Paul Krugman referred to the proverbial frog that, when placed in a pot of cold water that is gradually heated,never realizes it is in danger and is slowly boiled alive.
So it is with education today. While the debate of how to best raise reading and math scores rages on and on, the United States continues to lag near the bottom when compared to most civilized countries today. Increasingly we can see the effects of this all around us, from pharmacists who misread prescriptions to clerks who cannot add. We are in danger of being slowly boiled alive because of our creeping illiteracy. But we don’t notice it!
In 1950 no European country enrolled 30% of its older teens in full-time secondary school. In the U.S., 70% of older teens were in school, and America’s edge boosted productivity and growth. We became the world’s leading nation largely because of our emphasis on mass education at a time when other countries educated only elites.
That happy era ended around 1970 when America’s educational progress slowed to a crawl, and stagnated completely between 1975 and 1990. Today in the District of Columbia only 8% of eighth graders meet expectations in math. America’s lead over its economic rivals has been entirely forfeited, with many nations surging ahead in school attainment.
Although tons of money is being poured into education for a whole variety of possible solutions including better pay for good teachers, smaller classrooms, adding computers, better assessment tools, etc., so far nothing has made too much of a dent in improving American education.
We insist that we DO teach phonics, but what went wrong? What are we missing?
Decodable text is the missing link between teaching letter sounds and reading books! It is the thing most lacking in reading programs today. “Open Court”, for example, used to be one of the best phonics programs available. But today’s revamped version of this wonderful old program teaches 130 high-frequency words in first grade alone in order to move quickly into reading good literature. Their pre-decodable readers contains words such as “sandwich” and “napkin.”
When whole sight words are taught along with phonics while learning the mechanics of reading it throws a monkey wrench into the learning process. In “The Mind and the Brain” Schwartz and Begley point out that the left brain acquires knowledge by small, sequential parts (learning math, letter sounds) and the right brain acquires knowledge by seeing the whole picture (viewing illustrations, learning sight words).
They found that activity in one hemisphere actually suppresses the activity of the mirror-image region on the other side!
Not only that, but MRI imaging confirms that the neurobiological basis of reading disability changes to normal after children are taught to read with explicit phonics and gradually progressive decodable practice reading!
TWO DIFFERENT SUCCESS STORIES
One mom sent me a video of her three-year old boy, who was reading fluently from the back of “Phonics Pathways” with great emotion and emphasis on meaning in all the right places.
Another mom wrote a note about her 18 year old son with down’s syndrome who was told he would never learn how to read—but now has almost finished “Phonics Pathways”. She wrote:
“Nathan is doing fantastic with your book. He is in the room right now working with contractions. We are flabbergasted!”
It’s thrilling to me to hear about these success stories at all levels of ability! I turned 84 the day after Christmas, and it’s wonderful stories like these that keep me as young and frisky as a newborn colt! (Well, almost…)