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Decline in Phonics Has Led to Downfall of Public Education

December 1, 2017

American education has been failing for more 100 years – ever since we abandoned teaching reading with phonics.

In 1955, Rudolph Flesch wrote a simple book, Why Johnny Can’t Read, in which he pointed out that education was failing simply because we were no longer teaching reading by using phonics. It seems no one was listening.

Education has been studied to death, but the emphasis has always been on improving high school (because there they might see immediate results), rather than beginning with learning to read in first grade. Unless children learn to read by the end of third grade, they are in trouble all through school.

Phonics Is the Better Way

Phonics is the best way to teach reading. Every mother who teaches her children at home uses phonics, mainly because it’s the method offered most often online. The Dick and Jane series taught reading using whole words in which certain words are repeated over and over. As such, children can read a particular book because they have memorized the text. A child learning with phonics may take a little longer to get started, but ultimately, he will be able to read anything, even things he does not understand.

Some Schools Use Phonics

Though the public schools have been committed to the “look say method,” or the “whole word method” for many years, most private schools teach with phonics. I believe it is the main reason why private schools outperform public schools. They also do not require highly trained teachers (though some training is obviously beneficial).

I taught school for several years using the Accelerated Christian Education Curricula. (There are several other companies with similar programs.) It is a K-12 program that uses phonics at every level, thus being fully integrated. It is broken down into smaller units, and the child does not progress until he has mastery over each unit. Children learn using materials based on their level of understanding, not based on their chronological grade level.

Here is a present-day introduction to the program. While our system was fairly simple, there are numerous programs that teach learning to read using phonics. Here is one that anyone can use.

Here’s what we did: We took a mother, or several mothers, who wanted to work in the school, and spent a week with them teaching them how to teach. The training mostly included listening to tapes designed especially for this program.

The phonics program was very simple. Each letter or letter sound had a card with the picture of an animal. And there was a jingle that went with the card. As an example, there were three sounds taught for the letter “A” and the jingle used for the long “A” was: “The aging ape was out of shape because he ate and ate and ate.” Notice the words with the long “A”. The teacher held up the card with a large “A” and a picture of an ape. There were jingles like this for each of the other letter sounds.

Every morning the teacher would introduce a new letter sound and its jingle and the children would learn it, and then review the sounds they had learned previously. There was also a workbook that emphasized what they were learning in the classroom. They would also begin to read simple sentences that included the letters they had already learned.

The beauty of the program was that it could be used with just one child, or with a very large class. As the child began to become a reader (reading to learn), we had older students listen to them read, which helped reinforce what the younger student was learning and was an encouragement to the older student as well, who was proud to be part of the teaching process.

So Simple, So Why Not Widespread?

Since this program is so simple, why don’t more schools don’t adopt it? Why don’t more states use similar programs? The answer is fairly simple. As a child enters school and is not learning, he is often classified as “learning disabled,” and a special education teacher is hired to help him.  The unions don’t favor the program because it will require fewer teachers, and they will receive fewer union dues. The textbook publishers don’t like it for obvious reasons, and the teacher’s colleges don’t like it, either, for the same reason. We are able to educate a teacher in just a few weeks, and the colleges require four to five years. It all comes down to money.

Children Want to Learn

Children want to learn; they are excited about learning until we make learning more difficult.  When the child sees he is making progress every day, however, then he’s excited to learn.  And if the child does not have mastery by the end of teaching all the letters, he just repeats the program until he learns all his letter sounds.

It is also helpful to have good reading material available for all ages. When children have something interesting and beneficial to read, they will want to learn to read. We even taught remedial ninth grade students to read using this simple program. Ninth-graders are headed for disaster until they learn to read. But there is no excuse leaving them at this disadvantage which may affect them throughout their lives. 

Phonics is such a simple program, yet the results are often outstanding. Teach learning to read using phonics. There is no better alternative. 

Jim Hollingsworth (jimhollingsworth@frontier.com) writes from Hayden, Idaho. 

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Jim Hollingsworth (jimhollingsworth@frontier.com) writes from Hayden, Idaho.