Monday, August 1, 2011

Why Johnny Still Can't Read

Long before computers were used in the classroom, conversations about how to best teach children were discussed and debated in many forums. From educational videos, to Whole Language, to Balanced Literacy, to the new Math and the new new Math; there never seemed to be a shortage of ideas that will change the face of education. Much of these discussions amounted to no more than edu-babble, as they did not use measurable data to back their claims.

Many years later, we seem to be having the same discussions over again. Sure, the names have changed. However, the arguments and causes have not changed much. Really? Have we been going in circles all these years? Have we simply done a 360 and are just running in place; yet moving nowhere? 

Well… Consider this:

For hundreds of years, reading instruction was simple and straightforward. During the mid 19th century Horace Mann noted that children appeared to be bored and "death-like" at school, and that instruction needs to engage children's interest in the reading material by teaching them to read whole words. This would eventually bring rise to the meaning-based curriculum during which reading programs became very focused on comprehension and taught children to read whole words by sight. Children were taught the code and read books.

More then 45 years ago, a book entitled “Why Johnny Can’t Read” advocated that educators should move back to the phonics movement as sight reading is a flawed solution for reading. At the same time other educators advocated that schools should use whole language to teach reading. These 2 movements brought an increased polarization amongst educators. Every few years, one group of educators tries to disprove the other group. Other educators have moved to other models such as Balanced Literacy, Writers Workshop, and so on. The result has been confusing as school systems continue to purchase new reading systems and dispose of former reading systems without rhyme or reason.

In recent years, none of these studies seem to consider how children are impacted by these decisions. More specifically, the studies do not seem to assess what motivates students or examine the student learning process. Instead there seems to be an increased focus on test results. This in turn has morphed our schools in test prep factories. Even worse, children have little or no physical education periods and have less time to engage in meaningful projects.

It is no wonder that there has been a significant increase in the number of students taking remedial courses when entering college. Simply put, they may pass a required exam to move to the next grade level. However, they are still missing skills needed to functionally effectively in a collegiate environment and corporate world.
With this in mind, it is crucial that we rethink how we teach our children literacy and assure that it talks to their needs and passions. Think back to when you were a child. Did you learn science by preparing for a test? Think back to when you were a teenager and try reminiscing the SAT. I remember reading an SAT preparation book with antonyms, synonyms, and so on. Having said that, I do not remember what I learned from the experience. I do remember learning extensively about the heart while preparing my 6th grade science project. I remember learning about U.S. politics when we were asked to follow one of the presidential candidates during the 1984 election, collect articles, political cartoons, and provide our opinion on these current events. Along the way, I learned about the Cold War, ad campaigns, the electoral process, the presidential debate, the Star Wars program, our budget deficit, and a myriad of social and political issues. Naturally, there are many other examples I can site. 

Having said that, the point of this reminiscence is as follows:
In this era of accountability, it is easy to forget what electrifies children. It is building robots, dissecting a frog, creating a 30 second commercial, reenacting key moments of the civil war, running mock elections, blogging, tweeting, using CAD software to design rooms, houses, as well as buildings. It is creating historical web sites, viewing historical archives via the internet, engaging in geo-caching, using Geometers Sketch Pad to understand geometry, and using mapping software to understand global conflicts. It is also many other things as well too numerous to mention in this post. The passion of each child differs.

To this end, it is our job to discover and ignite that passion. This is why I like to reminisce what excited me about school and what did not. In the end, it helps us understand, which practices students despise and which educational activities they live for. Ultimately this passion will bring forth the next generation of writers, scientists, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and other professionals. For this reason, we must always ask ourselves, does our instruction motivate student-based passion. We must ask ourselves how do we reach those who allegedly cannot be reached. We must also examine how we can increase the passion of our children for their passion is our bridge to a prosperous future.


  1. I would recommend Donalyn Miller's, The Book Whisperer. It is the gold standard for how to teach reading. I've employed Miller's techniques and seen a love of reading develop in 90 percent of my students (I believe it will be 100 percent this year, as I started the program late last year).

    The key is choice of books and time to read. There's more to Miller's program, but these two elements alone will increase reading exponentially.

    Incidentally, remedial reading classes turn kids into non-readers.