When Rudolf Flesch published his mini-classic on phonics, Why Johnny Can’t Read (1955), he was worried by the decline in students’ reading abilities. He was disgusted with the mind-numbing Dick and Jane readers that had begun to creep into American classrooms. He was alarmed by the “foolproof system” that promulgated non-phonetic methods of reading instruction, namely, the interlocking directorate of education schools, school systems, and textbook companies.
Yet what bothered him most was the wholesale abandonment of one of the great achievements and inventions of mankind. That achievement is the alphabet. “We have decided to forget that we write with letters and learn to read English as if it were Chinese. One word after another after another after another. If we want to read materials with a vocabulary of 10,000 words, then we have to memorize 10,000 words… and so on. We have thrown 3,500 years of civilization out the window and have gone back to the Age of Hammurabi.”
As Flesch pointed out, and as the Core Knowledge sequence teaches in the first grade, alphabetic systems of writing replaced pictographic writing around 1500 B.C. In the pictographic system, each word had a corresponding picture. To read a text with a vocabulary range of 10,000 words, one would have to have 10,000 pictures committed to memory. By way of comparison, a good collegiate dictionary contains around 150,000 words. Any way you count it, that is a lot of pictures. The alphabet tremendously simplified language. Readers in alphabetic systems only had to know twenty-six or so symbols and a slightly larger number of sounds, or phonemes. These letters mapped the sounds people made when saying various words. Rather than drawing a picture of a house or a dog or a child, the writer now only had to use letters to approximate what the voice uttered. Modern whole-language teachers have taken a massive leap backwards by treating each single word as a distinct picture. Their recourse to pictures in whole-language primers to help children guess at the text is a further barbarization. Insofar as whole-language teachers neglect the alphabet and phonemes of our unmistakably alphabetic language, they ask children to make bricks without straw.
We have learned a great deal about reading since the publication of Flesch’s prophetic book. Neuro-linguistic and eye-movement researchers (those who figure out what the brain and eyes do while reading) have disproved one of the fundamental axioms of whole-language theory. Whole-language advocates have always asserted that mature readers do not read a letter at a time but instead digest whole words. Neuroimaging studies reveal to the contrary that people with reading difficulties (40% of our population) lack the ability to work with the phonemes of the language. At the same time, even accomplished readers mentally sound out words as they read, though the process is so automatic one does not notice it. A good reader goes through the word “reading” that he has seen thousands of times in a micro-second but still might have to slow down for “neuro-linguistic” or “extra-parliamentary.” The icing on the cake is that the Chinese, one of the few peoples left with a language in which characters correspond to whole words, have been using the Roman alphabet for the last half-century to teach their children to read.
Parents worried about their children’s ability to read should do two things. First, they should ask their children’s teachers what method of reading instruction they use. One must be cautious of so-called combined approaches, since these are attempts to throw phonics-minded parents off the track of solid literacy. Second, and this is particularly important for parents of older children, they should ask their children to read aloud several pages from an age-appropriate work of literature. They may be shocked to find, as I have been by listening even to college students, that their children have only a halting familiarity with their native language. That “long talk” parents have put off having about the ways of the world might need to be an introduction to the facts of the English alphabet.
Terrence Moore is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center and is the Principal of Ridgeview Classical Schools in Fort Collins, Colorado.