The Whole Language Problem

How reading is taught is a matter of national urgency. The ability to read is the first building block of education: the key that opens the door to all later learning.

When it comes to how our public schools teach our children to read, a failed technique — whole language or “whole word” —continues to prevail over phonics, the teaching method that’s been a proven success over millennia.

American literacy statistics make for troubling reading. Today’s average American reads at an 8th grade level. The literacy rate for Americans is about 75 percent, leaving 25 percent functionally illiterate, scarcely able to read street signs.

If you are reading this, you likely belong to the 15 percent of Americans who read at the highest level — that of a college undergraduate.

Designed by 19th century German psychologists in order to improve educational efficiency, whole word became widely adopted in the U.S. in the 1930s. The phonics reading manuals, with words broken down into syllables, were jettisoned in favor of the infamous Dick and Jane books.

Alarm bells rang at the beginning of the 1950s, when the military saw a dramatic drop-off in reading ability among recruits. At first, military brass suspected draftees were faking it, trying to appear less literate to avoid service in the Korean War. In actuality, rejection rates due to illiteracy rose from less than 3 percent in World War II to approximately 17 percent during the Korean War, to 21 percent during the Vietnam War.

After the first salvo was fired in 1955 with the publication of the wildly popular book, Rudolf Flesch’s “Why Johnny Can’t Read,” another war began between the proponents of phonics and whole word. Despite dozens of studies showing that phonics is vastly more effective, public school educators have largely stuck with whole word — with disastrous results.

Whole language advocates embrace the notion that children learn reading as intuitively and effortlessly as they do language. That’s no less absurd than saying you can learn to read music if you can hum a tune. They belittle phonics — with its alphabet, syllables, drills and instruction — as a brittle, artificial technique that only gets in the way of the student’s “natural” quest for meaning. But, in fact, it takes effort — even courage — to learn to read well. That’s why memorizing grammar and vocabulary was thought best learned “by heart.” But the scolds of the whole word movement gave it the dreary label, “by rote.”

Whole language learners are required to memorize hundreds, and eventually thousands, of words by the way they look, as if they were Egyptian hieroglyphs or Chinese ideograms. If they come across a word they don’t know, they can’t go to a dictionary, because spelling, like the alphabet, is viewed as an afterthought in the loopy land of whole language. Since they are never taught to decode, they’re stuck in a state of ignorance until the nurse-like teacher spoons them new words.

Yet phonics — a method that goes back to at least ancient Rome — teaches children to read letter by letter, syllable by syllable, phrase by phrase, what we used to call “learning your ABCs.” Once learned, phonics breaks down the code of written language, providing students with a toolkit that allows them to decode — to unlock meaning — and thus profoundly learn any of the million-odd words in the English language, a skill enhanced with each reading experience.

Whole language should be tossed on the scrapheap of history. It doesn’t work, and it will never work. It’s imperative for America’s civil life and culture, and our country’s international competitiveness, to return to teaching reading with phonics, and abolish the poisonous pedagogy known as whole language.

George Ball is chairman and CEO of the Burpee Company, as well as vice chairman of The Orme School, a college preparatory boarding school in Arizona.


As seen in The Detroit News

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