Reading Is Not ‘Getting Meaning from Print’

Published March 29, 2016

If you want to be promoted to the upper echelons of the U.S. education establishment, there is one big claim you have to repeat with endless enthusiasm: “Reading is about getting meaning from print.” This phrase, in all of its various forms, is ubiquitous in K–12 education.

What does it mean? Consider a 1st grade student who is trying to follow this blueprint. The child is instructed not to be concerned with letters or sounding out words. He or she is told to be concerned only with figuring out the meaning of what is on the page.

Noodle-y Sophistry

For example, imagine you are in Japan and see a poster advertising noodles. You guess the ad is saying, “Our noodles are tasty.” Even though you can’t read a word of Japanese, a teacher can declare that you have determined the correct “meaning from print,” and, therefore, you would be considered a good reader!

The shift from emphasizing sounds to emphasizing meaning is one of the greatest switcheroos in all of intellectual history. English is a phonetic language, and like all the other phonetic languages found in Europe, it ought to be learned phonetically. Not learning to read in this way is a strange aberration that ought to be avoided whenever possible.

Quick History of Reading Education

The historical background for this strangeness is complex in the details, but the basic idea is simple enough. At the start of the 20th century, leading educators in the United States did not advocate for widespread academic education and literacy amongst all groups within society. They had a low opinion of what workers, immigrants, and ordinary people needed to know in order to be productive in society.

G. Stanley Hall, one of the most prominent voices in American education at the time, pontificated, “Little attention should be paid to reading.”

Hall and his colleague John Dewey agreed the proper trajectory was to ignore or undercut literacy. The simplest strategy was to downplay phonics. But how could they pull this off?

Phonics had centuries of prominence and success. Throwing it out would not prove to be easy. As any magician will tell you, however, if you want to make something vanish, you need misdirection or distraction. In reading, the distraction is a relentless harping on meaning and comprehension. Before long, the distraction became the substitute for what works, so now we hear never-ending white noise about “getting meaning from print.”

Letters and Words

But if an individual can’t read the letters, how does he or she become a reader of words? An emphasis on meaning quickly pushes us into a fantastical parallel universe that is filled with empty promises and useless techniques, such as guessing, picture clues, context clues, pre-reads, post-reads, prior knowledge, previewing, predictions, summarizing, the three-cueing system, and all the other gimmicks public schools focus on in order to hide the fact many of their students cannot read.

Kenneth Goodman, another important 20th century education guru, built a career on his cockamamie insistence that if a child says “horse” instead of “pony,” even though the written word on the page is “pony,” the child grasps the true meaning of the passage and is essentially reading. Imagine the confusion that will follow this child forever. If “pony” can be pronounced “horse,” can “horse” be pronounced “pony?” Reading becomes a completely illogical and imprecise exercise.

For most of the past century, the education establishment has declared phonics dead and worthless, but the results of this failed strategy prove such a technique can’t be justified, as Rudolf Flesch argues in his famous 1955 book Why Johnny Can’t Read.

G. Stanley Hall had a graduate student named Edmund Burke Huey. In 1906, young Huey wrote a book that boldly articulated the views that his mentor presumably encouraged. Huey’s book seems to be the first explicit statement of the meaning-over-sound sophistry.                  

In Huey’s 1908 book, The Psychology and Pedagogy of Reading, he wrote that pronunciation was irrelevant to understanding.

“It is not indeed necessary that the child should be able to pronounce correctly or pronounce at all, at first, the new words that appear in his reading, any more than that he should spell or write all the new words that he hears spoken,” Huey wrote.

‘Getting Sounds from Print’

Reading is about attaining sounds from print, either aloud or in your head. Here is the sequence: print, sounds, meaning. The education establishment wants to pretend you can skip the central step by memorizing thousands of words visually. If you have a photographic memory, you might be able to pull it off. The rest of humanity will be illiterate, to one degree or another.

Teaching What Works

Research has shown children enter 1st grade recognizing 15,000 words or more. These words, many of them long and sophisticated, such as “digital” and “quarterback,” are in their brains as spoken words.

Phonics lets children sound out a printed word and realize they already know what it means. Schools should rely on what has always worked: focusing on the alphabet and the sounds the letters represent.

Bruce Deitrick Price ([email protected]) is an essayist focusing on education issues. This article was originally published by American Thinker and is available at Reprinted with permission of the author. Reprinted with permission.