The High Cost of Rationing Literacy

Published June 29, 1995

The most recent National Assessment of Education Progress reading test reports that 30 percent of high school seniors, 31 percent of eighth graders, and 42 percent of fourth graders couldn’t reach “basic” reading levels. Those students, who have spent fro m four to thirteen years in school, don t have even “partial mastery” of the reading skills expected at their grade level.

What reading tests don’t say–about the cause of rampant illiteracy and its cost–is more alarming than the scores themselves. Consider these facts:

  • Federal, state, and commercial reading tests hide the real extent of reading failure by not testing the worst readers: children in special education. Clinical psychiatrist and researcher Dr. Gerald Coles says there’s nothing organically wrong with mos t children labeled “dyslexic.” They suffer from poor instruction.

  • The reading decline began decades ago, when “look-say” professors took over teacher training. Unlike phonics, which teaches children to sound out printed words, look-say teaches mostly memorizing and guessing. By the 1970s, schools were ordering simpl ified textbooks and assigning less reading to their students.

  • The recent, more rapid reading decline stems from a shift from look-say to “whole language,” according to Dr. Patrick Groff, emeritus professor of education at San Diego State University and a nationally known reading expert.

  • The late Dr. Hilde Mosse, New York City school board psychiatrist for 22 years, and other psychiatrists cite school-caused reading problems as a major cause of emotional disorder in children. A 1993 U.S. Department of Justice study concluded that read ing failure can trigger violent behavior by making children and teenagers feel worthless.

  • Business spends $25 billion a year teaching workers reading and other basic skills. Added to that amount is the cost of accidents caused by poor reading and the lost purchasing power of semi-literate marginal workers.

  • After decades of look-say teaching and ten or twelve years of whole language instruction, fifty million adults–one quarter of the nation’s workforce–are illiterate. Seventy-nine percent of adults on welfare are illiterate, as are 85 percent of unwed mothers and 68 percent of those arrested.

It’s difficult to understand why educators deny millions of children the ability to read, when the means to teach them are affordable and readily available. U.S. Department of Education figures show that the average per-pupil cost of phonics programs they studied is $30.34; the average per-pupil cost of look-say and whole language programs is $214.53.

Phonics teaches children the sound-symbol system for written English, enabling them to read the thousands of words they already speak and understand. In 124 surveys of research that spans several decades, systematic phonics programs have been proven super ior to look-say programs for teaching beginning readers. Dr. Lauren B. Resnick, director of the University of Pittsburgh Learning Research and Development Center, notes the importance of phonics: “We need to include systematic, code-oriented [phonics] in struction in the primary grades, no matter what else is done.”

The whole language approach, while it offers children a variety of good literature, fails to teach them the skills needed to read it. This method is based on the unsubstantiated theory that children learn to read just as they learn to talk. Whole language has been shown to be the least effective reading method in every experimental study to date.

For far too long, schools have used costly reading programs that fail millions of children, and they’re now switching from look-say to whole language, which leaves children to teach themselves. Those who can, or whose parents teach them or pay for tutors, will be competent readers . . . but those who can’t will flounder. Many will grow up illiterate.

Parents and taxpayers alike should find the situation appalling. It s high time we started asking: Why are we paying our schools to ration literacy?

Martha C. Brown is a former teacher and currently a writer and researcher specializing in education issues.