On Learning to Read: The Child's Fascination with Meaning, by Bruno Bettelheim and Karen Zelan, New York: Knopf, 1982, 306 pp., $13.95.
Why Johnny Still Can't Read: A New Look at the Scandal of Our Schools, by Rudolf Flesch, New York: Harper & Row, 1981, 192 pp., $10.95.
Today's facts must awaken us all to the reality that something is drastically wrong with the reading programs in our schools. A sad state of affairs has come to pass in the American system when a four-year college has to send a student to our grammar school (Westside Preparatory School) after 16 years of schooling in order to learn to read!
We must face the stark reality that the failure of our nation's children to read is not the fault of the children. Parents have enunciated their hopes for having their children educated by sending them to school. Teachers and educators have enunciated all of the reasons why children are not learning. While teachers, experts, and parents are trying to find some common ground, we have, in the meantime, choked a nation of children on overdoses of ignorance. Why Johnny Still Can't Read, by Rudolf Flesch, and On Learning to Read, by Bruno Bettelheim and Karen Zelan, address this problem of illiteracy, each suggesting solutions rather than excuses for its prevalence in American schools today.
What reading method is best—the look-say, the phonetic, or the experimental method? The argument has gone back and forth from court to court between parents, experts, and educators. Flesch himself recognizes that "there are no simple answers to complex problems." He argues, however, that just as we need keys with which to open doors, children too, need keys to unlock words. The phonics-first approach, Flesch suggests, can provide those keys. Certainly, it is an approach that I have always used with great results, even in teaching reading to children who had been written off at 14 other schools or who had been labeled by the "experts" as "retarded."
But teaching phonics alone is insufficient. To teach only phonics and not comprehension and word meaning, and to teach a child how to read without inspiring a love for reading is like giving someone a fishing rod without teaching him how to fish.
Bruno Bettelheim and Karen Zelan address precisely this point in their book. They steadfastly tell us that today's sophisticated children do not learn to read because they are bored with the banalities of the mundane reading materials offered them. Children all across America are sending educators signals that they are simply bored with what we as educators push off on them as education. The present lock-step system of education in America deprives children of the great intangible gift of freedom that will allow them to become responsible adults.
Bettelheim and Zelan contend that children cannot learn to read if educators teach them too thoroughly that they can't by labeling them as inferior. Nor will they learn if the fetid curriculums across the country continue to be used. Instead of literacy, the result will only be discontent.
In both books, the authors recognize that the current academic situation is desperate. But it is not hopeless. Flesch's book gives hope to millions of parents who have been led to believe that something is wrong with their children. He proposes commonsense changes in how our children are taught to read, emphasizing the phonics-first approach. Bettelheim and Zelan do not endorse a particular reading method but look at the content of what is taught. Any method will work if the teacher works to provide an interesting curriculum.
A change must come in how our children learn to read so that the American dream does not turn into the American nightmare. For those seeking solutions, not excuses, for America's illiteracy, On Learning to Read and Why Johnny Still Can't Read are must reading.
Marva Collins taught for many years in the public school system before founding the Westside Preparatory School in Chicago.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Solutions, Not Excuses".