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WHY They Can't Read ... and What WE Can Do About It!

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by: Carole Richards, Executive Director

North Coast Tutoring Services

"This we can say with certainty: If a child in a modern society like ours does not learn to read, he doesn't make it through life.  If he doesn't learn to read well enough to comprehend what he is reading; if he doesn't learn to read effortlessly enough to render reading pleasurable; if he doesn't learn to read fluently enough to read broadly and reflectively across all content areas; the chances for a fulfilling life, by whatever measure -- academic success, financial success, the ability to find interesting work, personal autonomy, self esteem -- are practically nil."

Learning to Read: Schooling's First Mission,American Federal of Teachers, Summer, 1995

More and more parents and educators are starting to admit we have a huge and growing problem with literacy in our schools.  At North Coast Tutoring Services, we believe there is no single answer to this reading and literacy problem but,  "systematic phonics" is one significant key to success in school.

I think we can all agree that reading is critical to modern society.  Yet, in article after article in newspapers and magazines, and in radio and television reports, the urgent need for improved literacy skills is discussed ... demanded.

Consider the facts:

    ¨  The Ohio Literacy Resource Center states, 90 million or nearly half of American adults have limited literacy skills.

    ¨ The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tested 140,000 children in grades 4, 8, and 12 in public and private schools in thirty-nine states.  Overall, fewer than a third were proficient in reading.  And, only a very few (2 to 5 percent) were at advanced levels.  Further, the NAEP found no positive results in the expensive federal Title I programs for disadvantaged.

      ¨  Our health care system requires that patients be able to read.  Yet, according to the Test of Functional Health Literacy in Adults

(TOFHLA), 33% of patients did not understand written procedures at the fourth grade level.  They couldn't read words like "orally"  "teaspoon" or "hours".

Many people think illiteracy is an urban problem or a "low-wealth problem".  It is true that the incidence of illiteracy is much larger in urban communities.  The Creative Education Institute tested 700 Cleveland City School children in grades kindergarten through grade 6.  They found 70% of these children reading below grade level or not at all. 

According to the July 1996 Phyllis Schlafly Report, "Illiteracy can't be predicted by appearance or years of schooling.  This means that illiteracy is not just a problem for minority dropouts or recent immigrants."

NCTS finds significant reading deficits among students in every school district and in every corner of Northern Ohio.  We see reading failures in the Cleveland Schools as merely a magnification of our nation's education system. Cleveland Schools have more children and families in crisis ... more failure.  Not a lack of intelligence or money!

So what is the problem?

It all began in 1930 when Scott Foresman, the publishers of the "Dick and Jane" series, convinced schools that children could learn to read easily through a "look and say" method using one-syllable words.

Reading problems really surface when children reach the third or fourth grade. It's when they are required to read much more written material using two, three and four syllable words, and larger words.

Whole Language ... A Philosophy

Not A Methodology

  • It encourages children to appreciate and enjoy fine literature.  Through language experience, reading can be acquired like speech.
  •  Whole language also teaches children to guess at words by looking at pictures; to substitute words they don't know; and to "predict" words they think will fit.  Students must memorize lists of words that are found in their reading.   This method of breaking the English reading "code" just isn't very efficient.


California came in last in national fourth grade reading tests.  The California state task force found the state's Whole Language method (philosophy) a disaster!

Whole Language ... not the only culprit!

The "look-say" Dick and Jane method and the whole language philosophy have both helped create the millions of illiterates in this nation and world.  Neighboring Canada and other first world nations have not escaped this disaster!

"Systematic Phonics" versus "Phonics"

Several phonics products have been heavily promoted on radio and television.  While these products are very expensive, they are basically sound -- as far as they go.  They introduce phonics ... but, usually not systematic phonics.

Giving directions to your home is a good analogy to the difference between phonics and systematic phonics.  If I were to place each step in the instructions directing you to my home on six separate unnumbered pieces of paper, and then asked you to find your way to my home ... you would find it challenging.  However, if I gave you numbered directions in an organized way, it would be very simple to locate my home.

"Phonics" is much like the disorganized "slips of paper" directions.  Students learn about short vowels, and consonant sounds and blends.  They learn each of these "isolated" concepts in a disorganized way.  They must try to organize the concepts and apply them.

"Systematic Phonics" is an organized structure of sounds, syllables ("word chunks") and word patterns that gives students a system to identify unfamiliar words.  It is not merely the memorization of letter sounds.  It is not rote memorization.  This structure could be compared to the body's skeleton or a building's support beams.

All children can benefit from systematic phonics instruction ... not just the learning disabled.

Marilyn Adams, a senior scientist at Bolt, Beranek and Newman in Cambridge, Massachusetts states, " ... it has been proven beyond any shade of a doubt that skillful readers process virtually each and every word and letter of text as they read. ... skillful readers neither look or feel as if that's what they do.  But that's because they do it so quickly and effortlessly ... in fact, the automaticity with which skillful readers recognize words is the key to the whole system."

President Marcia Henry of the National Orton Dyslexia Society states, "Witness the dilemma of a group of 44 children in 9th through 12th grade ... These students, all identified as "learning disabled," most of whom had phonics, but had no other strategies for analyzing longer multi-syllabic words."

This article is the first of a two part series. 

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