-say.
But the educators would never accept this. One of them writes, with the full authority of the expert, "Children sometimes experience undiagnosed hearing or vision problems which interfere with reading instruction. Children with learning difficulties should obviously be examined by a doctor to determine the presence or absence of any underlying medical problems."
I will say more about this tragedy in Chapter 12.
Alibi No. 8 "It's the parents' fault."
Of course the educators don't usually say this out loud, but their meaning is unmistakable. It's never the school that's at fault; it's the home. Here are some samples:
A remedial reading teacher: "If all parents were willing to work as hard to teach their children as you suggest, most of our children would not have reading problems to begin with. My years as a remedial reading teacher have convinced me that our best readers tome from homes rich in reading materials, reading experiences, and reading parents (parents who read to and with children as well as for their own enjoyment). In the final analysis, the only reading program that can work 100 percent of the time with 100 percent of our children is the one started in the home and built upon by the educators."
Another teacher: "Open indifference to a child's reading  progress by one or both parents often triggers a similar indifference to reading by the child. More serious problems are caused when the child experiences the effects of conflicts between parents, parental neglect, or parental abuse. Damage caused by these problems entails more than reading ability and correction of these conditions often requires professional help."
Another: "Other problems that interfere with the child's de-sire to learn to read include such things as divorce, television, or both parents work, so no one has time to read to Johnny or listen to him read. The list of reasons goes on and on."
As you see, this last little package of alibis includes TV. Which brings us to
Alibi No. 9 "Too much TV"
The idea is that children don't get the reading habit or do any homework because they sit in front of the TV set all the time. Never mind the obvious fact that they can't rea.1 any words beyond the measly 1,500 they're taught at school. Of course they don't read books, for the simple reason that they haven't been taught how. But TV is such a handy scapegoat the educators never fail to mention it. "There is research to prove," one of them assures me, "that limiting television watching helps a great deal." (See Chapter 14.)
Alibi No. 10 "We now teach all children."
With great pride and conviction the educators say that America, the citadel of democracy, is the only country in the world that has taken on the job of giving each child an education. Aren't we wonderful? We try to teach all children to read—in contrast to other, less enlightened countries. So, naturally, some of those children are not educable—if the truth were known they are the dregs of society, not capable of receiving the boon of education we bestow on them.
For instance, one reading expert writes, "Do you realize a much larger percentage of our students go on to college than did a number of years ago? Do you also realize that our country is one of the few in the world who attempt to teach every child to read?"
Another educator puts it this way, "While there are admittedly some things wrong with our educational system today—there certainly are many things that are right. Nowhere else  in the world, except Canada, is everyone given an equal opportunity to attend school at any level."
An elementary schoolteacher just uses the common cliché: "The American educational system tries to reach all children."
Finally, there's a reading teacher who comes right out with it: "Classroom teachers and reading specialists teach children with innumerable combinations of genetic factors and experiential backgrounds."
You see the little word genetic? There it is, black on white. Alibi No. 10, whichever way it is put, is always racist. Children who don't do well in reading are impervious to all the wonderful educational opportunities we offer them. Why? Because they're black, Chicano, or just simply poor—the sons and daughters of lowborn riffraff who are too dumb to learn how to read.
I’ll say more about this ultimate alibi in Chapter 15. Meanwhile wind up this bundle of quotations with the official statement issued by the 65,000-member International Reading Association, representing the quarter-billion-dollar look-and-say business. Three weeks after my Family Circle article appeared, the board of directors of the association adopted a "position statement." Haughtily, they didn't mention my name.
In light of recent public statements that suggest that reading can best be taught by using a single method through strong emphasis on a specific skill or through the use of a specific set of materials, the Board of Directors of the International Reading Association emphasizes that learning to read is a complex process requiring not only the ability to recognize words, but also the ability to comprehend and evaluate the meaning of written materials. The most important factor related to success in learning to read is the teacher. Differences in the learning styles and abilities of children emphasize the need for a variety of approaches to meet those individual needs. No single method or approach nor any one set of instructional materials has been proven to be most effective for all children. Furthermore, to learn to read well, children must read a substantial amount of material for useful purposes both in school and at home.
Therefore, it is resolved that the Board of Directors  of the International Reading Association recommends that parents and teachers exercise caution and judgment when considering statements or selecting materials that advocate any single method or set of materials as being the best one for teaching reading. Moreover, the Board expresses concern about those who use scare tactics and oversimplification to support their own easy solutions for teaching children to read.
The board of directors showed admirable restraint. They used only three of the ten standard alibis—numbers 3, 5 and 8.
To end this chapter, let me quote three letters that gave me pleasure:
The first said, "We have a daughter in grade one, so found this article very interesting and informative as we have the Ginn series in our schools. . . . I showed her the word jam and she looked at it and immediately said jump, so now we are doing phonics every day and she has stopped guessing and has found it very interesting and fun. We are still working on the A E I O U and when she wants to know bigger words that are on a package or something, I show how it can be broken down and sounded out and she usually comes up with the word."
The second letter said, "I have been using your original book to help an eight-year-old girl with her reading for the past five months. She has progressed from 'scholastically retarded' to excellent reading at grade 3 level, so thank you from both of us."
The third letter said, "Thank you so much for your article. My son has been struggling for seven years with his reading. I now understand why I've been working with him for three weeks with intensive phonics—and he's improved 100 percent. Thanks again and keep it up."
48 Flesch, Rudolf. "Why Johnny Still Can't Read." Family Circle, November 1, 1979.
57 International Reading Association. "Position Statement. 'There's More to Reading than Some Folks Say.' " Reading Teacher, May 1980, p. 901.
Rudolf Flesch, Why Johnny Still Can't Read (1981)