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.")