Last week, George W. Bush, speaking on education, said he’d like to
see children of three years’ age learn to read using phonics. He cited
a study by the National Institutes of Health that recommended the
teaching of phonics. But Reid Lyon, who oversees NIH’s reading
initiative, said that his experts view phonics as only one component of
reading instruction. Newsweek quoted a NIH researcher as saying, “We
couldn’t figure out where he was coming from.”

Mention phonics, and you hit a raw nerve among establishment
experts. You would have expected them to commend Bush for his interest
in the subject. Instead, he got an immediate negative response. Why?

The simple truth is that phonics has been politicized by the left
ever since it became identified with conservative educational principles
and practices. But this is by no means a recent development. It really
all started back in 1898 when John Dewey wrote his famous essay, “The
Primary-Education Fetich,” in which he advocated shifting the emphasis
in primary education away from the development of academic skills,
particularly reading, to the development of the social skills. This was
necessary if the education system were to be used to bring about a
socialist society where collectivist values would be favored over
individualistic values.

Dewey had been experimenting along these lines at the Laboratory
School set up by him in 1896 at the University of Chicago. In 1898 he
wrote,

    It is almost an unquestioned assumption, of educational theory
    and practice both, that the first three years of a child’s school-life
    shall be mainly taken up with learning to read and write his own
    language. … It does not follow, however, that because this course was
    once wise it is so any longer. … The plea for the predominance of
    learning to read in early school life because of the great importance
    attaching to literature seems to me a perversion.

Dewey recommended a radical reform of primary education and the
adoption of teaching methods that would gradually lower the literacy
level of the American people. High literacy created individuals with
independent intelligence who could think for themselves. Dewey and his
colleagues wanted children to become dependent on the collective. He
wrote,

    Change must come gradually. To force it unduly would compromise
    its final success by favoring a violent reaction. What is needed in the
    first place, is that there should be a full and frank statement of
    conviction with regard to the matter from physiologists and
    psychologists and from those school administrators who are conscious of
    the evils of the present regime.

In 1908, a young professor of psychology, Edmund Burke Huey,
answered Dewey’s call for an authoritative book that would put a
scientific spin on the new teaching method. The book, “The Psychology
and Pedagogy of Reading,” became the bible of the new progressive
educators. Huey wrote,

    It is not indeed necessary that the child should be able to
    pronounce correctly or pronounce at all, at first, the new words that
    appear in his reading, any more than that he should spell or write all
    the new words that he hears spoken. If he grasps, approximately, the
    total meaning of the sentence in which the new word stands, he has read
    the sentence. … And even if the child substitutes words of his own
    for some that are on the page, provided that these express the meaning,
    it is an encouraging sign that the reading has been real, and
    recognition of details will come as it is needed. The shock that such a
    statement will give to many a practical teacher of reading is but an
    accurate measure of the hold that a false ideal has taken of us, viz.,
    that to read is to say just what is upon the page, instead of to think,
    each in his own way, the meaning that the page suggests.

That just about sums up the philosophy of reading that has
produced the literacy disaster that afflicts America today. One can
find the same illogical thinking iterated by today’s teachers of reading
— from the colleges of education to the primary classrooms.

Phonics teaches a child to read what the author wrote, not what he
thinks the author wrote. Today’s anti-phonics, whole-language teachers
basically adhere to Huey’s view of reading. Indeed, they’ve added their
own twist to the philosophy. In a book entitled “Whole Language: What’s
the Difference?” published in 1991, three whole-language professors
wrote,

    Whole language represents a major shift in thinking about the
    reading process. Rather than viewing reading as “getting the words,”
    whole language educators view reading as essentially a process of
    creating meanings. Meaning is created through a transaction with
    whole, meaningful texts. It is a transaction, not an extraction of the
    meaning from the print, in the sense that the
    reader-created meanings are a fusion of what the reader brings
    and what the text offers. … In a transactional model, words do not
    have static meanings. Rather, they have meaning potentials and
    the capacity to communicate multiple meanings.

No wonder children are having such a tough time learning to read
in American schools, and no wonder parents want to get back to phonics.
Indeed, the whole-language teachers of the ’90s sound just like Huey in
1908. And the reason why they will continue to oppose phonics is
because there is a socialist agenda behind the whole-language movement.
The authors of the above book also wrote in the same book that “The
whole language theoretical premise underlying which topics are pursued
and how they are treated is All knowledge is socially
constructed.
Therefore all knowing is political. … Whole language
is gaining momentum when disparities between economic classes are
widening, when the number of homeless people are increasing, when
freedom to criticize is threatened by right-wing groups such as Accuracy
in Media and Accuracy in Academia.”

You really cannot understand what all of that has to do with learning
to read unless you understand how the left wants to use reading
instruction as a tool of socialist indoctrination. A more explicit
anti-phonics view was given by whole-language advocates in an article
appearing in Education Week of Feb. 27, 1985:

    By limiting reading instruction to systematic phonics
    instruction, sound-symbol decoding, and literal comprehension; and by
    aiming its criticism at reading books’ story lines in an effort to
    influence content, the New Right’s philosophy runs counter to the
    research findings and theoretical perspectives of most noted reading
    authorities. If this limited view of reading (and, implicitly, of
    thinking) continues to gain influence … the New Right will have
    successfully impeded the progress of democratic governance founded on
    the ideal of an educated — and critically thinking — electorate.

If you translate “democratic governance” as socialism, then you
understand why the left is so threatened by “literal comprehension.”
They don’t want children to know what they’re reading. They want them
to feel it, guess it, twist it, invent it. Little did George W. know
what he was stepping into when he mentioned phonics.


Samuel L. Blumenfeld is the author of eight books on education,
including two phonics reading programs: How to Tutor (208-322-4440) and
Alpha-Phonics (888-922-3000).
His books are also available through Amazon.com.

Note: Read our discussion guidelines before commenting.