Early in this country’s history, phonics had been dominant. Noah Webster’s Blue-Backed Speller, first published in 1783—and later, McGuffey Readers—used phonics to teach reading and then introduced children to literature: real stories that captured the imagination. But by the 1920s, the professional curriculum designers had rejected phonics in favor of look-say. …
By the 1930s, the look-say method had triumphed in the teachers’ colleges, textbooks, and in many schools. The infamous Dick and Jane readers became the dominant textbooks in teaching reading to American children starting in the 1930s and continuing for many years. For decades, children were bombarded with such inane drivel as, “‘See Spot run,’ said Jane. ‘See Spot run to the new house.’ ‘Come home, Spot,’ said Dick. ‘Come, Spot, come. Come home.’”
It was in this context that Flesch’s book sounded the alarm. It was serialized in newspapers and magazines and quickly became a best seller. It just as quickly became anathema to the educational establishment. For millions of parents and thoughtful Americans, it was eye-opening, and it galvanized them to crusade for phonics.
Flesch devoted an entire chapter to pitting systematic phonics against the whole word method and examining their respective results in every relevant test conducted up to that time. In every test, students trained in phonics read better than students trained using variants of the whole word method.
Additionally, in 1961, the Carnegie Corporation of New York commissioned Jeanne Chall of the Harvard Graduate School of Education to research the issue and finally resolve the dispute. In her 1967 book Learning to Read: The Great Debate, she concluded, “For a beginning reader … knowledge of letter and sounds had more influence on reading achievement than the child’s tested ‘mental ability’ or IQ.”
Ravitch writes, “Flesch’s polemic set off a national debate about literacy… . Because of its popularity, Flesch’s book had a swift and large effect on the teaching of reading.” As a result, “Several publishers issued new reading textbooks that featured phonics.”
Nonetheless, the educational establishment clung to the whole word method; and, by the 1980s, in a new form, it made a sweeping comeback. Its new iteration was known as “whole language.” Whole language retained the whole word approach and thus the obdurate refusal to teach phonics.
Some advocates of this approach, to their credit, recognize that children introduced to great literary works are impelled by their natural curiosity to read interesting stories. However, whole language advocates continue crippling children’s minds with stultifying guessing games—rather than enlightening them with the proven method of phonics.
One critic of this horror observed the frustration of students during the 1980s and early 1990s and reflected that “in whole language, millions of youngsters nationwide were surrounded by ‘beautiful pieces of literature that (they) can’t read.’”
Unfortunately for California children, the state became a testing ground for whole language during the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 1992, after the whole language method had been the modus operandi in schools for several years, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) conducted statewide reading tests.