Friday, October 04, 2013

Why Johny Still Can't Read by Rudolf Flesch (1981)

Rudolf Flesch (1911-1986). Interesting guy (wikipedia bio)
Why Johny Can't Read: And What You Can Do about It (1955)
Why Johny Still Can't Read: A New Look at the Scandal of our Schools (1981)

Flesch advocated the use of phonics rather than sight reading, to enable students to sound out unfamiliar words.

So, the "reading wars" have been going on for at least 60 years and some trace it back to the writings of Paulo Freire (1920s), John Dewey (1890s) and the Romantic / Naturalistic thinking of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). My point here is that the longevity of the "reading wars" is explained by deeply held differences in cultural, psychological, philosophical and political world view - not differences in scientific findings as is usually claimed.

Meaning: If you don't like Tony Abbott because you believe he is a closet global warming denier or because he has no sympathy for the boat people then if the same Tony Abbott pushes for back to basics phonics teaching in schools then you don't like that either because how could someone who is so bad get anything right.

But anyway. The reason I have bought Rudolf Flesch's 1981 book is this 2003 review: What Is the Best Way to Teach Reading?:
Flesch listed the “10 favorite alibis” he collected from “the whole stack of letters” he had received from educators, many of which “were full of personal abuse.” He devoted a chapter each to debunking these alibis.
Sadly, these alibis are still highly relevant thirty years later:
“Everything Is Hunky-Dory” was one of them. Of course, this was sheer denial, and Flesch said so. Things were bad then, a fact as demonstrable as anything in educational research. They are worse today.

“We Do Teach Phonics” was another alibi. He pointed out that there had indeed been a change but only to “window-dressing token phonics” tacked onto fundamentally unaltered look-and-say methodology, which was continuing to do major damage.

Some letter-writers claimed that “No One Method Is Best.” Flesch countered that no method could work that did not correspond to the nature of the subject — that learning to read necessarily involves being able to decipher phonetic symbols in the same way that learning how to type involves becoming familiar with the keyboard.

An additional argument from his critics was that “English Isn’t Phonetic.” Flesch demonstrated that English is, in fact, almost entirely “phonetic and decodable.”

Another charge was that “Word Calling Isn’t Reading.” But word guessing isn’t either.

Then there was the blame-the-victim game, which yielded the most alibis: “Your Child Isn’t Ready,” “Your Child Is Disabled,” and “It’s the Parents’ Fault,” all of which are now embodied in school policies today. Next was “Too Much TV.” And the final alibi was “We Must Teach All Children,” as if there are some ineducables among us, “the sons and daughters of lowborn riffraff who are too dumb to learn how to read,” as Flesch characterized the implications of this mindset among educators.

In short, Flesch’s thesis — although wildly popular among parents certain that something was wrong with reading instruction in America — was denied, rationalized, obfuscated and ultimately ignored by America’s education establishment.
And the Australian education establishment, too.

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