For years I have been telling parents and educators that the kind of reading difficulties afflicting perfectly normal children in our schools today are being caused by the teaching methods and not by any defect in the children themselves. The educators have been telling us for years now that the reason why so many children are having problems learning to read is because of a learning disability they’ve been born with.
In fact, the official position of the federal government on this issue is summed up in the 1987 Report to the Congress of the Interagency Committee on Learning Disabilities which defined “Learning Disabilities” as follows (p. 222):
Learning disabilities is a generic term that refers to a heterogeneous group of disorders manifested by significant difficulties in the acquisition and use of listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning, or mathematical abilities, or of social skills. These disorders are intrinsic to the individual and presumed to be due to central nervous system dysfunction. [Our emphasis.] Even though a learning disability may occur concomitantly with other handicapping conditions (e.g., sensory impairment, mental retardation, social and emotional disturbance), with socioenvironmental influences (e.g., cultural differences, insufficient or inappropriate instruction, psychogenic factors), and especially with attention deficit disorder, all of which may cause learning problems, a learning disability is not the direct result of those conditions or influences.
In other words, according to government researchers, all learning disabilities are due to “central nervous system dysfunction,” regardless of all other factors, including teaching methods. In fact, the federal government is pumping millions of dollars into research on the genetic causes of dyslexia.
But what if we are able to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that dyslexia is caused by the teaching methods? Would that alter the course of government research? Probably not, for there was a private researcher in North Carolina by the name of Edward Miller who had already offered such proof to the government, only to be rebuffed by officialdom. After all, if what Miller said is true, then millions of dollars of research money will have been wasted.
Are there people who are born dyslexic? Yes, but they are afflicted with so many other problems that their inability to learn to read is simply only one of them. There are children born with all sorts of handicaps and defects that are recognized at birth or soon after. Some of these handicaps reflect neurological problems. But many of these children are quite educable. However, the dyslexia we are talking about is the kind that afflicts children who have come to school with perfectly good speech, hearing, eyesight, equilibrium, etc. In fact, some of these so-called dyslexics are some of the brightest and physically healthiest students in their classes. Miller calls their reading problem “educational dyslexia,” that is, dyslexia, or reading disability, caused by the teaching method.
Some parents will ask: How is it that my Johnny began to show signs of dyslexia in the first grade, before he had had any formal reading instruction? Miller found the answer to that question. It all starts at home with preschool readers. Miller discovered that when preschoolers memorize as sight words the entire texts of such popular books as Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham, they develop a block against seeing the words phonetically and thus become “dyslexic.” They become sight readers with a holistic reflex rather than phonetic readers with a phonetic reflex. A holistic reader looks at each word as a little picture, a configuration, much like a Chinese ideograph, and tries to think of the word it represents. A phonetic reader associates letters with sounds and can sound out the syllabic units that blend into an articulated word.
What this means is that parents should teach their children to read phonetically before giving them the Dr. Seuss books to read. They should avoid having their children memorize words by their configurations alone, because once that mode of viewing words becomes an automatic reflex, it will create a block against phonics.
In other words, failure to teach a child to read phonetically, but requiring the child to memorize hundreds of sight words produces educational dyslexia. Incidentally, a sight word, by definition, is a word learned without reference to the sounds the letters stand for. Nowadays, publishers are selling books for preschoolers with audio tapes so that the child can learn to read by the sight method without the help of his or her parents. Thus, the child will develop a reading handicap without the slightest idea that what he or she is doing is harmful.
How do we know it’s harmful? By what happens when the child enters school and proceeds upwards to the third grade. In kindergarten and the first grade, all will seem satisfactory, for most schools now use the sight method, and a child who enters school having already memorized a large number of sight words will be ahead of those students who haven’t. Everybody will be pleased by the child’s performance. But as the child moves into the third grade where the reading demands are much greater, involving many new words which the child’s overburdened memory cannot handle, the child will experience a learning breakdown.
But the problem, as we have indicated, can also show up in the first grade where the teaching method is phonics-based. This is often the case in many private and religious schools where reading is taught phonetically. If a child enters the first grade in such a school after having already memorized several hundred sight words from preschool readers, that child will most likely have already developed a block against learning to look at words phonetically. That’s why we see “dyslexia” among some first graders.
In other words, there are two ways of looking at our printed or written words: holistically or phonetically. If you are taught to read phonetically from the start, you will never become dyslexic, for dyslexia by definition is a block against seeing the phonetic structure of our words. Phonetic readers become good, independent readers because they have developed a phonetic reflex. To them literacy is as natural and effortless as breathing. A holistic, sight reader, on the other hand, must rely on memorization of individual word forms and use all sorts of contextual strategies to get the word right.
Edward Miller devised a very simple word-recognition test that dramatically illustrates the difference between a holistic and a phonetic reader. The test consists of two sets of words: The first set consists of 260 sight words drawn from Dr. Seuss’s two books, The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham, and the second set consists of 260 equally simple words taken from Rudolf Flesch’s phonetically regular word lists inWhy Johnny Can’t Read. Both sets of words are at a first-grade level.