When speaking about controversy in public schools, most people think of “critical race theory,” “gender identity” or protecting students from mass shooters.
Sanity in New York City?
Mayor Eric Adams of New York City opened a far older controversy when he decided to move the City’s schools to a reading curriculum based on phonics. According to The City, “Just over half of students in grades 3-8 are not proficient readers.”
The New York Times described how the Mayor has dyslexia, a neural-biological disorder that makes reading difficult because the brain tends to scramble the letters in a word. The dyslexic student may see the word “brain” as “brian” or even “rbina.”
The Mayor and countless others suffered when phonics was abandoned. In its place, the education establishment installed what is called “whole language” instruction, although “balanced literacy” is also a commonly used term.
Whole Language and Phonics
A simple definition of whole language is difficult to find. One website for parents describes it as “an educational philosophy that teaches children to read by using strategies that show how language is a system of parts that work together to create meaning.”
The alternate, more traditional method is called phonics. The teacher instructs the students that words are made up of combining sounds. For instance, the word “cat” would be broken down as “c-a-t.”
Many people think the shift from phonics to whole language was a phenomenon of the seventies and eighties. This period was when the official switchover took place. However, the root cause goes back much further—to the dawn of the twentieth century.
The John Dewey Connection
The guiding spirit behind whole language approach is “the father of progressive education,” John Dewey (1859-1952). His education theories called for changing society through education, not necessarily better reading skills. A 2019 article in Humanities explained his overall approach.
“Dewey insisted that the old model of schooling—students sitting in rows, memorizing and reciting—was antiquated. Students should be active, not passive. They required compelling and relevant projects, not lectures. Students should become problem solvers. Interest, not fear, should be used to motivate them. They should cooperate, not compete.”
In 1959, philosopher Emmanuel G. Mesthene summed up Dr. Dewey’s objections.
“In our own day, Dewey and others have argued that the language of being has been misused to perpetuate social and moral traditions by describing them as fixed constituents of nature. They have felt that the only way to correct this error—the only way to separate what is true from what is prized but not true—is to talk about experience, so that we can never forget that it is the source of all our knowledge.”
Dr. Dewey taught that schools could transform society. “I believe that education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform.” Having abandoned the Calvinistic Protestantism of his New England parents, he promoted a pragmatic utilitarianism without traditional moral underpinnings.
The phonics method was everything that John Dewey hated in the schools of his time. Phonics has little, if any, room for creativity. A “B” sounds like a “B” every time unless it is silent. It is teacher-centered, meaning that the teacher tells the student the one correct answer. There is little room for the student’s “experience.”
Dick, Jane and Spot
The Dewey philosophy entered into reading programs even before whole language instruction was introduced. Hundreds of thousands of American students were exposed to the whole language approach through The New Basic Readers, highly popular during the fifties and sixties. Many grandparents purchase reprints for their progeny under the ironic assumption that they represent traditional reading instruction.
Many adults can cite the first lesson by memory.
“Run, Spot, run!”
There was no dissection of words into individual sounds. The teacher read the sentences, and the students read them back. There were pictures of Dick, Jane and Spot that inspired classroom conversation. All students were expected to relate their experiences to those of the boy, the girl and the dog. Reading was suddenly a creative process, a relationship, under the guidance of a loving teacher.
The Friendly Teacher
The teacher’s edition to one of The New Basic Readers stresses the importance of developing that relationship.
“To establish a friendly relationship, we make each child aware that we are interested in him—his likes and dislikes, his hopes and fears, his plans. We invite confidences, but we understand that confidences from a boy or girl are the rewards of friendship—that they must first be deserved.”
One modern educational catchphrase is, “They won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
However, the whole language approach has significant drawbacks. The First Cry website lasts three of the more common problems.
- “Some children may be unable to spell correctly if they do not get proper phonetics instructions.
- “Due to the lack of phonetic knowledge, children will be unable to recognize or read unfamiliar words.
- “Accuracy is often overlooked.”
Why Eric Couldn’t Read
And, as Mayor Eric Adams can attest, students who don’t see the words accurately are totally lost. Other less challenged students are not far behind.
Thus, the whole language approach has often been scorned. In 1966, Rudolph Flesch wrote his famous work, Why Johnny Can’t Read: And What You Can Do About It. In the introduction, Dr. Flesch asked the parents of America a critical question. “Do you know that the teaching of reading never was a problem anywhere in the world until the United States switched to the present method about 1925?”
Dr. Flesch also criticized the sheer inanity of most reading books of the Dick, Jane and Spot variety.
“Our children don’t read Andersen’s Fairy Tales any more or The Arabian Knights or Mark Twain or Louisa May Alcott…or anything interesting and worthwhile, because they can’t.” (Emphasis in the original.)
Why Johnny Can’t Read was a sensation that got people questioning modern education. In 1983, Dr. Flesch followed up with Why Johnny Still Can’t Read. Other writers described Johnny’s defective education in Why Johnny Can’t Add: The Failure of New Math (1973), Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right From Wrong (1993), and the very recent, Why Johnny Still Can’t Read or Write or Understand Math (2022).
Many Studies, Little Action
All of this begs the question, why are discredited progressive methods still universal?
The answer is simple. Progressives still dominate America’s schools. Administrators are experts at weathering storms, asking for more funding and instituting new progressive programs that promise to remedy the problems.
However, progressive education currently faces a crisis like none that it has ever seen before. Parents are awakening to “woke” agendas. The school board meeting has become the new battleground of the culture war. Parent groups in Loudoun County, Virginia and San Francisco influenced elections that shocked the nation.
When one of the largest school systems in the country reverses course, it is a sign something important is happening. Overcoming the harmful effects of progressive education need to be spelled out loudly and clearly. Mayor Adam’s return to phonics is a good start.
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