I'm just re-reading Rudolph Flesch's Why Johnny Can't Read (1955) and reminding myself why it is still after all this time such a fantastic book. Flesch wrote it because of the failure of the school system in the USA to teach so many children to read and spell. Reading, Flesch insisted, was not being taught at all in ninety percent of schools. 'Books,' he wrote, 'are put in front of the children and they are told to guess at the words, or to wait until the teacher tells them.'
As Flesch points out in his 'Letter to Johnny's Mother', since goodness knows how long – certainly before 1500BC – wherever an alphabetic language is taught, the teacher has to make children aware of the individual sounds in speech, show them how those sounds are represented, and teach them how to write the symbols and combine them into words. In this way, reading and writing are taught simultaneously because, as he says, they 'are two sides of the same thing, and the trouble starts as soon as you separate the two.'
The sad thing is that, although there are in the English-speaking world examples of successful teaching taking place, the training institutions here in the UK, in the USA, in Australia, and so on, are still refusing to teach anything but 'Look and Say', with perhaps the most perfunctory of nods in the direction of phonics. As a consequence, the illiteracy rates are estimated variously at between twenty-five and fifty percent, depending on how reading and spelling is being measured.
Trainee and practising teachers need to be taught how the forty-four or so sounds in the English language can be represented in writing, along with the skills and elements of conceptual understanding required for their pupils to gain mastery of the system. In so doing, they also need to know how to teach from simple to more complex, starting with words containing one sound one letter, such as 'sat' and 'swim', before going on to teach:
words containing sounds spelt with two letters, three letters or four letters: 'fish', 'night', 'weight';
sounds that can be spelt in multiple ways: 'feet', 'she', 'key', 'funny', 'leaf', 'brief', and so on;
words containing spellings which can represent more than one sound: 'spot', 'go', 'do' and 'mother'.
It sounds complicated but it isn't if it is taught slowly and systematically, giving pupils the practice they need to acquire mastery. The result, as Flesch argued, would be that hardly any children would fail to learn to read and write.
There are very few programmes that teach teachers how this can be achieved. Sound Reading System is one: Sounds-Write is another.
Why Johnny Can’t Read is still available through Amazon.