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Is Phonics "Killing Us Softly"?

    Here is a rebuttal to "Captives of the Script: Killing Us Softly with Phonics", an article that is circulating online written by a Richard J. Meyer. Dave Ziffer, one of the Loop's original founders, wrote this response to that article as a letter to its author.

    In the letter, Dave provides a rebuttal, along with personal insights. Dave clearly has very deep emotions about those who defend outdated and ineffective reading theories. Some of his feelings may seem extreme. But considering the lifelong damage done to children in the name of fuzzy theories, maybe strong emotion is called for.

    Dear Mr. Meyer:

    I read your article, "Killing Us Softly With Phonics," with about as much interest as I could muster after reading dozens of other such extended complaints over the past eight years. I don't know what made me respond to yours after failing to respond to so many others, but respond I must. But before discussing your piece directly, I would like you to know a little bit about my wife and myself.

    My wife is 49 and I am 48, which means we both grew up in the heyday of "look-say." We each attended schools in which phonics was essentially not taught. Oh excuse me. I suppose it was actually taught "all day," as the teacher in your article claims. Except that it was apparently taught in such a subtle manner that essentially nobody picked any of it up. I don't know the particulars of my wife's experience, but in my school they used the Ginn "My Little Story Book" - a pretender to Scott Foresman's "Dick and Jane" throne. The entire purpose of these sorts of books was to teach reading without bothering with the machinations of decoding, and the educational press of that time (as now) was filled with admonishments to teachers about avoiding the evils of phonics, especially systematic phonics.

    During our school years I excelled while, unbeknownst to me, my future wife languished. The difference in our experiences had mostly to do with what happened to us at home. My mother, for reasons I will never know (she died before I became heavily involved in the education biz), spent countless hours with me before I attended school. She taught me phonics, carefully, extensively, and intensively, which is the only useful way in which it can be taught, because almost nobody picks up enough of it in any other way. By the time I arrived at first grade (my kindergarten was little more than a day-care), the Ginn series books were a joke to me. I could read them and everything else they had in the school. Reading seemed like second nature to me, and I would be in my thirties before I realized that it wasn't "second nature" to everybody else, or indeed that it wasn't "nature" at all.

    My wife's story is quite different. She came from a relatively impoverished rural family and her parents had no understanding of the realities of reading. Sadly her parents entrusted her education to the local public school, which provided her, year after year, with look-say readers and "real" literature, expecting her to eventually start reading if only she would (ironically) already be reading, as if no technique were involved. While I was breezing along through anything I wanted (I was reading Mark Twain extensively somewhere around the age of 9), my future wife was stumbling with difficulty through her school texts, unable to determine what most of the words on the page were. And her "teachers" were relentless in their expectation that she should just simply already know what they are, or that she should memorize all of the words she would ever need to read. I don't know if her "teachers" understood, when they sent her home with her 20-word memorization list every week, that there are over 100,000 distinct root words in the English language, and that at such a memorization rate it would take my wife several lifetimes to memorize them all, but then I would guess that her "teachers" didn't know or think about much of anything.

    Needless to say, all of my wife's schooling experience was a struggle. With no rational strategy for recognizing unfamiliar printed words - tens of thousands of words that she could easily have understood because she already knew them verbally - her task was impossibly huge. In her later schooling years she did not understand that her teachers had already slammed shut the doors of science, history, English, art, music, philosophy, and anything else she might have wanted to study, by the time she had left first grade. Nor did she understand that she was engaged in a hopeless competition against kids who had advantages at home - kids like me who had strategies for recognizing unfamiliar printed words and converting them into their familiar verbal equivalents. So of course she eventually came to agree with the assessments of her "teachers" - namely that she just didn't have what it takes to make it.

    Today my wife is still reading-debilitated. The difference between our reading capabilities is staggering. I still use my phonics to decode unfamiliar words and proper names effortlessly; my wife stumbles, realizes that she is not up to the task, sometimes guesses (almost always incorrectly), and eventually just moves on or gives up. She would not likely distinguish "infanticide" from "insecticide." A prefix like "deoxyribonucleic" is, quite simply, an impossibility for her - she has no strategy for reading such a thing, and probably never will. She doesn't have time these days, you see, to compensate for the neglect and abuse that were heaped upon her as a child.

    Her reading disability goes much deeper, though, than her inability to pursue lofty intellectual topics. Because of her look-say-whole-language-balanced-literacy strategies, she cannot be trusted to read the instructions that come with a new product (it's just too hard so she usually doesn't even bother). I cannot even assume that she will "get" the contents of a simple handwritten note that I might leave for her in the morning as I go off to work. The other day, for example, I left a note asking her to pick up some film for me. That evening we were going to be in a big rush, so I closed the note by asking her to please put some of the new film in our camera bag. But when she read the note, she somehow left off the final word "bag." Why would she skip this word? I guess it's all part of the loosey-goosey, student-centered "you decide what's important" bag of tricks she was handed by the jokesters who stood in front of her classrooms 40 years ago. Who knows why anyone does anything in the vague and zany world of look-say-whole-language-balanced-literacy? So she presumed that the camera was empty, opened the back, and destroyed all the pictures that we had of our daughter's graduation.

    My wife is the perfect and ideal product of the look-say-whole-language-balanced-literacy teaching empire, and you should all stand up, give yourselves a hand, and take a bow. She does exactly what you all told her to do: guess what word might fit in here, skip "unimportant" words, and move on. She is a titan of whole language methodology.

    So why am I responding to your article? I guess it just made me so violently upset that I had no other choice. The article is remarkably consistent with similar stuff that I have read over the years:

    • Your subhead suggests that you are doing a "critical analysis" when in fact you are doing no analysis at all (normally analysis involves the use of objectively collected data, a concept apparently foreign to K-12 education "analysts").

    • You started the article determined to disparage the phonics program, your overwhelming bias virtually drips from every paragraph, you provide no information as to whether the teaching of phonics, either by this teacher ("Karen") or any other, has any beneficial effect, and you use language designed to prejudice the reader against what the teacher is currently doing while providing no comparison with what the teacher was doing before (I must presume that ALL of her little angels must have been responding marvelously to her previous improvised "curriculum").

    • You advance the preposterous and thoroughly discredited notion that literature immersion is the key to successful reading. This idea is so astoundingly vacuous that it's hard to imagine how anyone could fail to pick it apart after five minutes of thinking about it (I guess five minutes of thinking is too much to ask of a teacher). Let's see - how about if we teach guitar by handing everyone a guitar and, with no practical instruction in technique, sit around and listen to someone else play? Or why teach driving at all - after 17 years of "driving immersion" being chauffeured around by their parents, shouldn't the average license applicant already be an expert? (My daughter's first question upon sitting for the first time in the driver's seat was to ask which one was the gas pedal.)

    • You present the failures of the teacher (her bad attitude and her inability to get all of the children to respond) as if they were inherent failures of phonics instruction. If either you or she were even marginally competent at either journalism or teaching, perhaps it might have occurred to at least one of you to observe some phonics teachers who actually know what they are doing.

    • You ask the reader to believe, essentially, that the typical teacher, who just a few years ago was concerned primarily with drying her fingernail polish, who came into college near the bottom of her class, and who spent four years listening to the maniacal rantings of the misfits who occupy the ranks of educational academia, is now to be expected to somehow intuitively know how to instruct young children without the assistance or guidance of well-designed curriculum.

    • You convey the impression that there is some external, villainous force compelling school districts to adopt phonics programs (yes I can just imagine our state legislators sitting around, putting aside their pressing financial problems, and deciding how they are going to impose elements of Hillary's imagined "vast right wing conspiracy" upon our teachers). Apparently it does not occur to you that the compelling force behind these political initiatives might be that the public wants them.

    • As usual with essentially everyone in K-12 education, you do not bother even significantly mentioning parents, or considering the possibility that parents might want their children to learn phonics, or the possibility that a teacher might in any way consider the wishes of the parents who have entrusted their children to her care. (And of course you can't, because systematic phonics instruction is enormously popular with parents who are lucky enough to know about it.)

    In short, the entire article is a travesty of self-serving propaganda.

    If you really believe that doing your jobs (i.e. meeting the expectations of your students' parents) is equivalent to being held hostage, and if you will refuse to teach reading in any way other than to conduct a little junior literary society, much like the ones that parent volunteers conduct for free at local libraries, then maybe you should do us all a favor and resign. On my way to work every day in Chicago (where I am "held hostage," incidentally, to my employer's wishes) I pass a number of people who refuse to be held hostage. They sit on the sidewalks, doing their best to look pathetic, jingling change in their plastic super-size Taco Bell cups, hoping that some of us will drop some more coins in. Or maybe a dollar bill. Perhaps you and "Karen" would fit in well with their little society.

    Dave Ziffer
    [email protected]

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