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Education Reporter

Money Not the Solution to Illiteracy
WASHINGTON, DC - The presidential candidates have discovered the problem of illiteracy, and the fact that education is the number one issue among voters. Their solution is more taxpayer spending, more "tests," and more federal control of education.

Private industry has also discovered the illiteracy problem. Former Netscape president James L. Barksdale recently announced a $100 million gift to promote the teaching of reading in Mississippi because, he explained, "we have 300,000 to 400,000 jobs we can't fill in the [computer] industry," primarily because young people have not been taught how to read. This is a stunning indictment of the public schools.

History does not support the premise that poverty causes illiteracy, researchers say, nor that more federal dollars will "fix" the problem. Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries were very poor by today's standards, yet illiteracy was extremely low. The Federalist Papers are a good example of the level of literacy prevalent during the early days of the American Republic.

At the end of the 19th century, the illiteracy rate was less than 3%. Today, up to 50% of Americans are illiterate or only semi-literate. The evidence is overwhelming that this problem is the result of the failure to use phonics to teach children how to read, i.e., teach them the sounds and syllables of the English language so they can put them together like building blocks and read words.

For decades, the education system has insisted on using the "whole word," later called the "Whole Language" method of reading instruction, which teaches children to guess at words. The fraud of Whole Language has been thoroughly exposed in books such as Why Johnny Can't Read, by the late Rudolf Flesch and his sequel 30 years later, Why Johnny Still Can't Read. Research studies proving the necessity of phonics were compiled by the late Harvard Professor Jeanne S. Chall in her 1967 book, Learning to Read: The Great Debate, which is still considered the definitive analysis of reading research.

In 1996, 40 of the nation's top experts on language and reading from Massachusetts universities signed a joint letter blasting Whole Language and blaming it for our "serious decline in achievement." The letter argued that a mastery of phonics "is fundamental to reading." These experts further explained: "Written language is a way of noting speech. To become a skilled reader, a learner must master this notation system, learning how the sounds and oral gestures of language correspond to letters and letter groups."

Further corroboration came in 1996 with the publication of Teaching Our Children to Read by former California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig. He refuted the Whole Language myth that the child will learn "naturally" in the same way that a child learns to talk, without explicit instruction in skills. Honig said that this false belief has had the "disastrous" result that 30 to 40% of urban children can't read at all and more than 50% can't read at grade level.

There have been some encouraging signs. The Alabama State Board of Education has instituted the Alabama Reading Initiative emphasizing the development of phonemic awareness (teaching individual sounds) and the systematic teaching skills needed to decode words (putting sounds together to read words). The Alabama plan includes teacher training, demonstration sites, and a determination to use early intervention with children who need extra help. (See Education Reporter, Feb. 2000.)

Increasingly, many education researchers, parents and teachers insist that public school curriculum is not the business of the Federal Government. While the presidential candidates are calling for more federal spending and making sure every child can read "by the end of 3rd grade," the schools are cheating children if they are not taught to read by the end of the first grade. Many excellent tools, including Phyllis Schlafly's Turbo Reader, are available.

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