Back in 1973 I wrote a book on the reading problem, The New Illiterates: And How to Keep Your Child from Becoming One. A decade earlier, in 1962, I had become informed about the reading problem by an attorney friend, Watson Washburn, a New York patrician, who created the Reading Reform Foundation and wanted me to become a member of his National Advisory Council. He was concerned about how reading was being taught in our schools, including the elitist private schools his nieces and nephews were attending. I was then editor of The Universal Library at Grosset & Dunlap, and like so many college graduates, I thought I knew a lot about everything. But I knew nothing about the reading problem. So he educated me.
He told me that the schools were no longer teaching children to read with the traditional phonics method but were using a new whole-word approach, in which children were expected to learn to read by memorizing whole words as little pictures. The new method was causing reading problems among thousands of children. Since I had been taught to read by phonics in a New York City public school, I could not understand how or why the educators had changed the way reading was being taught. How could you learn to read without phonics?
My friend advised me to read Rudolf Flesch’s book, Why Johnny Can’t Read, published in 1955, which revealed the truth about what was happening in our schools and why so many children were having enormous difficulty learning to read. I read the book, was appalled by what the educators had done, and became an active member of the Reading Reform Foundation. Flesch had written:
The teaching of reading — all over the United States, in all the schools, and in all the textbooks — is totally wrong and flies in the face of all logic and common sense.
It was naively expected by many Americans that the mere publication of Flesch’s book and the enormous controversy it generated over the issue of phonics vs. the whole-word method in teaching reading would correct a deplorable situation. But it did no such thing. The educators simply circled the wagons and accused Flesch of misinforming the public. Indeed, they were so successful in their opposition that little significant change took place in the teaching of reading. They continued to use the whole-word, or look-say, method, creating even more functional illiterates.
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Sam Blumenfeld (photo)