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Reading education is the process by which individuals are taught to derive meaning from text.

Government-funded scientific research on reading and reading instruction began in the U.S. in the 1960s. In the 1970s and 1980s, researchers began publishing findings based on converging evidence from multiple studies. However, these findings have been slow to move into typical classroom practice.

Competencies for proficient reading

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Proficient reading is equally dependent on two critical skills: the ability to understand the language in which the text is written, and the ability to recognize and process printed text. Each of these competencies is likewise dependent on lower level skills and cognitive abilities. [1]

Children who readily understand spoken language and who are able to fluently and easily recognize printed words do not usually have difficulty with reading comprehension. However, students must be proficient in both competencies to read well; difficulty in either domain undermines the overall reading process. At the conclusion of reading, children should be able to retell the story in their own words including characters, setting, and the events of the story. [2] Reading researchers define a skilled reader as one who can understand written text as well as they can understand the same passage if spoken. [3]

Print recognition requires the ability to perceive printed text and translate it into spoken language. This aspect of reading is the crux of much of the reading debate.

History of reading education in the U.S.

In colonial times, reading instruction was simple and straightforward: teach children the code and then let them read. At that time, reading material was not specially written for children but consisted primarily of the Bible and some patriotic essays. There was little consideration for how best to teach children to read or how to assess reading comprehension.[citation needed]

Not until the mid 1800s did this approach change significantly. Educators, in particular Horace Mann, began to advocate changes in reading instructional methods. He observed that children were bored and "death-like" at school, and that instruction needed to engage children's interest in the reading material by teaching them to read whole words.[citation needed] In the mid nineteenth century, Rebecca Smith Pollard developed a sequential reading program of intensive synthetic phonics, complete with a separate teacher's manual and spelling and reading books.[citation needed]

The meaning-based curriculum did not dominate reading instruction until the second quarter of the 20th century. Beginning in the 1930s and 1940s, reading programs became very focused on comprehension and taught children to read whole words by sight. Phonics was not to be taught except sparingly and as a tool to be used as a last resort.[citation needed]

In the 1950s Rudolf Flesch wrote a book called Why Johnny Can't Read, a passionate argument in favor of teaching children to read using phonics.[citation needed] Addressed to the mothers and fathers of America, he also hurled severe criticism at publishers' decisions that he claimed were motivated by profit, and he questioned the honesty and intelligence of experts, schools, and teachers. [citation needed]The book was on the bestseller list for 30 weeks and spurred a hue and cry in general population. It also polarized the reading debate among educators, researchers, and parents.[citation needed]

This polarization continues to the present time. In the 1970s an instructional philosophy called whole language (which explicitly de-emphasizes teaching phonics) was introduced, and it became the primary method of reading instruction in the 1980s and 1990s. [citation needed]During this time, researchers (such as the National Institute of Health) conducted studies showing that early reading acquisition depends on the understanding of the connection between sounds and letters. [4]

Alphabetic principle and English orthography

Main article: Alphabetic principle

Beginning readers must understand the concept of the alphabetic principle in order to master basic reading skills. A writing system is said to be alphabetic if it uses symbols to represent individual language sounds. [5] In contrast, syllabic writing systems (such as Japanese kana) and Chinese hanzi use a symbol to represent a single syllable .

Alphabetic writing systems vary in complexity. For example, Spanish is an orthography in the Latin alphabetic Writing system that has a nearly perfect one-to-one correspondence of symbols to individual sounds. In Spanish a shallow orthography, most of the time words are spelled the way they sound, that is, word spellings are almost always regular; . English a deep orthography, on the other hand, is far more complex in that it does not have a one-to-one correspondence between symbols and sounds. English has individual sounds that can be represented by more than one symbol or symbol combination. For example, the long |a| sound can be represented by a-consonant-e as in ate, -ay as in hay, -ea as in steak, -ey as in they, -ai as in pain, and -ei as in vein. In addition, there are many words with irregular spelling and many homophones (words that sound the same but have different meanings and often different spellings as well). Pollack Pickeraz (1963) asserted that there are 45 phonemes in the English language, and that the 26 letters of the English alphabet can represent the 45 phonemes in about 350 ways. [5]

It should be noted that the irregularity of English spelling is largely an artifact of how the language developed. English is a West Germanic language that originated from the Anglo-Frisian and Lower Saxon dialects brought to Britain by Germanic settlers and Roman auxiliary troops from various parts of what is now northwest Germany and the northern Netherlands[citation needed] in the 5th century. One of these Germanic tribes were the Angles,[6] who may have come from Angeln, and Bede wrote that their whole nation came to Britain,[7] leaving their former land empty. The names 'England' (or 'Aenglaland') and English are derived from the name of this tribe.
The Anglo Saxons began invading around 449 AD from the regions of Denmark and Jutland,[8][9] Before the Anglo-Saxons arrived in England the native population spoke Brythonic, a Celtic language[10] Although the most significant changes in dialect occurred after the Norman invasion of 1066, the language retained its name and the pre-Norman invasion dialect is now known as Old English.[11] Germanic language a constituent part of Indo-Europeanlanguage system [12][13]; and it has substantial influences from Latin, Greek, and French, among others. Over its history, English adopted vocabulary from many languages, and the imported words usually follow the spelling patterns of their language of origin.[citation needed] Advanced phonics instruction includes studying words according to their origin, and how to determine the correct spelling of a word using its language of origin.

Clearly, the complexity of English orthography makes it more difficult for children to learn decoding and encoding rules, and more difficult for teachers to teach them.[citation needed] However, effective word recognition relies on the basic understanding that letters represent the sounds of spoken language, that is, word recognition relies on the reader's understanding of the alphabetic principle[citation needed].

Instructional methods

A variety of different methods of teaching reading have been advocated in English-speaking countries. In the United States, the debate is often more political than objective.[citation needed] Parties often divide into two camps which refuse to accept each others terminology or frame of reference. Despite this both camps often incorporate aspects of the other's methods. Both camps accuse the other of causing failure to learn to read and write.[citation needed]

Historically, the two camps have been called Whole Language and Phonics[citation needed], although the Whole Language instructional method has also been referred to as "literature-based reading program" and "integrated language arts curriculum" [14]. Currently (2007), the differing perspectives are frequently referred to as "balanced reading instruction" (Whole Language) and "scientifically-based reading instruction" (Phonics). [15]

Phonics advocates assert that, to read a large vocabulary of words correctly and fluently requires detailed knowledge of the structure of the English language, particularly spelling-speech patterns.[citation needed] Whole Language advocates assert that students do not need to be able to sound out words, but should look at unknown words and figure them out using context.[citation needed]

Whole Language

Main article: Whole language

The whole language methodology involves the teaching of reading skills and strategies in the context of authentic literature. Word recognition accuracy is considered less important than meaning accuracy; therefore, there is an emphasis on comprehension as the ultimate goal of reading. In a whole language classroom, students are immersed in a literature-rich environment, in which they are given the opportunity to appreciate real-world purposes for reading.[citation needed]

"Whole Word", "Sight Word", or "Look (and) Say"

The "Sight Word" method is not synonymous with "Whole Language" approach, but is often considered to be part of it.[citation needed]

The "Sight Word" method also appears prominently in avowedly "Phonic" teaching such as the National Curriculum for England & Wales, where words that do not fit the rules of phonics are placed on a list of sight words for rote memorization.

Some advocates claim that it is the same method used to acquire literacy in languages such as Chinese, assumed by the advocates to be based on ideograms. The Chinese writing system is however a complex logographic system with many morphosyllabic elements particularly in phonetic markers for frequently used characters. [16] Chinese characters.

Students learning English using this method memorize the appearance of words, or learn to recognize words by looking at the first and last letter from rigidly selected vocabularies in progressive texts (such as The Cat in the Hat).[citation needed] Often this method is taught by slides or cards with a picture next to a word, teaching children to associate the whole word with its meaning. [citation needed] Often preliminary results show children taught with this method have higher reading levels than children learning phonics, because they learn to automatically recognise a small selection of words.[citation needed] However later tests demonstrate that literacy development becomes stunted when hit with longer and more complex words later.[citation needed] However, they can learn the 5,000 most common words in roughly three years which is sufficient for basic literacy.[citation needed] This is disputed. Following almost a decade of hands-on research by Dr. Diane McGuinness’ and three associates and a study of the last 25 years of reported research on teaching methods, she reports (three times for her emphasis):

“The average number of words in daily conversations on the streets of any town in the world today is about 50,000. . . . But when people are asked to memorize what word goes with which abstract visual symbol scribbled on clay, or papyrus, or paper, the upper limit is around 1,500 to 2,000, not enough for any language. Not even close. . . . There is a natural limit on human memory for memorizing codes with too many confusing symbols. This limit, from the evidence so far, is around 2,000 symbols. . . . What turns out to be “natural” is that ordinary people (including children) can only remember about 1,500 to 2,000 abstract visual symbols.”[17]

Dr. Rudolf Flesch reported in his 1981 book Why Johnny Still Can’t Read:

“And how does look-and-say [now called whole word] work? It works on the principle that children learn to read by reading. It starts with little “stories” containing the most-often-used words in English and gradually builds up a ‘sight vocabulary.’ The children learn to read by seeing those words over and over again. By the end of first grade they can recognize 349 words,[citation needed] by the end of second grade 1,094,[citation needed] by the end of third grade 1,216,[citation needed] and by the end of fourth grade 1,554.[citation needed] (I got those numbers from the Scott, Foresman series, but all look-and-say series teach about the same number of words.) . . . Now consider the look-and-say trained reader. The word rectitude is of course not among the 1,500 or 3,000 words he learns to recognize during his first three or four school years.”[18]

Although the number of words taught by the whole word method may be different today, Dr. McGuinness’ studies shows that unless the students learn phonics (on their own or from help outside the classroom) in addition to their whole word training, they cannot learn more than about 2,000 words by sight alone.[citation needed] In any case, if the students know only 3,000 to 5,000 common words, they read so poorly that they do not like to read,[citation needed] seldom do so, and—-in most cases—-cannot hold an above-poverty-level wage job.[19] The classic implementation of this approach was the McGill reading curriculum used to teach most baby boomers to read in the U.S.

The sight-word (whole language) method was invented by Rev. Thomas H. Gallaudet, the director of the American Asylum at Hartford in the 1830s.[citation needed] It was designed for the education of the Deaf by juxtaposing a word, with a picture.[citation needed] In 1830, Gallaudet provided a description of his method to the American Annals of Education which included teaching children to recognize a total of 50 sight words written on cards and by 1837 the method was adopted by the Boston Primary School Committee.[citation needed] Horace Mann the then Secretary of the Board of Education of Massachusetts, USA favored the method and it soon became the dominant method state wide. [citation needed]By 1844 the defects of the new method became so apparent to Boston schoolmasters that they issued an attack against it urging a return to an intensive, systematic phonics.[citation needed] Again Dr. Samuel Orton, a neuropathologist in Iowa in 1929 sought the cause of children's reading problems and concluded that their problems were being caused by the new sight method of teaching reading. [citation needed](His results were published in the February 1929 issue of the Journal of Educational Psychology, “The Sight Reading Method of Teaching Reading as a Source of Reading Disability.”)[citation needed]

Initial teaching alphabet

This method was designed to overcome the fact that English orthography has a many-to-many relationship between graphemes and phonemes. The method fell in to disuse because children still had to learn the Latin alphabet and the conventional English spellings in order to integrate with society outside of school. It also recreated the problem of dialect dependent spelling, which the standardisation of spelling had been created to eliminate.[citation needed]


Main article: Phonics

Phonics refers to an instructional method for teaching children to read. The method teaches sounds to be associated with letters and combinations of letters. [20][21] "Phonics" is distinct from the linguistics terms "phoneme" and "phonetics", which refer to sounds and the study of sounds respectively.[citation needed]

There are several different varieties of phonics.[citation needed]

  • Embedded phonics is an instructional approach where letter sounds are taught opportunistically, as the need arises and in meaningful contexts, such as the reading of a storybook. Embedded phonics is often associated with a whole language approach to teaching reading.

Synthetic phonics and analytic phonics[4] are different but popular methods of teaching phonics. Synthetic and analytic phonics approaches both generally involve explicit, carefully sequenced instruction that teach a large body of phonics patterns.[citation needed]

  • Synthetic phonics emphasizes the one-to-one correspondences between phonemes and graphemes. In synthetic phonics programs students say the sounds for the graphemes they see and orally blend them together to produce a spoken word. In the context of phonics, the word blend takes on a different meaning from its use in linguistics.
  • In analytic phonics, students often learn phonograms, the rime parts of words including the vowel and what follows it. Students are taught to generalize the phonogram to multiple words. The phonogram -ail can be used to read fail, trail, mail, wail, sail, and other words.[citation needed]

The Orton phonography, originally developed to teach brain-damaged adults to read, is a form of phonics instruction that blends synthetic and analytic components. Orton described 73 "phonograms", or letter combinations, and 23 rules for spelling and pronunciation which Orton claimed would allow the reader to correctly pronounce and spell all but 123 of the 13,000 most common English words.[citation needed]

Controversy about phonics

Main article: Phonics#History and controversy

Advocates of phonics cite the large reading and spelling vocabulary that phonetic students can theoretically obtain.[citation needed] However, critics of phonetic methods talk of students that fail at each one of the method's many mandatory skills.[citation needed] Almost all students learn letter-sounds.[citation needed] Some students find it difficult to "blend" the letter sounds to produce sensible speech.[citation needed] Some students also fail to apply rules to select letter sounds.[citation needed] Also, critics charge that in phonetic programs, students can learn to pronounce a sentence without ever learning to understand it. [citation needed]The same holds true for "look say".[citation needed]

Other instructional methods

Some methods of teaching reading are not easily categorized as either phonics or whole word, but are rather a mixture of each.[citation needed] Native reading, for example, uses both phonics and whole word techniques, but differs from both in that it emphasizes teaching reading beginning at a very early age, when the human brain is neurodevelopmentally most receptive to learning language. Native readers learn to read as toddlers, starting at the same time they learn to speak, or very soon thereafter.[22]

Reading comprehension

Main article: Reading comprehension

Many educators in the USA believe that children need to learn to analyze text (comprehend it) even before they can read it on their own, and comprehension instruction generally begins in pre-Kindergarten or Kindergarten. But other US educators consider this reading approach to be completely backward for very young children, arguing that the children must learn how to decode the words in a story through phonics before they can analyze the story itself.[citation needed]

During the last century comprehension lessons usually comprised students answering teachers' questions, writing responses to questions on their own, or both. The whole group version of this practice also often included "round robin reading," wherein teachers called on individual students to read a portion of the text (and sometimes following a set order). In the last quarter of the 20th century, evidence accumulated that the read-test methods assessed comprehension more than they taught it. The associated practice of "round robin" reading has also been questioned and eliminated by many educators.[citation needed]

Instead of using the prior read-test method, research studies have concluded that there are much more effective ways to teach comprehension. [citation needed] Much work has been done in the area of teaching novice readers a bank of "reading strategies," or tools to interpret and analyze text.[23] There is not a definitive set of strategies, but common ones include summarizing what you have read, monitoring your reading to make sure it is still making sense, and analyzing the structure of the text (e.g., the use of headings in science text).[citation needed] Some programs teach students how to self monitor whether they are understanding and provide students with tools for fixing comprehension problems.

Instruction in comprehension strategy use often involves the gradual release of responsibility, wherein teachers initially explain and model strategies.[citation needed] Over time, they give students more and more responsibility for using the strategies until they can use them independently.[citation needed] This technique is generally associated with the idea of self-regulation and reflects social cognitive theory, originally conceptualized by Albert Bandura.[24]

Learning to read and write in Sudbury schools

Main article: Sudbury Valley School

Sudbury model of democratic education schools assert that there are many ways to study and learn. They argue that learning is a process you do, not a process that is done to you; That is true for everyone. It's basic.[25] The experience of Sudbury model democratic schools shows that there are many ways to learn without the intervention of teaching, to say, without the intervention of a teacher being imperative. In the case of reading for instance in the Sudbury model democratic schools some children learn from being read to, memorizing the stories and then ultimately reading them. Others learn from cereal boxes, others from games instructions, others from street signs. Some teach themselves letter sounds, others syllables, others whole words. Sudbury model democratic schools adduce that in their schools no one child has ever been forced, pushed, urged, cajoled, or bribed into learning how to read or write -- no need to do that to the modern child, streetwise and nurtured on TV -- and they have had no dyslexia. None of their graduates are real or functional illiterates, and no one who meets their older students could ever guess the age at which they first learned to read or write.[26][27] In a similar form students learn all the subjects, techniques and skills in these schools.

Comparing reading education in English and other alphabetic languages

Many will claim that failure to learn to read in English is due to a failure of the students to apply themselves properly to the task, or to various societal problems, or to inadequate teaching. The lack of the alphabetic nature of English is the real culprit, however, in this sense: (1) although most students can learn to read English, it requires significantly longer to learn to read than in alphabetic languages Frank C. Laubach, Teaching the World to Read (New York: Friendship Press, 1947), p. 103 and 108; Sanford S. Silverman, Spelling For the 21st Century (Cleveland, Ohio: self-published, 2003), pp. vi-vii. This is the Preface by Steve Bett, Ph.D., Editor, Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society; Rudolf Flesch, Why Johnny Can’t Read—and What You Can Do About It (New York: Perennial Library, 1983), and (2) an unknown but substantial number of students are so resistant to the lack of logic and inconsistency of English spelling that they cannot learn to read without the extensive help of a one-to-one tutor for a year or more.[28] Different students have different abilities. Some people—-particularly young girls—-are very good at memorizing. Young boys and most adults prefer to learn new things by comparison to what they already know-—i.e. they like to learn by logic. Unfortunately, the lack of logic is a complete “turn off” to some of the most intelligent students who are looking for logic in what they learn. Sir James Pitman, Alphabets and Reading (New York: Pitman Publishing Company, 1969), pp. 38, 54, and 161; [17]

Ever since alphabets were first invented, alphabetic languages have used a letter or letter combination to represent the sounds in the words. The easiest alphabetic languages to learn are those that use one specific grapheme (a single letter or a specific letter combination) for each specific phoneme (the smallest sound in a language or dialect used to distinguish syllables or words). English uses at least 1,768 graphemes to represent the 40 English phonemes.[29] Although these 40 English phonemes could be spelled with 26 single letters and 14 digraphs (two letter combinations), they are spelled with all 26 single letters in the alphabet and at least 153 two-letter graphemes, 98 three-letter graphemes, 14 four-letter grapheme, and 3 five-letter graphemes, for a total of at least 294 different graphemes. This is less than the 1,768 mentioned above because every English phoneme is spelled with more than one grapheme. The number of spellings of the phonemes varies from at least four (for the TH phoneme in words such at this) to at least 60 spellings of the U phoneme in words such as nutty-—which is exactly what English spelling really is.[30]

Some phonics spelling advocates claim that English is more than 80 percent phonetic. This is only possible, however, if you allow more than one grapheme for a phoneme. If you allow only one grapheme for every phoneme as logic and ease-of-learning demands, English is only a little more than 20 percent phonetic. The problem is that there is absolutely no way of knowing which word is spelled phonemically and which is not. There are no invariable spelling rules in English—-every rule has exceptions and some of the exceptions have exceptions. Edward Rondthaler of the American Language Academy in a personal letter to Bob Cleckler, author of Let’s End Our Literacy Crisis, stated, “A 1986 round table of British linguists called by eminent scholars to discuss the underlying pattern of English spelling concluded, not surprisingly, that only one rule in our spelling is not watered down with exceptions: No word in English ends with the letter V.” Since Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary includes the words rev and spiv there are therefore no invariable spelling rules.

In addition, Dr. Diane McGuinness’ book Why Our Children Can’t Read explains the complex logic that is required to learn to read English. Unlike many alphabetic languages, there are tens of thousands of different syllables in English, with sixteen different syllable patterns in English: (C=consonant, V=vowel) CV, CCV, CCCV, CVC, CCVC, CCCVC, CVCC, CVCCC, CCVCC, CCVCCC, CCCVCCC, CCCVCC, VCCC, VCC, VC, and V. There are two or more syllables in most English words.[17] Each syllable can have one of the sixteen syllable patterns. If each vowel and each consonant in each of these patterns consistently represented the same phoneme (one-to-one mapping), there would be nothing in the logic of these syllables that would be beyond the abilities of most four- or five-year-olds. But they do not. English spelling also has one-to-many and many-to-one mapping. This requires a type of logic that most children do not develop until they are eleven or twelve years old.

The types of logic required for one-to-many and many-to-one mapping are: (1) the logic of “classes” (categories where objects or events that are similar are grouped) and “relations” (where objects share some features but not all features, e.g. all poodles are dogs, but not all dogs are poodles) and (2) “propositional logic,” which involves combining both the classes and relations types of logic. This requires the ability to think of the same item in more than one way at the same time. These combinations require the use of relational terms such as “and,” “or,” “not,” “if—then,” and “if and only if” in formal statements of propositional logic, e.g. if an H follows the T, 'then say /TH/ as in thin or then; but if any other letter or no letter follows the T, 'then say /T/ as in top or ant.[17]

The eyes of the fluent reader skip easily over a multitude of traps for the beginner. Most fluent readers who learned to read as a child have long since forgotten the difficulty they had in learning. Due to the difficulty of English spelling there are basically three ways of learning to read (a more precise explanation of the time required for learning is in the section “Time required to learn to read English vs. other alphabetic languages” below):

  • Young children can learn (a) the very limited number of common English words that are phonemically regular (one-to-one mapping) either by phonics teaching, by whole word, or by whole language teaching, (b) learn a few hundred sight words (most of which are almost totally unphonemic) by the whole word or whole language method, and (c) if being taught by the phonics method, memorize—-without understanding the logic involved—-the hundreds of many-to-one and one-to-many phoneme-to-grapheme mappings. Then—-with constant practice in reading that extends past the age when they can understand the logic required—-using their knowledge of phonics, they learn one-at-a-time all 20,000 or more of the words in their reading vocabulary required to be a fluent reader. This process requires at least two-and-one-half years to give young children the foundational knowledge and confidence to continue reading long enough to become fluent readers and—-for most students-—extends past their eleventh birthday.
  • Begin learning to read after age eleven or twelve—-when they can understand the logic involved—-and spend at least one to one-and-one-half years learning strictly by phonics. Then with additional reading experience, learn one-at-a-time all 20,000 or more of the words in their reading vocabulary required to be fluent readers. This method, of course, is totally impractical. Children should begin learning to read at the age of four to six years of age when they are best able to learn to read. Furthermore, students of almost all other school subjects need the ability to read to be able to do the classwork, homework, and testing required to learn each subject. Delaying this instruction would place students at a serious competitive disadvantage with students of almost every other nation.
  • If taught only by the whole word or whole language method and if they do not learn phonics—-on their own or with help outside the classroom—-they can learn 2,000 or so words (or perhaps as many as 5,000 or a little more if they have a superb memory) and join the ranks of the functionally illiterate (see U.S. statistics on functional illiteracy below). Those who can only read 2,000 to about 5,000 simple words they learned in the first four grades in school have difficulty competing in our increasingly complex and competitive world as well as they should.

As stated in the Whole Word method section above, the human mind cannot remember more than about 2,000 symbols,[17]. Students of whole-word-only or whole-language-only teaching cannot become fluent readers unless they also learn phonics-—either on their own or with help outside the classroom—-as a tool to help them “decode” new words. When phonics knowledge or contextual clues do not reveal the word they must consult a dictionary or ask someone.

The problem is that learning words individually until one knows enough words to be able to “get by” in life as well as they should—-as well as is required in our increasingly complex society-—takes much longer than is required in alphabetic languages. Although some phonics advocates have recently designed much-improved methods of teaching phonics, learning to read in these programs still requires a year or more longer than a perfect one-grapheme-for-one-phoneme spelling system.

The problem with whole word (or whole language) only type of teaching is that most of today’s adults cannot hold an above-poverty-level wage job if they only know 2,000 common words (or perhaps as many as 5,000 if they have a superb memory) they learned by sight in the first four grades in school. Although there are several ways of determining functional illiteracy, due to the fact that very few U.S. adults can afford to accept a job that pays less than they are capable of earning, the average yearly earnings is the best method—or certainly one of the best methods—of determining functional illiteracy. The most comprehensive study of U.S. functional illiteracy ever commissioned by the U.S. government proves that 46 to 51 percent of individual adults earn significantly less than poverty level wages. This percentage of families is not in poverty only because most families have more than one employed adult and most low-income families receive governmental and charitable assistance.Irwin S. Kirsch, et al., Adult Literacy in America (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, 2002), pp. xvi, 63, 65, and 66, available for free inspection and download from This is a 199 page report on the most comprehensive study of U.S. adult literacy ever commissioned by the U.S. government. It consisted of lengthy interviews of 26,700 U.S. adults. The interviewees were statistically balanced for age, gender, ethnicity, and location (urban, suburban, or rural) in a dozen states across the U.S. to be representative of the U.S. population as a whole. It used statistically rigorous methods to ensure accuracy and was reviewed by an outside testing agency before it was released. No other persons had access to the study before it was released. The same group who prepared this study did a less statistically rigorous study with a slightly smaller database of interviewees and issued a report in 2003 that showed little or no statistically significant improvement from the earlier report. It is available at

History of English spelling

The neutrality of this section is disputed.

The English is a West Germanic language which originated from the Anglo-Frisian dialects brought to Britain by Germanic invaders from various parts of what is now northwest Germany and the northern Netherlands. [unreliable source?]


Prior to 1755 writers spelled the words the way they sounded, but a specific spelling of the phonemes had not been settled upon. As a result, for example, Shakespeare often spelled a phoneme two different ways in the same paragraph in his original writings. To further complicate the matter, the early publishers hired many foreign typographers because originally there were very few British typographers. These foreign typographers often knew little or nothing about English words. In order to avoid the difficulty of adding small lead pieces between each word in a line of type to justify the right margin, they would often add a “silent E” or double the letters in some of the words.

In 1755 the publishers hired Dr. Samuel Johnson to prepare an English dictionary to standardize the spelling. In a misguided and often erroneous attempt to show the origin of the words, Dr. Johnson made a very serious linguistic error: he included the foreign words with the spelling of the original language. Instead of freezing the spelling of the phonemes in the words, as linguistic logic demands, he froze the spelling of entire words. In effect he divorced the graphemes from the phonemes and turned each word into a Chinese picture-writing type of logogram using a specific group of letters in a specific order. There were dictionaries prior to Johnson’s, but they were not as authoritative or as well-received as Johnson’s.

Due to the changing pronunciation of words with time, what was bad in 1755 is even worse today. As Edward Rondthaler and Edward Lias state, “[S]pelling is the only branch of learning that has undergone no serious update or repair since before the 16th century. Other disciplines receive continuous updating. But not spelling.[32]

Time required to learn to read English compared to other alphabetic languages

The neutrality of this section is disputed.

Following Frank C. Laubach’s thirty years of experience in teaching adult illiterates around the world in 300 or more different languages, he stated, “Over 90 percent of the world’s languages, writing styles, have one sound for a letter and one letter for a sound. In such languages learning to read is swift and easy, requiring from one to twenty days.”[33] Furthermore, he found that in 295 of these languages (98 percent of them) students could master reading and writing in less than three months.[34]

In comparison, most U.S. students require two and one-half years or more to learn to read well enough to succeed in school. As Rudolf Flesch explains, “Generally speaking, students in our schools are about two years behind students of the same age in other countries. This is not a wild accusation of the American educational system; it is an established, generally known fact. . . . What accounts for these two years? Usually the assumption seems to be that in other countries children and adolescents are forced to study harder. Now that I have looked into this matter of reading, I think the explanation is much simpler and more reasonable: Americans take two years longer to learn how to read—-and reading, of course, is the basis for achievement in all other subjects.[35]

Frank C. Laubach believes even more time is lost: “It is estimated that two and one-half years are lost in the student’s studies because of our chaotic spelling.”[36]

Perhaps most convincing of all is this quote: “In November 1974 Professor Durr reported on a study trip to Russia in the pages of The Reading Teacher. . . . He found that first-graders are taught to read 46 of the 130 national languages of Russia. . . . All children in the USSR are given an ABC book and start to learn from it the day school begins. They learn at first about a letter a day and what it stands for, and gradually proceed to syllables and words. By December 15 of their first year all Russian children are through with their ABC books and start reading simple stories and poems. There is no further instruction in reading as such after the end of first grade.”[18]

Success rate of reading education in the USA

National literacy rates range from about 10 percent to 99+ percent. Frank C. Laubach’s books Teaching the World to Read and Forty Years With the Silent Billion detail much of his experience in teaching in 300 or more languages around the world. In teaching adults to read in languages other than English, he never once mentions being unable to teach some of his students to become fluent readers. When he makes the statement that “Over 90 percent of the world's languages have one sound for a letter and one letter for a sound. In such languages learning to read is swift and easy, requiring from one to twenty days.”[33] it implies that they all learned to read. It follows that the literacy rates in non-English speaking countries is—-more than anything else-—a measure of the percentage of the population that has had reading training.

Unlike some other nations, which do not enforce universal education for all citizens, U.S. children are required to be in school until their mid-teens. It is in the short-term best interests of politicians and educators to believe the U.S. Census Bureau reports that the U.S. literacy rate is 90 percent or more. There is not necessarily any conscious deception, but a brief study of how the Census Bureau made this determination will reveal why the reported figure can be so much higher than the true literacy rate.

The Census Bureau has included questions about literacy in each census from 1840 to 1930. Many of those most knowledgeable about U.S. literacy believe that literacy began to drop in the early 1960s and has been declining ever since.Thomas Sowell, Inside American Education (New York: The Free Press, 1993), p. 1 and elsewhere; David Barton, The Myth of Separation (Aledo, Texas: Wallbuilder Press, 1992), p. 212 and elsewhere. (See also pp. 209-216.); William J. Bennett, Ph.D., The Devaluing of America (New York: Touchstone, 1992), p. 55; William J. Bennett, Ph.D., The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators (New York: Touchstone, 1994), pp. 82-84. The Census Bureau reintroduced questions about literacy in 1970 at the insistence of the military.

In the 1970 census the only question asked about literacy was on grade completion. The Census Bureau considered those with fifth-grade completion or higher to be literate. A little more than 5 percent reported less than a fifth-grade education. For some reason, the Census Bureau decided that 80 percent of these could read, so they reported 99 percent literacy.

In 1980 the Census Bureau mailed out forms and based most of their calculations upon written responses to questions about grade completion. In addition they used a small sample of home visits and telephone interviews. They asked people what grade they had completed. If the answer was “Less than fifth grade,” they asked if the person could read and write. As explained in Jonathan Kozol’s book Illiterate America, this technique of determining literacy is almost certain to underestimate illiteracy.U.S. Census Bureau methods of determining illiteracy is almost certain to underestimate the level of illiteracy for the following reasons:

  • Illiterates would not respond to written forms, and their family members—-likely also to be illiterate-—would not either.
  • The underprivileged poor, and especially illiterates, may feel they are being singled out like criminals. They therefore have cause to distrust salespersons, bill collectors, or strangers knocking on their door seeking information—-especially if the answers to the questions would be embarrassing. Home visits by Census Bureau officials who are not known by the person answering the door cannot be expected to yield accurate information under such circumstances.
  • Grade-level completion does NOT equal grade-level competence.
  • Those who have no permanent address, no phone number, no post office box, or no regular job—-a condition shared by almost six million people, most of whom are illiterate-—often are not counted. They can’t be found by the Census Bureau in time for the census.[37]

Because U.S. schools since the 1930s have mostly taught by the whole word method (or the whole language method) and due to new time-consuming pleasurable activities and negative influences explained below, roughly 46 to 51 percent of U.S. adults are now functionally illiterate. See Irwin S. Kirsch, et al., Adult Literacy in America pp. xvi, 63, 65, and 66 and Few if any non-English speaking nations use the whole word teaching method.They do not have to; phonics works for their language because it follows the alphabetic principle: the words are almost entirely spelled as they sound.

  • dozens of scholars[attribution needed] for the last 250 years have recommended solving the problem of English spelling—rather than merely fighting the symptoms of the problem-—by making the spelling phonetic.
  • Several nations both smaller and larger than the U.S. have simplified their spelling systems.
  • A simple, logical phonemic spelling system has been proven effective for teaching students students to read in less that three months in 300 or more alphabetic languages.

Print exposure

Print exposure is simply the amount of time a child or person spends being visually aware of the written word (reading)--whether that be through newspapers, magazines, books, journals, scientific papers, or more. Research has shown that the amount of print material that a child accesses has deep cognitive consequences. In addition, the act of reading itself, for the most part irrespective of what is being read, increases the achievement difference among children.

Children who are exposed to large amounts of print often have more success in reading and have a larger vocabulary to draw from than children who see less print. The average conversations among college graduates, spouses or adult friends contain less rare (advanced) words than the average preschool reading book. Other print sources have increasingly higher amounts of rare words, from children's books, to adult books, to popular magazines, newspapers, and scientific articles (listed in increasing level of difficulty). Television, even adult news shows, do not have the same level of rare words that children's books do.

The issue is that oral language is very repetitive. To learn to read effectively a child needs to have a large vocabulary. Without this, when the child does read they stumble over words that they do not know, and have trouble following the idea of the sentence. This leads to frustration and a dislike of reading. When a child is faced with this difficulty he or she is less likely to read, thus further inhibiting the growth of their vocabulary. This cycle leads to the "rich get richer, poor get poorer" phenomena known as the Matthew Effect.

Children who enjoy reading do it more frequently and improve their vocabulary. A study of out-of-school reading of fifth graders, found that a student in the 50th percentile read books about 5 minutes a day, while a student in the 20th percentile read books for less than a minute a day. This same study found that the amount of time a child in the 90th percentile spent reading in two days, was the amount of time a child in the 10th percentile spent reading all year.

Print exposure can also be a big factor in learning English as a second language. Book flood experiments are an example of this. The book flood program brought books in English to the classroom. Through focusing their English language learning on reading books instead of endless worksheets the teachers were able to improve the rate at which their students learned English.

Other linguistic models of English spelling

Attempts to make English spelling behave phonetically have given rise to various campaigns for spelling reform; none have been generally accepted. Opponents of simplified spellings point to the impossibility of phonetic spelling for a language with many diverse accents and dialects. Several distinguished scholars, however, have thoroughly disproven all reasonable objections to spelling reform, including this objection. See, for example, Dictionary of Simplified American Spelling.[38] Thomas Lounsbury, LL.D., L.H.D., emeritus professor of English, Yale University, presented a devastating rebuttal to all reasonable objections to spelling reform in his book English Spelling and Spelling Reform as far back as 1909, particularly the last chapter, pages 331 to 341.[39] A shorter rebuttal of all the reasonable objections to spelling reform is available on pages 166 to 170 of Let's End Our Literacy Crisis published in 2005, ISBN 1-58982-230-7, available at

Linguists documenting the sounds of speech use various special symbols, of which the International Phonetic Alphabet is the most widely known. Linguistics makes a distinction between a phone and phoneme, and between phonology and phonetics. The study of words and their structure is morphology, and the smallest units of meaning are morphemes. The study of the relationship between words present in the language at one time is synchronic etymology, part of descriptive linguistics, and the study of word origins and evolution is diachronic etymology, part of historical linguistics.

English orthography gives priority first to morphology, then to etymology, and lastly to phonetics. Thus the spelling of a word is dependent principally upon its structure, its relationship to other words, and its language or origin. It is usually necessary to know the meaning of a word in order to spell it correctly, and its meaning will be indicated by the similarity to words of the same meaning and family.

English uses a 26 letter Latin alphabet, but the number of graphemes is expanded by several digraphs, trigraphs, and tetragraphs, while the letter "q" is not used as a grapheme by itself, only in the digraph "qu".

Each grapheme may represent a limited number of phonemes depending on etymology and location in the word. Likewise each phoneme may be represented by a limited number of graphemes. Some letters are not part of any grapheme, but function as etymological markers. Graphemes do not cross morpheme boundaries.

Morphemes are spelt consistently, following rules inflection and word-formation, and allow readers and writers to understand and produce words they have not previously encountered.

Examples of strict linguistic teaching methods include the Real Spelling approach.

Practical application

In practice, many many children are exposed to both "Phonic" and "Whole Language" methods, coupled with reading programs that combine both elements. For example, the extremely popular book, Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons, by Siegfried Engelman, et al. (ISBN 0-671-63198-5), teaches pronunciation and simple phonics, then supplements it with progressive texts and practice in directed reading. The end result of a mixed method is a casually phonetic student, a much better first-time pronouncer and speller, who still also has look-say acquisition, quick fluency and comprehension. Using an eclectic method, students can select their preferred learning style. This lets all students make progress, yet permits a motivated student to use and recognize the best traits of each method.

Speed reading continues where basic education stops. Usually after some practice, many students' reading speed can be significantly increased. There are various speed-reading techniques. Hopify is a GPL tool to practice speed-reading.

However, speed reading does not guarantee comprehension or retention of what was read.

Readability indicates the ease of understanding or comprehension due to the style of writing. Reading recovery is a method for helping students learn to read.

See also

  • Accessible publishing
  • Dolch Word List
  • Speaking word processor supports reading education (Gio-Key-Board)



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External links

{{enWP|Reading education in the USA