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There is much puzzlement these days over why so many children can’t seem to become proficient in reading. A letter in the New York Times from one Lee W. Anderson on Oct. 8 summed up the general public frustration. He wrote: “The goal of universal math and reading proficiency by 2014 may be harder to reach than the moon, which simply means that we have to get more serious about providing schools, teachers and students with the tools they need.”
Curiously enough, the needed tools were available well before the progressives took control of public education in the 1930s. These educational reformers decided to change the way reading is taught in the schools. They got rid of the traditional phonetic method and adopted a new picture method known as look-say. The switch from sound to image meant that children would be taught to read by looking at each printed word as a little picture, sometimes alongside of an actual picture, instead of a group of letters standing for speech sounds. The result has been massive reading failure among American children. Indeed, by 1955 the situation was so bad that Rudolf Flesch was compelled to write his famous best-seller, “Why Johnny Can’t Read.”
In that book, Flesch wrote: “The teaching of reading – all over the United States, in all the schools, in all the textbooks – is totally wrong and flies in the face of all logic and common sense.” He then explained how imposing an image methodology on a phonetic writing system would lead to reading failure, generally known today as dyslexia or functional illiteracy.
Back in 1973, I wrote “The New Illiterates,” in which I researched the origin of the look-say method and discovered that it had been invented in 1837 by the Rev. Thomas H. Gallaudet, teacher of the deaf and dumb in Hartford, Conn. He juxtaposed printed words with their pictorial equivalents, which the deaf were able to memorize to some extent. He thought that this method could be adapted for use by hearing children. And so his method was adopted by Boston’s primary schools, and it produced a literacy disaster. It proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that a phonetic writing system must be taught phonetically if the learner is to become a fluent, proficient reader.
Today, primary reading instruction still relies heavily on pictures as the means of training children to look at printed words. Children are still required to memorize a “sight vocabulary.” And that is why we still have large numbers of children unable to achieve proficiency in reading. They are given more phonetic information than in previous years, but they are not sufficiently drilled in the letter-sound combinations so that they can acquire the needed phonetic reflex – the automatic ability to see the phonetic structure of the written word so that they can sound it out. In other words, the pictures produce a holistic or image reflex, which becomes an obstruction to seeing the word in its phonetic structure.
That is why pictures in reading instruction are harmful. Indeed, in 1983, I produced Alpha-Phonics, a reading program without pictures, which has been used by thousands of homeschoolers very successfully. The learners acquire the needed phonetic reflex, and thus become proficient, fluent readers. I proved that pictures are not necessary in learning to read.
There is another important reason why reading should be taught without pictures. Every child learns to speak his or her native language without pictures. The left side of the brain – the verbal side – contains the language-learning faculty. When children learn to read without pictures, the left side of the brain expands its language learning power. However, picture reading is a faculty of the right side of the brain, which deals with images and space. You cannot train the right brain to do the left brain’s job. In fact, you create internal cognitive conflict by imposing an image methodology on a phonetic system. Thus, picture reading retards the growth of the language faculty.
The importance of the spoken word over the image cannot be exaggerated. For example, if you watch television and click on mute, you cannot understand what is going on. People are talking but you can’t hear them. On the other hand, if you listen to a radio talk show without any images, you are easily engaged in what is being said. And that is why talk radio has become so successful. The message is conveyed in spoken language, not image.
Spoken language appeals to the innate logic of the human mind. The image appeals to the emotion. That is why the average listener learns more from talk radio than from watching the TV news where the appeal of the image is to the emotions and language is used to enhance the emotional impact of the image. Of course, the spoken language can be used to influence the emotions and also to convey falsehoods. But a good reader will be better equipped to discern truth from falsehood than a non-reader dependent mostly on the image.
Black children, in particular, need to be taught to read without pictures. Picture reading has largely destroyed high literacy among blacks. That is why they have such high rates of academic failure and are inclined to drop out. We don’t know why sight reading is so harmful to black children; all we know is that it is. Unless we change the way reading is taught in our schools, the cognitive skills of black children will continue to be greatly damaged, with tragic consequences.
For more information about Blumenfeld’s Alpha-Phonics reading program, contact him via e-mail.
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