Monday, April 27, 2020

Why Johnny Can't Read? It's Complicated, Ms. Hanford.

H.L. Mencken, American journalist and social satirist once said, "For every complex problem there is a solution that is clear, simple, and wrong." In reading instruction for the last 65 years or so, the simple wrong answer has been systematic phonics instruction.  Rudolph Flesch published Why Johnny Can't Read in 1955. He argued for a phonics-based reading approach as the cure to the then popular look-say method (Think Dick and Jane books). Since Flesch's book, all the "back to basics" movements which pop up about every 15 years or so in education have advocated for phonics based instruction. The latest iteration of this has been from Emily Hanford a journalist at American Public Media, who dresses up Flesch's phonics-based instruction as "the science of reading."

Simple solutions have great appeal. People can understand them. They are easily communicated. They don't cost a lot of money. They give us easy scapegoats, in this case teachers and colleges of education, so we don't need to look closely at ourselves and our society. But as Mencken pointed out, they are most often wrong.

It is interesting, I think, that despite all the hand wringing about methods of teaching reading, about 80% or so of students learn to read very well no matter what method is used. Human beings, for the most part, seem pre-disposed to learn to read. Nonetheless, too many children struggle to learn to read and it is our responsibility as teachers to find a way to assist all these children.

My old history professor, George Turner, used to warn me away from simple explanations in history. He said that historical events were best understood through the concept of the multiplicity of inter-causation: Lots of things conspire to make something happen or not happen. We might remember that the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo led to the First World War, but that is an oversimplification. Various alliances, increasing militarization, imperialism, and nationalism were all contributing factors. We may remember the Watergate break-in precipitated Nixon's downfall, but Nixon's arrogance, pettiness, racism, mendacity, and paranoia all played a role.

So, it is with reading difficulty. The answer to why some children do not learn to read is complex. And, therefore, the solutions must match that complexity. Until we recognize this fact, we will continue to search for simple solutions that will inevitably fail.

What are the reasons for some children failing to thrive as readers?

Income Inequity - We can draw a direct line from family income to success or lack of success in reading. There are major differences in the resources available to middle and high income children in regards to reading materials and language exposure when compared to children living in poverty. Growing income inequity in this country continues to put many of our children at risk for failure.

Racism and Segregation - Legal segregation ended with Brown vs. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas in 1954. De-facto segregation, however, has been steadily on the increase because of racism and discriminatory real estate practices fomented by businesses and by the government, aided and abetted by a still racist society. This de-facto segregation guarantees that educational resources are unevenly and inequitably distributed in the country, since so much of the educational tax base is rooted in property taxes.

Brain-based Reading Disorders - For reasons we do not fully understand, some children have difficulty processing the sounds in words. The term dyslexic is often used to describe these children. The number of dyslexics in the population has been difficult to pin down, with estimates varying from about 5 to about 20 percent of the population depending on the definition of the term. The smooth and fluent processing of written words (decoding) is a key component to skilled reading. This is the factor that Hanford and Flesch were addressing. Their mistake is to be overly myopic about this one factor as a cause for all reading difficulty.

Environmental Factors - These factors are closely related to income inequity. Successful learners of reading have access to lots of books in the home. Successful learners of reading have lots of outside the home experiences (background knowledge) to draw on for learning. Successful learners of reading come to school with a rich vocabulary. Successful learners of reading have been read to at home. 

This is not a "blame the parents" game. Parents of all socio-economic groups want their children to succeed in learning to read, but many factors conspire against them in providing a rich literate home environment. One of the underexamined factors here is a lack of home-school cultural match and how that impacts children.

Quality of Instruction - Teachers struggle to meet students needs for a variety of reasons. One key reason is a lack of sufficient understanding of the reading process. Undergraduate teaching programs struggle to provide enough instruction in reading instruction, both theoretical and practical. Contributing to the problem is an over-reliance by school districts and administrators on reading programs. Programmatic teaching consistently fails to meet many students needs and also stunts the growth of the professional in the classroom. Finally, teachers struggle to differentiate learning for the most vulnerable readers, because they fail to understand the learning strengths of children with different experiential backgrounds from their own.

What is lacking is not the right reading program, but an orientation toward responsive teaching. Responsive teaching meets the child where they are and flexibly provides the instruction that is needed. For this to be effective, of course, a deep understanding of reading processes is necessary. As a profession, an orientation toward responsive, rather than reactive, teaching can make all the difference for children. Obeisance to one size fits all teaching, or to any single methodology, will lead to continued failure to meet the needs of all students and continued failure to break the cycle of children who fail to thrive in reading.

Over the next several posts, I would like to explore these themes in detail. We must not say that there is nothing we can do about some of these issues, because if we cannot address each of these issues, we will not break the cycle of failure for our most vulnerable readers.


  1. Well said! Those who fail to study the past are condemned to relive it. Ms. Hanford and others seem prone to ignor or discount previous research instead of learning from it. Many of the "latest" ideas are really old wine in new bottles. It's time to look at ALL the research and for all sides to listen to and learn from one another. The antithesis of one size fits all is to fit the program to the child. In my opinion that is the best course for us to follow.

  2. Tried to subscribe but there was a computer error. WIll try again later.

    1. Thank you for the comment. The child must be the center of the instruction and the teacher must be the instructional decision maker. If you have trouble signing up here you might want to join my facebook page at Russ in Reading.

  3. Do you have any research linking mental health to difficulties in learning to read or improving their skills? I believe we may find that lack of ability to focus for sustained reading is a sign of mental health challenges felt by struggling students.

    1. Yes, Annette m, there is research that indicates that ability to focus on instruction and tasks is correlated with reading success. One of the main contributing factors. I will try to work that in to future posts on this topic.

  4. All the racial and socio-economic factors do play a role, but that’s not the main reason kids are not proficient in reading. We teachers are not using what brain science tells us we need to do to improve our reading instruction. All the “science of reading” folks are saying is that neuroscience and brain-imaging research shows that how kids learn to read by 1) knowing how to pronounce a word, 2) know the meaning of that word (as evidenced by kids being able to use words correctly in conversation), and 3) they must be able to spell that word. Scientists say that ensuring kids can spell is the piece missing from most reading instruction. Kids can’t read well if they haven’t encoded correct spelling into the Word Form Area in their brain. That’s what science is telling us teachers: to help kids improve their reading skills, teachers need to explicitly teach spelling to build kids’ brain dictionary, so to speak. Not teach phonics or spelling to the exclusion of everything else. As you know, speaking language is natural in the brain, reading is not. The reading brain needs to be “built” through the strengthening of the lexical and orthographic pathways that are intertwined in the brain in addition to quality word spelling instruction. That’s the science.

    1. I do not think you can dismiss the socio-economic impact in one sentence and then move on to the 'science of reading" as the main reason. If it were the main reason why are students in affluent schools more successful at learning to read than those in poverty stricken areas? Are these affluent kids getting a heavier dose of "science based instruction" than the poor kids or are they getting more resources in the broad sense of the term with which to work? I am arguing htat we must take a broad and balanced view. I will expand on my arguments in subsequent drafts.