Reauthorization of No Child Left Behind
Why Johnny Can't Read:
Why Johnny Can't Read
Frank B. Withrow, Ph.D.
"I Have Touched the Future...I Teach"
This most poignant and powerful declaration by Christa McAuliffe, the teacher who lost her life in the Challenger disaster, carries a powerful message. The future of the United States has always been in the hands of those who teach whether they are parents, teachers or others who have an abiding interest in children and their welfare.
For most of the 20th Century American experts have argued over why some children can't read. Various theories from "whole language" to "phonics' have been both blamed for and put forward as the solution to the problem. None-the-less at an alarming rate many American children have failed to learn to read. Why?
We have seldom been willing to look at the basic facts of the spelling of the English language and its detriment to the learning and mastering reading. English is the world's dominant language. It now contains more than one million words; it is used in the worldwide air traffic control systems, banking systems, and computer systems. It is this success of English that is partly to blame for the difficulty in learning to read it. English absorbs words from other languages at a phenomenal rate. Unfortunately, it most often retains the spelling of the language it adopted the word form. Consequently, the relation between the phoneme and grapheme of the words is corrupted. For example, the sounds and their letter representation in French are different from those in English. “bouquet” retains the French spelling but is Anglicized and has no relation to the phonetics of English.
In the 1930s I remember as a youngster reading an article in The Dallas Morning News that deplored the acceptance of 'check' for 'cheque' in the new dictionary. They went on to deplore the fact that someone might want to change bouquet to bokay further diluting the English language. It is interesting that today my computer spell checker does not accept cheque as an alternative spelling. There are literally thousands of words in the English language that have the same problem.
The bottom line is that the 26 letters of the Roman alphabet do not phonetically represent the 44 sounds of the English language. In fact, several letters in the alphabet have no independent phonetic value. The letter "c: for example is always pronounced as "s" or "k" as in cigar or cookie. "X" is another letter with no value of its own since it is always pronounced as "ks or z." In fact, the 26 letters of the Roman alphabet are combined 196 ways to represent the 44 sounds of English.
America is one of the few countries in the world that value "Spelling Bees." Why? In languages that are more phonetic in nature where the sounds and the letters and combination of letters are exact reflections of one another, if you can say a word you can spell it. The American occupation forces in Germany after World War II thought that it would be a good American tradition to have "Spelling Bees" for young German students. It quickly became apparent that either all of the German children were much smarter than American students or something else was wrong. Nothing was wrong. German uses the Roman alphabet but has a greater consistency with respect to sound letter relations than English. Therefore, if you can say a German word you can spell it. The talent needed in a "Spelling Bee" is mostly memorization.
Unfortunately the inconsistencies in the sound letter relation in English has resulted in a large number of children failing to learn to read adequately. Experimental psychology has demonstrated that very young children (ages three to four) can visually discriminate among the various letters of the alphabet. The success of "Sesame Street" and other television programs have easily demonstrated this. In the modern world young children are bombarded with letters in signs and on television. Once one of our guests had their baby sitter cancel at the last minute and asked if they could bring their four-year-old son. They did and he brought his plastic magnetic alphabet. He and the adults spent the party time playing a version of "Wheel of Fortune." He knew how to spell very few words but he loved to pick out the letters and then test the adults to see if they could name and pick out the letters. His parents said he had been very interested in "Wheel of Fortune" from about the age of two. There was certainly no question that he recognized and could discriminate among the letters of the alphabet.
Unfortunately, we teach children to name the letters of the alphabet and not to give letters their sound values. In the 1960s Sir James Pitman created an Initial Teaching Alphabet (ITA) that was phonetically consistent. He believed that very young children could learn to read using the ITA and then transfer to traditional spelling. His experiments were successful, however the limited amount of materials printed in the Initial Teaching Alphabet caused the program to die out.
A much more promising system was developed more than 100 years ago by Alexander Graham Bell and Caroline Yale to teach speech to deaf children. Bell and his father developed a three case alphabet that could phonetically transcribe any language in the world. The alphabet gave you cues with respect to how to pronounce the word. In other words, the letters indicated the lip, tongue, teeth, voice, breath and nasal qualities of the sound. They believed that their Visible Speech alphabet would replace traditional alphabets. They originally used this to teach deaf children speech, but it had the same failing that Sir James Pitman discovered a century later, there were very few materials printed in their visible speech alphabet. Caroline Yale took the phonetic knowledge of the Bells and analyzed English spelling and came up with a way to combine the letters of the Roman alphabet so that if you learn the system you will be able to pronounce any English word. The teachers of deaf children used this system to teach young deaf children speech. The Yale Charts give the learner the phonetic clues represented by the letter combinations.
We know that the average child entering school has a spoken vocabulary of about 2,500 words. We know that depending upon the child and the richness of his or her environment the range will be from 1,000 to 7,000 words. Obviously, a child with a larger vocabulary has a greater probability of doing well in school. However, there is no reason that any child can not learn to associate his spoken language to written language in a relatively short time frame. Unfortunately, we often treat all children as if they are the same. I once gave my four-year-old neighbor a little umbrella from a mixed drink. She examined it and said, "This is a very fragile parasol and I must handle it very carefully." She obviously had a large vocabulary and had taught herself to read before she entered school.
The first steps of teaching reading to young children is to help them understand that this marvelous code we call speech and language can also be coded onto paper and electronic devices. Our primary oral aural symbol system of speech and language allows us to code the sensory events of our world and to use them to express ideas in social settings. In short, speech is our public expression of our private sensory experiences. It is the way we code and organize our world. Speech and language have both a receptive and expressive mode. For most of us the essentials of speech and language are learned spontaneously in the first three years of life. The written language is never learned spontaneously but must be associated with spoken language. We must remember that reading is the receptive aspect of written language that correlates to listening. Writing is the expressive aspect of the written language that is comparable to speech.
The first task in teaching reading is to understand the relation among sounds and letters. The decoding of the written language symbol, i.e., letters into the sounds of the child's known language is the first step in learning to read. This is not an overwhelming task. In fact, in terms of what we know about associative learning from experimental psychology it should be a simple task, a task that the average four or five year old can master within six months. We also know that there is a wide range of linguistic development among young children as was indicated by my four-year-old friend who used " fragile". Therefore, we must develop materials that are able to meet the needs of children with various levels of linguistic development.
In the 1920s the Soviet Union was faced with a nation of illiterates. To spur literacy development they did two things. First, they eliminated all non-phonetic spelling and second, they dropped all irregular verbs. Young children were taught the sounds of letters and not the names of the letters. They developed a literate nation at a very rapid pace. They were aided by the fact that they used the Cyrillic alphabet with 33 letters and not the obsolete 26 letter Roman alphabet. As a post Sputnik exercise I examined the early Russian readers. They were not the graded types of readers found in the USA. They were built on the spoken language of the children and while filled with propaganda they used biographies of scientists and other relatively sophisticated content areas.
I believe that if we understand the sciences of phonetics and linguistics we can build a scientific system for teaching reading. It can be designed so that it ensures the average four, five or six year old child can master the early elements of reading within six months. Since retiring from the U. S. Department of Education in 1992 I have developed an extensive series of computer-based lessons and stories to teach reading to my grand children built upon the principles of phonetics and linguistics.
One comment on the use of illustrations is important at this point since I believe there is a transition from reality based experiences to graphic to symbols. I am not in favor of using overly realistic illustrations. Simple clear illustrations are one step in associating written symbols with spoken symbols. Therefore, I have deliberately avoided high levels of reality in my artwork. What I have done in the materials is to make them as interactive for young children as I can with the resources I have available. I believe with the addition of voice recognition in computers even more creative lessons can be accomplished. The great advantage of the computer as your drawing board is that the designer can manipulate images, sounds, voice and activities to meet the pace of the learner.
Teachers are like great musicians. They can perform well in an orchestra or Jazz band, but teachers, like musicians, need great composers. It is significant that when we go to the symphony we still listen to Bach, Beethoven and other great composers. Consequently, while there are many great teachers who improvise much as great Jazz musicians they are few and far between. Most teachers need curriculum materials that are scientifically designed based upon clear understanding of the learning and teaching processes and the scientifically accurate content of the lessons..
This does not mean that teachers should not be a part of the development of great materials, but great curriculum requires many different talents. I want my heart surgeon to know what she is doing and not just to rely upon someone who has experienced the surgery.
We owe every child in America the right to learn to read. We need to create the best scientific system possible to do that. All elementary teachers should be taught the essential elements of phonetics and linguistic development in children. This does not mean the popular concepts of PHONICS. The science of phonetics is much more complicated that the current use of phonics. Alexander Graham Bell and his father Melville remain two of the major American contributors to the science of phonetics.
Speech and language are the public expressions of our private sensory experiences. Speech and language enabled people to bind together into societies.
The written word binds society from one generation to the next and across geographic boundaries.
Frank B. Withrow
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