Astoundingly, The New York Times ran a page one piece this week saying that a leading teachers’ college professor and other reading educators now recognize that phonics actually works to teach kids reading and that the so-called whole language teaching method favored by progressives often results in kids being unable to read.
Nowhere did the insightful article by national correspondent Dana Goldstein mention former President George W. Bush.
Instead, the Times’ piece said that because Professor Lucy Calkins of Columbia University’s Teachers College, who has influenced how millions of children are taught to read, has now embraced phonics and is "so trusted by educators, her shift on the science of reading could drive real change, despite what some see as a long delay."
Yet the entire 2,300-word piece spotlighted by a four-column headline was a striking vindication of Bush’s push to restore phonics to teaching reading through his much-maligned No Child Left Behind Act.
Prior to the introduction of the so-called progressive methods promoted by education professors, schools going back to ancient Greece had taught kids to read by sounding out letters and combinations of letters, a method known as phonics.
An "a," for example, has the sound or phoneme of "ay" as in "bay," or "ah" as in cat. Any language with an alphabet is taught the same way.
The whole language approach scrapped all that. It was predicated on a belief that reading came naturally and that kids would learn to read literally by osmosis.
The whole language method held that the traditional, phonics-based method of teaching kids to sound out letters is boring. Instead, nutty as it sounds, under the whole language approach, kids were taught to read by simply giving them books and expecting that they would become so enthralled that they would figure out the words themselves.
Essentially, that meant kids were not being taught to read at all.
Whole language proponents even said that when children guessed wrong, they should not be corrected.
"It is unpleasant to be corrected," Paul Jennings, an Australian whole language enthusiast, said. "It has to be fun, fun, fun."
But reading, like devising algebraic equations, is anything but natural. It must be learned.
Whole language had one thing going for it: Instead of teaching the 44 sounds or phonemes that the 26 letters of the English alphabet can make, with whole language, teachers could sit back and relax.
They gave kids books and passively watched as students struggled to make sense of the material placed in front of them. When their children failed to learn to read, they could blame it on their homes or on poor motivation.
Egged on by teachers’ unions, public schools across the country widely adopted the whole language approach. As evidenced by their reading scores, Blacks often struggled the most. Unable to read even a simple road map, they faced a lifetime of failure.
Yet I found in writing my book "A Matter of Character: Inside the White House of George W. Bush" that the toniest private schools in New York — the Collegiate, Brearley, St. David’s, and Dalton schools — all use phonics to teach reading.
"Of course we teach phonics," Beth Tashlik, the head of the Collegiate School’s lower school, told me. "You can’t teach reading without it."
Going into fourth grade, I was one of those who could not read because I had been taught with the whole language method in the New York City public schools. When we moved to Cambridge, Mass., I was called upon by my fourth grade teacher to stand and read.
I still remember my face turning red because I was only guessing at the words.
I was held back a year and put into a year of remedial reading consisting of drill using phonics. I went on to become an investigative reporter with The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. And today I am The New York Times bestselling author of 21 books on the White House, FBI, Secret Service, and CIA.
Ronald Kessler, a former Washington Post and Wall Street Journal investigative reporter, is the New York Times bestselling author of "The Secrets of the FBI" and "The CIA at War." Read Ron Kessler's Reports — More Here.
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