In The Clutches of the Sight-Word Monster

The country continues to be plagued by illiteracy. The reason is simple. The country continues to be under the heel of some of the most reckless and reprehensible “experts” imaginable.

They make little children memorize the SHAPES of words, which most little children simply can’t do. Ergo, these children experience major reading and cognitive problems. 

Don Potter, the phonics guru and as well a teacher in Texas, recently sent me this illuminating note: 

“This has been a banner year for me. I have rescued dozens of students from the clutches of the sight-word monster. I am looking forward to rescuing more in the year to come. The parents marvel that I have been able to improve their children's reading with phonics in a very short time. They are also very upset to learn that their children were suffering, not genetic defects that screwed up neural pathways, but old fashioned artificially induced whole-word dyslexia caused by sight-word instruction. Every student coming to me has a copy of the Dolch Sight Vocabulary List in their Homework Folder.”

Note that the parents had  embraced the idea that their kids were mentally impaired (dyslexic) but are now shocked to find that the kids are normal! (In fact, it’s the school that is mentally impaired.) There in a few dozen words is the whole story of dyslexia in our time. Parents and kids accept the school’s nutty diagnosis but in many cases will be angry with you if you tell them, sorry, you’re fine but you are the victim of a hoax. (I have a video on YouTube called "The Strange Truth About Dyslexia." People leave really violent comments on it.)

 QED: the Dolch Sight Vocabulary List should be removed from every school.

 Now, I want to give you a little more detail about the reading  debate...but not too much! Reading theory quickly becomes murky; and I believe our Education Establishment uses the general confusion to keep their bad ideas in play.

 Happily, I’ve found an excellent way to explore some of the subtleties. Raymond Laurita was a major crusader 40 years ago; in 1967 he published an article titled “Errors Children Make in Reading.” I’ve cut his article down to the best parts; and I promise you will be glad you read them. They explain how Sight-Words do their evil work:
On hearing the errors of these unfortunate children, the first impulse is to attribute them to a lack of intelligence or even some form of mental aberration. The linguistic monstrosities these children perpetrate appear to be without semblance of logic or consistency...

The primary cause of reading difficulties in virtually all of the over 700 cases of reading disability I have treated over the years was related to difficulties the child encountered in attempting to cope with the problems imposed by whole configurations....

When a child is exposed to a whole word configuration such as “could” for example, without sufficient preparation, we are literally opening a Pandora’s Box of possible confusions....

To the immature child who hasn’t developed adequate visual and auditory identity and association between individual language symbols and the words they form, the word “could” will undoubtedly be confused later with a variety of configurations; among them: cold, called, cloud, canned, cooled, clawed, cord, would, should, etc....It isn’t difficult for the more than casual observer to understand why so many children become reading problems. They simply cannot cope fast enough with the need to learn numerous and unrelated whole word configurations on a purely visual basis. 

It must be remembered that children who learn by the sight method, and this constitutes the majority of children in the United States, have been scientifically conditioned during the initial exposure period to a learning experience which by its very nature elicits a purely visual response to a configuration without assistance from auditory clues. No sincere educator can pretend that this initial exposure period hasn’t a most profound and enduring effect on the immature child, for by a series of carefully arranged stimulus-response activities, he has been literally conditioned to a visual, configurational attack on language. The result is inevitable. 

The argument of those who persist in exposing all children indiscriminately to a visual configurational attack is usually based on post-facto reasoning, for they tend to cite the large numbers of children who have learned to read without first making auditory and visual associations with the individual letters of the alphabet. It is my belief and that of others that children who learn to read using a gestalt approach which exposes them to whole word configurations at the outset, are children who have had either prior preparation which prepared them for the experience or are those children gifted with better than average capacities of visual perception, discrimination and memory....

Alex Bannatyne writing in The Disabled Reader, states “This latter method, commonly called look-and-say, may be effective with those two thirds of first- and second-grade pupils who are sufficiently gifted in the realm of language to be able to learn to read quickly. I believe that these verbally capable children rapidly teach themselves to analyze words phonetically in spite of a deliberate non-phonetic approach on the part of the teacher. That this is so can easily be tested by asking children who have learned to read well using the look-and-say method to sound out difficult words; this they usually do quite competently....”

The subtlety and infinite diversity of the errors that the child becomes subject to in his developing confusion have to be seen to be believed....

Another example saw a child respond to the word “grab” with the response “drag.” This is an extremely common type of error for it has in addition to the visual confusion an overlay of confused auditory association. The consonant blends gr and dr are extremely difficult to differentiate for the child with inadequate auditory perception and discrimination. The two sounds are very similar as are the lip movements which are made to create them. In addition to the auditory confusion and the close configurational pattern of the two words, the child was also reversing the initial and final consonants. This child also referred to a “furry” animal as a “funny” animal and read about a character who went swimming in the “winter” instead of in the “water.” Both of these errors had a configurational base with the error involving the words furry and funny complicated by a discrimination confusion between the n and the r. This child also made the following progression in mistaking the word “Oh.” He went from oh to on to no and finally concluded the series with not. 

These confusions are not extreme examples of severely disabled children but are instead rather common samples that every remedial teacher will meet on a given day if the time is taken to record the mistakes children make. 

Often a child will read a sentence such as: “The little boy went into the jungle and saw a big giraffe.” and substitute for the last word: elephant, rhinoceros, hippopotamus or even dinosaur. Most adults fail to realize the subtle yet logical cause for this kind of mistake. It is really very logical for the child who has been conditioned to respond to visual stimuli. He isn’t thinking in terms of auditory clues, rather he is sure only that the little boy has seen some kind of large jungle animal. Unless he is a capable, linguistically talented child, his auditory associational training hasn’t prepared him for a total attack on the word, thus why shouldn’t it be a hippopotamus, elephant, rhinoceros or even a dinosaur. They are all “big” words in terms of size; they are all large animals and to the small child the possibility of a dinosaur residing in the depths of the jungle is a distinct possibility.... 

Observing a child who has lost some of this marvelous human capacity to respond with reasoning and logic, is a terribly depressing sight, and when one considers the number of times that human frailty in the form of faulty teaching and inadequate methodology has been the cause of this loss, the situation takes on the aspects of a triage

QED: the Dolch Sight Vocabulary List is the reason we have 50 million functional illiterates. It should be removed from every school. All the phonics experts say that children learn to read in the first grade. The Whole Word maniacs say that children will read someday, maybe, perhaps in middle school, but don’t be surprised if they experience ADHD, depression, dyslexia, and chronic illiteracy.

Don Potter publishes this article and many like it on donpotter.net. His site is an archive of historically important material.

My own focus is on providing artillery for parents to use in their daily battles with school administrators. Many of these officials may actually have no idea how far over to the dark side they have drifted. (They make the mistake of trusting the pronouncements coming down from on high.) So send them a copy of this article: “Fake Reading Theory is the Slave Trade of Our Era.” LINK

Is It Too Late To Save The Public Schools?

No. But we have to act fast. Common Core Curriculum might just institutionalize every bad idea our elite educators have been able to concoct.

 Here are TEN quick steps we can take to improve education:


Occupy Harvard's Graduate School of Education

In a recent Times column entitled “Occupy the Classroom,” Nicholas Kristof went to bat for the idea of “early childhood education.”

He quotes the dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, as she forcefully states what we already know: there are significant performance gaps between rich and poor students; and those gaps widen in later years.

Question is, what does our Education Establishment intend to do about these gaps? Nicholas Kristof is sure that we should do something. And that something, apparently, is to do more and more of what we are already doing but force it on younger and younger kids. This proposal may be very dishonest.

First of all, I’m suspicious that this is merely a funding ploy. If the economy forces communities to cancel jobs in higher grades, the Education Establishment will simply create thousands of new jobs in Pre-K.  The same number of teachers will remain employed. How ingenious.

Second, if the Big Plan is to extrapolate from the anti-intellectual, anti-cognitive, anti-knowledge, anti-academic, distinctly lightweight approach to education that we now find in far too many kindergarten and elementary schools, then we should just save the money.

If the Big Plan is to do unto three and four-year-olds what we now do to six, seven, and eight-year olds, then we need a better plan.

Here’s the crucial question. What is it precisely that defines those gaps between rich and poor students?

It’s nothing nebulous, murky, theoretical, abstract, or hard to pin down. It’s precisely all the easy, ordinary, fundamental knowledge everybody should know. Middle-class parents are teaching this stuff from an early age. Poor parents don’t know the stuff themselves, they forget to teach it, or they’re too busy surviving.

Here’s what we’re talking about: the alphabet, how to count to 50, the names of colors, animals, seasons, days, holidays, basic science, history, geography, maps, etc., etc., etc.

Head Start or any other program that purports to help poor children has got to immediately address the knowledge gap. Everything that children in a richer home might automatically know must be taught, AS A CRASH COURSE, to the children from poor families. This is how you create the equality that liberals always say they want; but then they refuse to create it.

I think Occupy the Classroom is an unhelpful name. What we need to do is to Occupy the Education Establishment and try to make it support helpful, practical ideas, for a change.

Ever since the time of John Dewey, our top educators have been hostile to basic knowledge. That's the big problem. How to spell correctly, the multiplication table, where Spain is--all the stuff that is just second nature to families further up the social scale tends to be neglected in poor families. Ergo, the public schools have to start confronting this problem immediately, for a change.

So the real enemy here is the kind of empty, so-called education that is basically a low-cal confection made from a stew of slick sophistries, with names like Whole Language, Reform Math, Relevance, Constructivism, Self-Esteem, Cooperative Learning, 21st Century Skills, Critical Thinking, Learning Styles, Prior Knowledge, Multiculturalism, and another two dozen. Harvard, in fact, is one of the main culprits in perpetrating this stuff.

Well, here’s my vote. Get rid of all the folderol and start teaching facts and more facts, basic skills, and mastery.


Here is our mantra, provided by none other than John Dewey himself: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children.”

(For more on slick sophistries, see “56: Top 10 Worst Ideas in Education.”)


Education: A Walk On The Dark Side

Feeling brave? Got a cast-iron stomach? Not offended by decadence? Well, come with me and we’ll go for a stroll in the dangerous part of town, where society’s bad boys hang out. Yes, I’m talking about education.

One metaphor works best for this whole disturbing field, and that’s CSI. Imagine a really big crime scene, chaotic and messy, filled with walking wounded, people who can’t read or count, their brains empty, their thoughts incoherent. 

What happened here? We need to figure out whodunit and why? A wife stages the death of her husband for the insurance; that’s an easy one. Public education, the crime scene we are entering, has hundreds of major suspects, their deeds spread over many decades, the evidence murky, mostly hidden from view. All we know for dead certain is that millions of Americans have been victims of a crime wave.

In 1955 Rudolf Flesch wrote a bestseller titled “Why Johnny Can’t Read.” To a large degree, Flesch triggered the reading wars and homeschooling. Good reading is so basic, so necessary for even the most elementary education. And it’s so easy to test; you put a newspaper in front of a child and say, read this. Then you know everything, possibly much more than you want to know. One of the most common scenes in America since 1935 is the illiteracy epiphany. Oh my God, our kid can’t read! Is he brain-damaged? What was our sin?

Flesch explained the whole thing. Nothing complicated. The public schools had stopped using phonics (kids learn the alphabet and the sounds that the letters stand for). Public school officials were forcing children to memorize words as graphic designs, as we memorize the Nike logo, currency symbols, or UN flags. Disciplined children with exceptional memories can possibly read with sight-words. Ordinary kids are destroyed. By fourth grade they might learn only a few hundred sight-words. But not with automaticity. Mostly, such kids just fumble and guess. 

All right, so the top educators (i.e., professors of education and superintendents) really goofed. They launched an untested, unproven method, first called Look-say (and many other aliases). At the time you might have concluded all this was an innocent mistake. They meant well. But after Flesch explained the misadventure in 150 lucid pages and everyone knew the score, an odd thing happened. The Education Establishment went to the mattresses for Whole Word. According to them, Flesch was a crazed malcontent. Our elite educators (at Harvard's Graduate School of Education and such places) were going to make kids learn to read sight-words or die trying. Not the educators. It was the kids who would die trying.

The main method for teaching children to read in the United States from 1935 until quite recently has been sight-words. Even now, many educators pretend to embrace phonics, but children in the first and second grades are forced to memorize so-called Dolch words. This process guarantees that children are slowed down and confused. Does all this seem quaint and academic to you? Quite the opposite. It’s raw and ruthless. 

This country has 50 million functional illiterates. These people should be reading books for fun. They can’t do this; and what makes it so poignant is that they have no idea what was done to them or how to escape from the hit. Meanwhile, the experts who did it to them give each other awards, grants, professorships, and million-dollar publishing contracts. Crime does pay. 

Some might call the Education Establishment a RICO enterprise. For ideological reasons, they decided they didn’t want children to be individualistic or competitive. They wanted to make them all more or less the same. Our Education Establishment bought into leveling; and that meant a furtive undercutting of achievement, knowledge, and even reading. Kids who know too much will advance beyond the other kids and feel superior. You might think that reading is always a good thing; these progressive educators did not agree with you. A book published in 1958 mentions: “Public school administrators have gone so far as to assert that they look hopefully for the day when learning to read will not be considered more important than learning to sew or skate."

I told you, this is a bad part of town. Quacks and swindlers lurk everywhere. Ah, look, there is New Math, which did for arithmetic what Look-say did for reading. The boys in the back room must have been proud. But this gimmick, which flourished for a few years around 1964, was so obviously unworkable (and vicious), that the whole country laughed it off the stage. Kids couldn’t learn. Parents hated it. Teachers were bewildered. New Math vanished so quickly it’s easy to miss the main element of this story. Some of the smartest people in education (probably all with PhD’s) spent 15 years preparing this con. They went too far. Point is, they tried. Museums should be built to New Math. It serves to remind everyone that the Education Establishment has a predilection for shady products that damage children. 

New Math morphed some years later into Reform Math. Kids couldn’t learn. Parents hated it. Teachers were bewildered. See a pattern?

There, in the shadows, more bad actors: Open Classroom, Life Adjustment,Self-Esteem, Multiculturalism, Relevance, No Memorization, Bilingual Education, the list goes on and on. Arguably, every method the top educators really love invariably ends up being a Ponzi scheme. 

The one thing these people are good at is marketing. Bad ideas with sweet-sounding names are forced into every classroom. Appreciate the genius in all these slick phrases: Constructivism, Cooperative Learning, Discovery Method, Whole Language, 21st-Century Skills, Common Core Standards, and many more. We don’t know what they mean but they sure do sound good.

In a short space, I can’t explain the inner machinery that renders each idea destructive. The important fact is that these gimmicks don’t work very well (and are routinely replaced by other fads) but they are pushed for a time with brutal abandon. In all other parts of life, if bosses come up with stuff that doesn’t work, they go out of business, they are fired, or voted out of office. But in education they are promoted. This is a gang or cult (more like a religion than most people realize). You can’t be successful unless you embrace the creed that your mentors embraced. And in this way education is locked in dumb.

The media don’t explain the cartel’s long and reckless history, and its far-left DNA. Typically, the explanations we see are shallow; and you may be left wondering why we have so many problems. So let’s cut to the chase. The cheap and easy way to improve education is simply to root out the disingenuous ideas that the top educators have pushed for the past century.  

Almost every article written on education, for more than 60 years, mentions in passing that one-third of fourth graders can’t read at grade level. One-third! So that’s this year’s batch of functional illiterates that the schools are churning out. There’s no excuse. Really think about it, and you’ll be angry. Good, now we can start taking back the neighborhood.

For related analysis, see “56: Top 10 Worst Ideas in Education” on Improve-Education.org. LINK


Do You Believe In Man-Made Educational Harming???

You should. It’s all around you.

A few years ago, I interviewed a reading coach, and she talked about trying to help a 12-year-old boy, an ordinary boy with ordinary intelligence. The first thing the boy said to her was, “Just so you know, I can’t read. I’m really stupid.”

The reading coach determined that, in fact, this boy knew only a dozen so-called sight-words. He was in the sixth grade.

Even if the boy knew several hundred sight-words (a more typical attainment), he would still be functionally illiterate, unable to read a newspaper or the names on a map, never mind a middle school text book. Literacy-wise, he was a mess. He was also a mess in every other respect.

Alan, as we’ll call him, is the poster boy for man-made educational harming. There are millions just like him, thanks to the instructional methods used in our schools. Let’s review what happened to Alan.

 In his first years of school, there was little attention given to the alphabet.  Instead, teachers pointed at whole words and said, “Memorize the shapes.”

Highly industrious children with retentive memories may seem to make acceptable progress. But even the few “success stories” will tend to think of reading as hard work; they will never read for pleasure. The more ordinary kids are the real victims. Reading even the simplest prose is a struggle. And some kids, like Alan, can’t memorize enough sight-words to read at all.

Naturally, his self-respect and confidence plunge at avalanche speeds. You can imagine the endless conferences between parents and school officials as everyone tries to determine what could possibly have happened to make this boy so backward and slow. You can imagine the embarrassment of the parents, which the boy picks up instantly.

By the third and fourth grade, boys like Alan know they are cursed,  damaged, hopeless. Their ability to do the simplest school task clearly isn’t there. How can they learn any geography, history, science, literature,  or current events if they can’t read? How can they even learn arithmetic as the schools are obsessed with “word problems”?

Boys like Alan will defend themselves by acting up or being belligerent. They become the class clown, bully, or juvenile delinquent. Or they are overwhelmed by their shame, give up, and become passive. In any case, they are anxious, unhappy children. Soon, experts are labeling these boys “cognitively impaired,” “ADHD,” or “dyslexic,” and prescribing tranquilizers.

This boy can’t learn, and he knows it. He can’t do anything academic or scholarly,  That’s why the first thing he tells you is, “I’m really stupid.” No, he’s not. But he is educationally harmed.

The adults in his world are too dumb (or ideologically corrupted) to help this twelve-year-old boy. How could you expect him to help himself?

His anxiety and unhappiness evolve and rage. He’s entering puberty, but feels useless and deeply ashamed. Often, all that a boy has going for him is his cockiness that he is capable and can take care of himself. Alan doesn’t have that. All he can dream of is dropping out and hiding out so none will know of his deficiencies.

Until that time, the school’s psychiatrists keep him sedated. Ritalin, the drug prescribed for so many millions, does the job in many cases but its effects on the developing brain can be powerful. It’s like taking cocaine; even a fully developed adult, after five years of cocaine, is not the same person. So what do we think happens to the boy when he is put on Ritalin from the ages of 9 to 16, for example? He could end up harmed in multiple ways.

Meanwhile, kids taught with phonics routinely learn to read in the early grades. Soon they have speaking, reading, and recognition vocabularies well over 30,000 words. They have good self-esteem.

Whole Word, sight-words, Dolch words, guessing, context clues--the whole bag and baggage is a cruel hoax. But it tells us a lot about the Education Establishment. Experts who have so little concern for what actually works are not likely to adopt sensible methods throughout the school. Quite the opposite. That’s what we find: systemic failure to teach basic skills and basic information. Kids who can’t read are manifestly damaged. The only plus is that they provide an early warning signal that an entire school system may be dysfunctional and not serving its students. We can safely predict that nearly all the kids in such schools are being under-educated. They are all products of man-made educational harming.

We often see the stat in the media that a third of fourth-graders can’t read at grade level. A third! This is a perennial stat for more than 50 years, because the Education Establishment seems incapable of teaching even the most essential skills. once called the Three R’s. Clearly, we need new methods in the classroom, and new people at the top.

It’s time for educators at all levels to embrace the wisdom so long cherished by the medical profession: FIRST, DO NO HARM.

(For more about the war on reading, see "42: Reading Resources." LINK )


Why Can't Americans Do Math????

Kids aren't taught to read. They aren't taught to master basic math. No wonder the military says 3/4 of young people are not eligible for military service.

I understand this part. What I can't understand is that the military isn't able to fix what's broken.

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