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Why Johnny Can’t Read

On June 26th, 2023 I tuned in to a press conference on CNN during which the governor of New York, Kathy Hochul, and other government officials expressed their total disappointment with the low reading scores obtained by students in the state. The sentiment expressed by the officials was that low reading skills posed a huge educational problem in urgent need of remediation. The governor stated emphatically that the problem was not confined to New York state, but that it was a nation-wide problem which required attention and drastic action on multiple levels. Indeed, according to a recent New York Times article, one fifth of all Americans struggle to read and a majority of high school seniors are not proficient readers. I hasten to add that such deficits in reading skills are also a problem in Canada and one which I saw and worked to ameliorate during my twenty years as a teacher in Ontario. In a Toronto Star article from April  29, 2022, Doug Willms explained, “Despite living in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, at least one-quarter of our children are struggling and vulnerable because they cannot read by Grade 3, a particularly critical stage in education when children move from ‘learning to read’ to ‘reading to learn’ ”.

This problem did not spring from the earth fully formed. Rather, it is the cumulative result of years of poorly developed curriculum which led to ineffective teaching. In my two decades as a teacher in Ontario, I had to deal with and remediate the learning of dozens of adolescents with poor or no reading skills. I spent a lot of time teaching young people to read. I also taught them core skills like essay and letter writing.

One afternoon when I arrived home from work, I found my then six-year-old daughter struggling to read. Her frustration was evident. I quickly realized the basis of the problem. Her teacher, abiding by the common practice in the entire board of education at the time, was teaching her “word guessing”. What did this mean? She and her fellow classmates were being taught to guess words based upon the context or sentence in which they appeared and were not being given the basic skills to decode, breakdown, or pronounce words.

The idea of learning to read a word in context created the same biases which are now widely acknowledged in I.Q. tests where the supposedly objective questions are not at all universal. Similarly, this idea of word guessing in a context varied wildly for students in stable upper- or middle-class homes when compared to those who came from homes where there were economic difficulties and instability.

Through my training at Mico University College in Kingston, Jamaica and my experiences on the ground in Canadian schools, I became convinced that the best way to teach students to read was phonetically. That means first teaching students the English alphabet, from A to Z, and then teaching them the sound or sounds of each letter. A great book that I used to teach my students and my own struggling child to read was Dr. Rudolph Flesch’s Why Johnny Can’t Read first published in 1955. Unfortunately, Flesch’s exceptional method met with scorn and abuse from parent, teachers, and the publishers of textbooks alike. But a determined Flesch followed up his first book with Why Johnny Still Can’t read (1981), a second volume in which he traced the decline in literacy to the abandonment of phonics. The literacy rate in the USA he wrote, “is on par with Burma and Albania.” Flesch astutely pushed back against the deeply flawed “look and say” method through which, educators believed, children could learn to read by osmosis. In reality, since 87% of the words in the English language are regular (meaning they sound like they are spelled), the best way to teach the English language is using phonics.

In using Flesch’s technique, I noticed a dramatic difference in my students and with my own child. Word guessing is akin to trying to teach someone to build a house without providing them with a foundation in carpentry and masonry. Will the house fall down? Maybe it won’t. But it certainly won’t be as fit for habitation as one built by skilled carpenters and masons.

In my country of birth, Jamaica, children were not admitted to grade one in public schools until the age of 7. I was fortunate to grow up in a town, Oracabessa, where the Salvation Army ran a school for children from ages 5 to 7. Due to my attendance, by the time that I was admitted to grade 1, I was already reading at a grade 4 level. Clear as a bell, I remember being summoned by the older grade 4 students who would ask me to read aloud to them. They were astonished that someone so small and young was able to read as I could. The method that my teachers used at the Salvation Army school was the phonetic method. To this day, I am grateful to them for the wonderful educational start that they provided to me, a child whose family was certainly unable to provide such education through private schools or tutors.

The deficits in reading in the USA and Canada are no doubt accompanied by problems with grammar. If we value a society where communication, verbal and written, is not to be wholly handed over to Artificial Intelligence, it behooves us to teach students proper English grammar like the use of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs, the structure of sentences, and use of subjects, predicates, and objects. Writing is a skill that must be practiced and developed from the business letter to the research essay.

While there is plenty of bad news, there are thankfully some bright spots also. As the New York Times reported on September 1, 2023, after decades of featuring some of the nation’s worst reading and math scores, Mississippi’s statistics are on the way up. Why is this a big deal? Well, for one thing, as one of the poorest states in the USA and one of the worst places for child poverty, the success of Mississippi’s third and fourth graders – who are now subjected to a state-wide test – demonstrates how fast things can be turned around with the appropriate attention, funding, and methodology. On the national spectrum of reading and math, these students have risen from near the bottom to the middle. They are tied for the best in the country in reading tests and they are second in math. As New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof put it bluntly, “if  Mississippi can do this and enjoy that kind of progress, there should be hope for all the rest of us.” When he visited classrooms in Mississippi earlier this year, he observed how teachers projected books onto a screen for their students and guided them as they read aloud together. At the heart of Mississippi’s improved reading curriculum is phonics and a test at the end of the third grade which, as Kristof reports, “galvanizes everybody.” The powerful knock-on effect is that these kids who are reading better are also doing better at math!

The six year old daughter who I referenced above is now the editor-in-chief of Black Maple Magazine and a respected scholar who has published seven books. A professor in the humanities, she takes it upon herself not only to teach her students the specific historical and cultural content related to her courses, but how to research and write grammatically correct assignments including research papers which she frequently publishes in her online student journal Chrysalis. That she is frequently having to correct grammatical errors made by university-level students underscores the problems that I have flagged. The solutions depend on educators at all levels working together to address the problem with the urgency it deserves.