During the 1920s, the American population was moving toward universal literacy. By 1940s, that success was a thing of the past.

By —— Bio and Archives February 15, 2012

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Marie Antoinette, on hearing that French peasants had no bread to eat, suggested, “Let them eat cake.”

This quip perfectly captured the cruel indifference which many people attributed to the French monarchy. A few years later, she was punished for her hauteur: execution by guillotine.

The famous quote was probably never uttered. Real or not, it’s a handy symbol for an arrogant elite, indifferent to the suffering of the people.

When you read in the newspaper that the US has 50 million functional illiterates, the disdainful queen should flash into your mind.

During the 1920s, the American population was moving toward universal literacy. By 1940s, that success was a thing of the past. More than 1,000,000 young men could not read well enough to enter the military. What happened?

Circa 1931, the Education Establishment enforced a new instructional method called Look-say, and later known as Whole Word, Sight-Words, Dolch Words, and many other aliases.

This method (no surprise to teachers of phonics) has been a painful catastrophe. Theory says that children can memorize 25,000,  50,000, or even 100,000 English words as graphic designs. Oh, really?? Most people can’t reach 1,000, and that requires a major struggle over many years.

It’s striking that so-called literacy professionals, in the face of manifest failure, pushed this dubious gimmick for so long. Clearly, they are well barricaded in ivory towers. “Eh bien, paysans, mangez les sight-words!”

It’s also remarkable that the public (in many countries) has put up with this flop. Part of the reason is that once people know how to read, they have little sympathy or understanding for people who can’t read. It’s hard to empathize with the struggle of a first-grader trying to memorize sight-words. But I want to ask you to try.

Conjure up a list of objects you’re comfortable with. For example, vintage cars, Hollywood stars, paintings, famous dates in history, telephone numbers of people you have known, or currency symbols. Suppose you have to learn to recognize 100 of them with instantaneous response. (Anything less is not reading speed.) Then imagine you have to move up from 100 to 300, then to 500, then to 1,000. You’ll start to empathize with the struggle these children go through as they try to memorize hundreds of sight-words.

The brain has to match the design on the paper with a design stored in the memory. The problem with the human brain is that you can look at a picture of a person you know very well, let’s say Marlon Brando, and go blank for several seconds. You might know 50 things about him, you see him in your mind, but you can’t bring up his name. That in a nutshell is why sight-words create low levels of literacy.

Hardly mentioned in this bogus reading theory is the huge additional difficulty created by needing to deal with lower case, UPPER CASE, script, and hundreds of fancy type faces. Having memorized “then,” would you even recognize “THEN”? Hardly one stroke is the same.

Furthermore, graphic designs can be read in any direction, for example, right to left or top to bottom. Once this omni-directional scanning of words starts to happen, the mind becomes disoriented. Sight-words almost invariably lead to different kinds of dyslexia. Victims talk about words turning backwards or drifting off the page. Reading of English must be a steady left-to-right process, otherwise a sort of vertigo creeps in. (The US is said to have 1,000,000 dyslexics.)

But you don’t need to know any of this detail. You just need to look at the reading statistics. Last year the media casually announced that only one-third of American fourth graders, and one-third of eighth graders, could read at what was called a “proficient” level. Which means that TWO-THIRDS of the nation’s children are illiterate in one way or another. Why weren’t the media, and everyone else, screaming? Shouldn’t the Marie Antoinettes responsible for this weird kind of child abuse be put in jail?

To keep sight-words in play, the Education Establishment has devised a gaudy profusion of airy claims and excuses. We are told that some children simply aren’t ready to read. Some children are said to have different styles of learning from whatever the class used. Some are ADHD and need Ritalin. Some are wired wrong at birth. On and on. If you could look at a list of the jargon and alibis that the literacy experts concocted, you would know they came ready for failure.

I found, over a period of several years, that every time I reexamined sight-words, I saw a new way of explaining to myself why this thing is a massive con. I would write another article. Months later I would get a whole new insight. Point is, Whole Word is slippery. You can’t keep a Ponzi scheme in play for 70 years, and dumb down millions, unless you’ve got a slick sophistry.

Here’s the whole nonsense. The claim is that children can memorize a huge vocabulary of word-designs. Not true. The few kids with photographic memories might pull it off. The rest are forever semi-literate. QED: Whole Word has the same chance of turning average children into fluent readers as alchemy has of turning lead into gold.

The latest jargon seems to be shifting from “Balanced Literacy” to “high-frequency words.” All the same three-card monte. Here’s what a first-grade teacher actually wrote for publication. “High-frequency words are hard for my students to remember because they tend to be abstract. They can’t use a picture clue to figure out the word ‘with’....Once they recognize ‘the,’ they can predict with amazing accuracy what the next word will be.” Just as when the page says “the xxxx,” experienced readers immediately know what “xxxx” is! The idea that kids should “predict” anything is absurd. The notion that readers use pictures to “figure out” words is just nuts. This poor befuddled teacher is a victim of the professors of education. Her students will also be victims of the same Marie Antoinettes.

I think that being taught to read should be viewed as a basic civil right. Tens of millions of children have been deprived of this right. Reading is the one essential skill. That’s why illiteracy is killing American (and Canadian) education. We need to take Sight-Words entirely out of the schools.

In the meantime, parents should focus on early literacy. When the children are three or four, teach them the alphabet, the sounds, the blends, and so on. These kids will be protected against the craziness that many schools insist on perpetuating.

CODA: I’m hopeful that a quiet rebellion will form around the banner Early Literacy At Home. For more on this important topic, see my “54: Preemptive Reading” on Improve-Education.org.

Bruce Deitrick Price -- Bio and Archives |

Bruce Deitrick Price has been writing about education for 25 years. He is the founder of Improve-Education.org. His fifth book is “THE EDUCATION ENIGMA—What Happened To American Education.” More aggressively than most, Price argues that America’s elite educators have deliberately aimed for mediocrity—low standards in public schools prove this.
Bruce can be reached at: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).
(For information about his novels, see his literary site Lit4u.com.)

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