Rudolph Flesch Commentary 1984

Perhaps you have never read Why Johnny Can’t Read (1955), or Why Johnny Still Can’t Read (1984), but I have. I recall when it was published because I was a student at the University of Maine and was working at the college library in 1958.  It was on the reserve list for education majors. I never read it then, but after our own children began school (we have five) I read the book and it opened my eyes to a problem that I didn’t even know existed. I ALWAYS thought we “sounded out words” and that EVERYONE knew that….What a mistake THAT was.

Years later after our children were out of school I had the privilege of working at the National Institute of Education as an appointee of President Ronald Reagan.  During my tenure I commissioned a study that was headed by Robert Anderson at the University of Illinois.   That study was released by then Secretary of Education William Bennett as Becoming a Nation of Readers.  As Dr. Flesch noted in the attached commentary, it recommended “systematic phonics” as a necessary component of learning to read.  At the time, I had the naive hope that this report would conclude the “reading wars,” especially since it was consistent with the findings in the report that Jeanne Chall had released in her book Learning to Read:  The Great Debate in 1967.  Wrong again.

In 2014 we have definitive quantitative research studies where up to 40,000 students have been followed for more than ten years to determine the most effective way to teach them to read.  The conclusion is the same — systematic phonics.  Oh I realize there are other important components to become an educated, and proficient reader.  We call them “The Big Five.”

Unless we teach students the 26 letters, the 44 sounds they represent and the 100 ways to spell them, as Dr. Flesch strongly recommended in 1955, then illiteracy will remain at the same levels it has for the past half century.   Billions have been spent to study this “problem” and trillions have been spent to remedy it.  All to no avail, because we continue to ignore overwhelming evidence that systematic phonics works.  When will we ever learn?

Below is a reprint of the Commentary that Dr. Flesch wrote in 1984.  That same year, when I was on staff at the White House with President Reagan I received a call from Dr. Flesch.  He called to thank me for my role in commissioning Becoming a Nation of Readers and to say that he was not a big fan of any federal government education programs, but he thought this study was “the best study he had ever read.”

Parents, if you want your children to learn to read, then teach them at home before they attend formal schooling, or insist that the local school where your children attend used a reading program that teaches your child to “decode” using a strong dose of systematic phonics.

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