Monday, April 24, 2006


Q. Is it the parents’ fault that so many kids today can’t read very well? Did we do something wrong years ago, since half of today’s high-school graduates cannot comprehend text written at the college level? Are parents too busy and not reading enough to their young children in the early years?

With what we’re spending on K-12 education these days, it’s pretty hard to blame the parents for reading deficiencies. With spending per pupil levels around $8,000 per year, that’s more than $100,000 that we’ll drop per child over 13 years of schooling.
You’d think, for that expense, kids could master the basic skill of education, which is reading. Instead, it appears that the more we spend, and the more complicated we try to make the process, the less able to read the students are becoming.
There may be some deficiencies in today’s homes, but it’s not fair to ignore the deficiencies in our methods of teaching reading. And it’s high time we took a hard look at them.
The “pre-reading” activities in the homes, before kindergarten, that educators are always urging parents to do – reading aloud to toddlers and preschoolers – are nice and helpful. But they are by no means a cure-all or a guarantee of reading success. The government preschool program, Head Start, has consistently failed to make any impact on the reading performance of children from disadvantaged homes despite billions of tax dollars spent.
So many children develop reading disabilities despite coming from advantaged homes, or going through elaborate preschool programs, that the blame for why they can’t read must not rest with what goes on in homes – but what DOESN’T happen with reading instruction in schools.
The simple truth is that the direct instruction of phonics in the early grades teaches nearly 100% of children to read very quickly and efficiently, irrespective of what kind of homes they come from. Yet shockingly few schools teach reading with phonics, because it has fallen out of style in the teachers’ colleges.
It could be that it’s too easy and inexpensive to be attractive to the education establishment, with its voracious appetite for more revenue and “programs.”
The reason it’s so easy to teach reading with phonics is that children are taught the regular features of the language first. So they seldom have much trouble learning progressively more complex patterns later on. That’s the “systematic” nature of correct phonics instruction. In contrast, most schools use a complicated mixture of methods, relying more on sight reading and memorization, that doesn’t build on itself systematically from week to week or month to month.
The actual process of learning to decode words and employ the rules of spelling is actually very easy. In the 1700s in Wales, for example, the sheepherding population was totally illiterate. Then Griffith Jones, an Anglican vicar, organized traveling schools. Tutors were paid three pounds per year to go from one parish to the next. People housed and fed them, and they taught children and adults how to read. After three months, they moved on to the next village. Within a few years, the level of culture and literacy in Wales was astounding.
Teaching reading is the easy part. Convincing the education establishment that it is easy, and shouldn’t cost very much, is what’s hard.

Homework: See the website of the National Right to Read Foundation,

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