A Cure for the Illiteracy Epidemic

As printed in The Wall Street Journal, April 24, 2001.

Those who, like me, grew up in the 1940s and ’50s, recall vividly the seemingly unstoppable polio epidemic that plagued our nation for so long. Over half a million Americans were stricken by this crippling disease, and many mothers (mine included) worried about allowing their children near public swimming pools for fear of infection. In 1954, however, Jonas Salk announced the first polio vaccine; in 1961, it was approved for general use. Almost overnight, the number of new cases plummeted. Thanks to good research and quick action, the disease had been beat.

Today, the nation faces another epidemic, one that does not affect children physically, but that is equally destructive of their futures. The disease is functional illiteracy, and, according to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), it has overtaken one-third of America’s children by the fourth grade — including two-thirds of black students and almost half of all children in the inner cities. And perhaps the worst news is this: We already have a cure for it, but it has been administered to far too few.

In his groundbreaking 1955 expose, “Why Johnny Can’t Read,” Rudolf Flesch uncovered a worrisome fad in education. Schools had begun to replace time-honored and proven methods of teaching reading with the “look-say” method, the precursor of today’s “whole language.” These new techniques, Flesch argued, had no scientific basis and did not help children learn to read.

Then, in 1961 — the same year that the polio vaccine became available — Jeanne Chall was commissioned to write a definitive report that showed it was exactly those time-honored methods — what we refer to as “phonics” — that beginning readers needed to “break the code” of language. Chall had discovered the “vaccine” for preventing reading difficulty; it was up to schools to administer it.

But unlike the medical community’s enthusiastic embrace of Salk’s research, the education community has consistently ignored Chall’s findings, as well as subsequent research confirming her work. Instead of seeing the number of illiterate children plummet, 37% of our fourth-graders are unable to read on a basic level 40 years later, while only 8% can read on an advanced level.

The evidence is clear and has been articulated best by Louisa Moats, one of today’s leading reading experts. Schools need to teach phoneme awareness, phonics, fluent word recognition, vocabulary and comprehension. Most state education agencies, schools of education, and school districts, however, continue to advocate reading strategies that don’t work. Many of these institutions march under the banner of “balanced instruction” but, in fact, they continue to push the flawed “whole language” methods at the expense of phonics. This is the educational equivalent of treating polio with aspirin. We would never stand for such malpractice in medicine, and we should not tolerate it in education.

President George W. Bush’s proposals for reading are certainly a step in the right direction, in so far as they promote research-based methods, annual testing of students, and real accountability for school failure. But none of these initiatives on the federal level will succeed without similar efforts in the states. If local school districts continue to ignore clear research and promote ideologically driven methods that don’t work, the president’s actions will not bring the results he seeks and we need. The action is local, and so must be the fight.

This is not to suggest that phonics-based instruction is as magic a potion as the Salk vaccine. Teaching children to read involves far more than just a proven method, and it depends largely on the efforts of the parents. Parents must introduce their children to great stories, inculcating a love for books. Children who read for fun every day score 10% higher on the NAEP tests than students who never or hardly ever read. Parents need to turn off the television, computer and video games.

At K12, the online elementary and secondary school I lead, kindergarten and first-grade students will receive intense phonics instruction and will be exposed to the world’s literary heritage through the Junior Great Books program and other children’s stories.

But just as phonics alone is insufficient to help children learn to read, parental efforts will be futile if schools do not do their part. The parents in 1951 were justified in their concern that their children would contract polio from swimming pools. Parents, 50 years later, should not have to worry that their school will not protect their child from illiteracy.

Mr. Bennett, former secretary of education, is co-director of Empower America and chairman of K12.com, an internet-based elementary and secondary school.