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Losing Literacy

Until WWII, American children learned to read by utilizing phonics. Words were not learned by memorization but rather, children learned that each letter had a corresponding sound. When put together with other sounds, a word was made. This method had proved to be extraordinarily successful since America’s founding and two centuries beyond. It was this method that allowed Benjamin Franklin to be a proficient reader before ever stepping foot into a classroom. 

However, during WWII the emphasis on phonics was removed from the classroom. At this same time, millions of men were arriving at registration offices to be inducted into military service. Before doing so, they were required to take a fairly simple low-level academic test.  Of all those tested, 96% were deemed literate. But as time went on, and phonics became less emphasized and further removed from our schools. Literacy rates began falling dramatically.

By the Korean War, young men were once again signing up for military service and literacy rates fell to 81%. After about a decade of taking phonics out of the classroom, literacy rates had fallen 15%. By the time of Vietnam War, only 73% of all inductees were deemed to be literate. 

Based on these numbers, many concluded that disregard for phonics had disastrous consequences. Yet, the trend continued. The progressive era in education brought with it new theories about how children should learn to read. One of the most popular reading methods to arise from the progressive schooling movement was whole-word reading.  With whole word reading, children were given picture textbooks. Each page had a vocabulary word and a picture to correspond with that word. These books might cover 500-600 words that a child would learn based on the picture. In short, it was memorizing words instead of learning the sounds each letter makes. “Experts” of the era believed this method would shorten the time it took children to learn how to read because they wouldn’t be burdened with the “code-breaking” aspect of phonetic reading. 

There are numerous problems with this, one being that children were only being exposed to a handful of words. This allowed them to complete their schoolwork, but when given a new book to read, they would simply have to guess unfamiliar words. This was not ideal when trying to derive meaning from text. 

Not only did this end up dumbing our children down, but it also made them incredibly dependent on instruction. A student could not pick up a new book and read with ease if the book included unfamiliar words.

Though phonics has made a bit of a comeback over the years, there is a lesson to be learned. During the progressive era, several new pedagogy theories were instituted in classrooms without ever having been piloted beforehand. As a result, our country’s children fell behind.  

We should proceed with caution before we allow new and unpiloted programs to be brought into our schools. It would be a shame if implementing new education programs, like Common Core, resulted in the dumbing down of our children. It is important that our children learn by using the most effective and proven methods—something that is impossible if those in charge of education refuse to learn from the past.