Phonics is a superb time and mental space saver: a simple method, once mastered, to decipher the vast preponderance of words. The whole word method, on the other hand, is akin to a gigantic warehouse containing millions and millions of items, randomly stored, with no letter-by-letter classification, requiring searchers to memorize the shape of each, later to recall that shape and its meaning as needed. It is no mystery that one method is vastly superior to the other.

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.