Politics forced people to conform to an inferior system of education

To The Editor:

I would like to add my two cents to Melissa Hale-Spencer’s editorial of May 22 regarding the town library, its budget, and the decline in young people’s interest in reading for pleasure. This also ties in a bit with a letter from a prior week in which the writer mentioned a bestselling book of the 1950’s, Why Johnny Can’t Read, and the fact that very little substantive education reform debate is occurring today.

Melissa wrote of the library’s contribution to the encouragement of reading among people of all ages and socio-economic standing. While I’m sure public libraries contribute to people’s reading opportunities, those opportunities require that young people first have the ability to read well, that is to say effortlessly.

There has been a great deal of serious debate surrounding the way reading was and now is being taught but it has been kept out of the mainstream media. One of the reasons it’s not been in the news is because it doesn’t have the sensational attraction that news managers seek. The other, and more problematic, reason is that politics is involved and commands that time-honored axiom: No news is good news.

For example — how many people who consider themselves informed on educational issues are aware that funding for the very popular and successful “Reading First” component of No Child Left Behind was quietly eviscerated by the new Democratic Congress during the sixth year of President George W. Bush’s term?

While Reading First might be a good name for a future law regarding what Congress ought to do before passing legislation, NCLB’s Reading First effectively reintroduced phonics to our public schools.

The defunding of Reading First became a political goal sought by certain Democrats as soon as NCLB was passed and it became obvious to them that they should have read the bill before they passed it. Those lawmakers were and are cronies with big education industry publishers who publish only “whole-word” also known as “Whole-language” teaching material. Those publishers were losing business to the new firms working with the Bush Administration to publish phonics-based teaching material that actually worked.

You may ask how it came to pass that the centuries-old standard of teaching people to read phonetically got replaced with a less effective method. I cannot completely answer that as much of it occurred before my time but the earliest evidence of a political push that I am aware of occurred during the first term of Bill Clinton’s presidency.

In the push to implement the “Goals 2000” and “School-to-Work” programs, First Lady Hillary Clinton suggested that young schoolgirls were not getting the same classroom attention as boys. That left me and others scratching our heads as we recalled just the opposite during our public-school experiences.

So, when I discovered that the “whole-word” memorization method of teaching reading being pushed at that time worked better for girls, I decided to dig deeper.

Whole-word reading is taught by providing lists of words for students to memorize and girls in general simply have better memories. Everyone, but young boys in particular, learns reading best by stringing letter sounds together to form complete words. Much like adding numbers together to get a sum (2+2=4), phonics puts letter sounds together to form words (m+y=my).

There are limits to the amount of whole words that can effectively be memorized and complex word memorization is about as effective as trying to memorize sums like 730 (which is 365+365 but can also be the sum of 364+366).

The vocabularies of young people who learn to read through whole-word memorization get stuck in the hundreds of words while the working vocabularies of phonics taught students quickly enter the thousands and are actually limitless. This is important to realize because students are being introduced to thousands of new words when studying subjects like science and history and will not be able to get through a page of new text as quickly when an unfamiliar word appears unless they can decipher it as they go.

Have you ever helped a young boy with his reading homework and gotten to a point where he says: “We haven’t learned that word yet”? How can we expect them to answer a test question when they come across words in the question they have never seen before?

Another consequence of not receiving systematic phonics instruction that I found with boys when they came across a new word they had not yet memorized was that they would sound out the first letter or two and then guess at the rest. They might see the word “stem” and guess “step” or “stream” and guess “strong.” A half-hour reading assignment could take hours when they had to muddle through a sentence to pick up on its context before they could figure out unknown words.

I found another example of the ineffectiveness of whole-word instruction in a national newspaper several years ago. It was a report on the poor test scores among a big city’s Hispanic minority students.

While the article focused on a perceived need to simply increase funding (it was a Democratic stronghold), it completely missed what I saw as the glaringly obvious reason those students in particular were failing. They were “English as a second language” learners and therefore had to memorize twice as many words as their primary English language contemporaries.

It wasn’t their poverty or inferiority. It was the impossibility of the task given the inferiority of the method they had been taught to use.

It doesn’t matter what language you are learning when you are taught to read by stringing letter sounds together. Systematic phonetic decoding is the way every alphabetic language has been taught throughout world history. Only in modern America have politics forced people to conform to an inferior system of education.

David Crawmer
East Greenbush

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