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If you want to understand why education in America is often so bad, check out this letter to the editor of my local newspaper.

Years ago, when I started teaching, there was a book published called “Why Johnny Can’t Read” by Rudolf Flesh, which claimed that education was going to pot because we didn’t teach “Foniks.” Out of this generation of students came Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates, etc. Where did we go wrong?

Ed Totman

Leaving aside, for the moment, whether “foniks” itself is a good or bad thing, how in the world can any rational person equate the business success of Jobs, Wozniak, or Gates, to the teaching, or non-teaching, of phonics? Good grief, what kind of logic is that?

As to the positive aspects of teaching phonics to children, here’s Wikipedia:

The National Research Council re-examined the question of how best to teach reading to children (among other questions in education) and in 1998 published the results in the Prevention of Reading Difficulties in Young Children.[15] The National Research Council’s findings largely matched those of Adams. They concluded that phonics is a very effective way to teach children to read at the word level, more effective than what is known as the “embedded phonics” approach of whole language (where phonics was taught opportunistically in the context of literature). They found that phonics instruction must be systematic (following a sequence of increasingly challenging phonics patterns) and explicit (teaching students precisely how the patterns worked, e.g., “this is b, it stands for the /b/ sound”).[16]

In 1997, Congress asked the Director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) at the National Institutes of Health, in consultation with the Secretary of Education, to convene a national panel to assess the effectiveness of different approaches used to teach children to read. The National Reading Panel examined quantitative research studies on many areas of reading instruction, including phonics and whole language. The resulting report Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and its Implications for Reading Instruction was published in 2000 and provides a comprehensive review of what is known about best practices in reading instruction in the U.S.[17][18] The panel reported that several reading skills are critical to becoming good readers: phonics for word identification, fluency, vocabulary and text comprehension. With regard to phonics, their meta-analysis of hundreds of studies confirmed the findings of the National Research Council: teaching phonics (and related phonics skills, such as phonemic awareness) is a more effective way to teach children early reading skills than is embedded phonics or no phonics instruction.[19] The panel found that phonics instruction is an effective method of teaching reading for students from kindergarten through 6th grade, and for all children who are having difficulty learning to read. They also found that phonics instruction benefits all ages in learning to spell. They also reported that teachers need more education about effective reading instruction, both pre-service and in-service.

Now, back in the days when my children were in elementary school, my (ex)wife and I would twice a year during teacher/parent conferences, lament the fact that phonics had been dropped from the reading programs. To many teachers, I am sure, we came across as “Foniks” cranks, (Christian) conservatives unwilling, or unable, to appreciate (or possibly even understand), the current trends in education.

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