The top educators in both Canada and USA have waged a relentless war against Flesch. His crime: being correct about reading. Their crime: being comfortable with illiteracy.
Rudolph Flesch Rules the World of Reading
Comments | Print friendly | Subscribe | Email Us
Rudolf Flesch wrote two famous books, “Why Johnny Can’t Read” (1955) and “Why Johnny STILL Can’t Read” (1981). I read both books twice, years apart, and had the sense that Flesch was intelligent, brave, and honorable. (You can find my book reviews on Amazon.)
In short, I had a high opinion of Rudolph Flesch. Recently, however, I have had to reevaluate my opinion. Not downward! No, here is the startling thing. I am more and more thinking Flesch was among the great intellectuals of the 20th century. He was able to tell the world in 1955 everything there was to know about a complex subject, namely, learning to read English. Perhaps that doesn’t seem so extraordinary to you. Let me make the case.
First of all, every part of “Why Johnny Can’t Read” remains as sharp and true as the day it was published. Of all the scientific and technical material written in 1955, how much would remain standing today?
However, it is not the book’s content but its context that places Flesch at the pinnacle. His book contradicted every truth about reading then taught in the schools of education throughout the land. All the experts rushed to attack him. Every professor of education defamed him. Flesch was alone in the arena surrounded by savage lions. Or at the very least braying hyenas.
Very few rallied to his defense. Many an ordinary citizen saw his wisdom. But I’m speaking now of the elite managers who claim to protect the flames of knowledge. These people shouted that Flesch was a crackpot, a malcontent, a misfit beyond the fringes of intellectual respectability. His insistence on phonics was entirely wrong, they said. Reading must be taught with sight-words. Indeed, these people formed the haughty International Reading Association (IRA) in 1955 precisely so they could gang up on Flesch and try to curtail his influence.
Here’s the kicker. These same people and their descendents are still saying the same things, still denigrating Rudolph Flesch. There’s a vast horde of these people, a veritable confederacy of dunces.
It’s precisely the magnitude of the opposition that has prompted me to elevate Flesch to the zenith of American civilization. There have been many lonely geniuses, But typically, after a time, the truth prevails and shortsighted opposition falls into the dust. None of this happened in Flesch’s case. He died in 1988 thinking his life had been a failure.
The vast extent of the opposition is proved by the fact that still today millions of teachers and parents ignore what Flesch said, and continue to teach reading in a way that doesn’t work. Here is a truly sad comment left, in the year 2010, on a website for teachers:
“I am desperate for help, advice, or a solution! I have a student who is in 2nd grade. He repeated 1st grade due to his reading inability. He turned 9 last fall. He’s a straight A student in all subjects, except reading. He struggles with sight words above the primer level. He can fly through pre-primer and primer words in a flash, yet if you take four or five of those same words—even the exact same cards—and lay them out in a sentence form, it’s as though it is a foreign language to him. After his first year in first grade, his parent had his vision tested and he did have a vision problem, even underwent vision therapy. His parents work with him at home, yet he simply cannot put it all together enough to read fluently….Anyone have any ideas that can help me help him? It is really wearing on his self-esteem.”
This pattern is very common now. A child is reportedly above average in every way…except this one little thing called reading. Invariably, such children have been taught with sight-words. This poor kid, it seems to me, is a victim of child abuse. The parents must suffer daily with the belief that their son is defective. This teacher was clearly miseducated in some goofy teachers college, an intellectual ghetto from which Flesch had been banished. This teacher is teaching sight-words EVEN AFTER massive failure spread over several years. Flesch wrote his book to stop exactly this scenario; but there it is, today.
Don Potter, phonics expert, gives us a sweeping picture of what the anti-Flesch forces have managed to achieve:
“The situation is dramatically worse that anyone can possibly imagine. When I ask the teachers why they teach sight-words, they inevitably tell me because their students are going to be assessed on them. They are totally unaware that sight-words are positively harmful. They consider sight-words part of a good reading program that includes some phonics, not realizing that sight-words create a reflex that interferes with phonics instruction. Sight-words are an obstacle to reading, not an aid.”
Now do you have some sense of why Flesch was one lonely G.I. Joe trying to subdue a Panzer Division?
Finally, consider the vast apparatus that makes all this craziness possible. For convenience we call that apparatus the Education Establishment. There’s little good you can say about these people, other than that by being so obtuse and rigid, they have made Flesch look smarter and better as the years go by.
(NB: From what I understand, Canadian offcials have been more rigidly committed to sight-words than American officials. I’m convinced that these commissars, on both side of the border, have been able to keep sight-words in play for so long ONLY because book-reading adults, complacently literate for a decade or two, can’t begin to grasp what sight-words demand of a child. I’ve written a number of articles that try to put adults in the child’s place. Please see “40: Sight Words—The Big Stupid” on Improve-Education.org. For more articles about reading, see “42: Reading Resources.”)