Johnny can learn to read

January 04, 1995|By Cameron Humphries

FROM "DATELINE NBC," the television newsmagazine that rigged a truck with explosives to boost its Nielsen ratings, has come an equally incendiary attack on small, but highly successful, Gateway Educational Products and its flagship product, "Hooked on Phonics."

Long before you saw the recent "Dateline" expose, you probably knew about Gateway, if only by its catchy phone number 1-800-ABCDEFG," the keystone of its ubiquitous infomercials, radio and television ads that have tapped into a huge market of frustrated parents, dissident teachers and illiterate adults.

In a country that has 90 million functional illiterates and ranks 49th among nations of the world in stamping out this malaise, while spending nearly $6,000 annually per student, the real fraud is how reading is taught in our classrooms, not some $230 kit. But the impotence of our schools has long since ceased being news, and what better time than the holidays to scare parents who wanted to give their child an educational present?

But a few facts were not included in the "Dateline" report.

The method that most classrooms currently use to teach reading is both an empirical and clinical failure. No question in education has received more attention than how to teach reading. But while educators have bandied about a series of theories, science has largely closed the book on the idea: The use of early, intensive and systematic phonics is the best indicator of how well a child will learn to read. In more than a century of study, not one scientific finding has proven otherwise.

But for the past 70 years, most prominent education experts have been instructing would-be teachers to use an array of progressive and experimental techniques, a philosophy they now call "whole language." Whole language eschews the drill and repetition of the "ABCs" in favor of "immersing" children in written language, which basically constitutes little more than placing a child in a room full of books. Whereas phonics relies on drill to make the sounds of letters and letter combinations reflexive, whole language surrounds the student with colorful picture books, elaborate "language labs" and quiet reading periods in a structureless and "nurturing" environment.

The real question is, if overwhelming scientific evidence demonstrates that whole language is an abject failure, why does the educational establishment overwhelmingly support it?

There's a reason why more than a million Americans have plunked down about $230 for the Hooked on Phonics kit of cassette tapes and flash cards, and it's not because they're gullible or susceptible to clever marketing. It's because they or their children can't read. A recent Department of Education report found that 1 in 2 Americans suffers severe literacy deficiencies, that 1 in 4 cannot read at all, and that only three or four Americans in a hundred possess the literacy skills required of college students just 40 years ago.

It didn't use to be this way. Until the Great Depression, the problem of literacy was limited to about 3 million Americans, most of whom had little or no formal schooling. Literacy levels, according to most studies, have been falling since before World War II -- decades before the socioeconomic phenomena routinely blamed for public school atrophy began cropping up. With all the discussion about Goals 2000, world-class standards and outcome-based education, it's easy to conclude that the primary task facing educators today is on-ramping our children onto the Information Superhighway and into the 21st century. But this is simply the diversionary talk of an education system that is failing in its most basic responsibility.

For 40 years, the smoke-and-mirrors campaign has been spearheaded by the International Reading Association. IRA is a professional society of nearly 100,000 reading educators, founded in 1956 by Dr. William Gray, author of the "Dick and Jane" series of basic readers. Although some IRA members endorse the use of phonics in the classroom, the IRA's leadership doesn't now, and it never has. Since the inception of the organization, these leaders have used IRA clout to discredit the phonics movement. This hostility continues today. "Hooked on Phonics aaa aaaaaaa a aaaaaa a a aaaaa aaaa aa aa aa aa aa a a a a aa aa aa is not a art goes here. art goes here. art goes here. art goes here. art goes here. art goes here . art goes goes here. art goes here . art goes goes here . art goes goes here. art goes here . art goes here. art goes here . art goes here. art goes here . art goes here. art goes here . art goes here.

is not a method of teaching reading," says former IRA president and whole-language guru Dr. Kenneth Goodman. "The religious right uses phonics to exploit the fear of parents for their own political gain."

The IRA, however, despite its professional veneer, has never offered to assist in the development of this highly successful and important commercial product; it has sought simply to sink it.

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