Education: Why Johnny Can't Read

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When Bestselling Author Rudolf Flesch (The Art of Plain Talk) offered to give a friend's twelve-year-old son some "remedial reading," Flesch discovered that the boy was not slow or maladjusted; he had merely been "exposed to an ordinary American school." Author Flesch decided to investigate how reading is taught in the U.S. Last week he published his findings in a 222-page book, Why Johnny Can't Read—and What You Can Do About It (Harper; $3), that will shock many a U.S. parent and educator.

Only in the U.S., reported Flesch, is there any remedial-reading problem. In Britain, kindergarten children read Three Little Pigs; in Germany, second-grade pupils can read aloud (without necessarily understanding all the words) almost anything in print. By contrast, average U.S. third-graders have a reading mastery of only 1,800 words. Why is the U.S. so far behind? Says Flesch: "We have decided to forget that we write with letters, and [instead] learn to read English as if it were Chinese."

"Quack, Quack." Since the 1920s, most American schoolchildren have been taught to memorize the "appearance" of words, one after another, like Chinese characters, without reference to the sounds of the individual letters that make up each word. By this "word method," largely developed at teachers colleges and schools of education, children must plow through endless illustrated stories, in which words are repeated over and over. Sample text:

"Quack, quack," said the duck.

He wanted something.

He did not want to get out.

He did not want to go to the farm.

He did not want to eat.

He sat and sat and sat.

Under the word method, if a child comes up against a new word, all he can do is guess—not at its pronunciation, but at its "looks." As a result, says Flesch, word-method pupils make outlandish errors, reading "said" for "jumped," "caps" instead of "houses." One youngster who had successfully recognized "children" on a word-recognition card was unable to read it on the printed page. How did he get it from the card? His simple answer: "By the smudge over in the corner."

"Small-Size Adult." According to Flesch, the basic flaw in the system lies in that it "looks at a child as if it were a small-size adult." Lip reading and learning the rudimentary ABCs are taboo; the word "children" is "children" only because Teacher says so, not from any deciphering of its component letter-sounds. Result: a third-grader is "unable to decipher 90% of his own speaking and listening vocabulary when he sees it in print."

Yet, Flesch adds, U.S. educators by and large refuse to recognize the word method's shortcomings. Reading failures are merely blamed on "poor eyesight ... or a broken home ... or an Oedipus complex or sibling rivalry."

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