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Dick And Jane

As many before him, Huey missed entirely the brilliant Greek insight that reading and understanding are two different things. Good reading is the fluent and effortless cracking of the symbol-sound code which puts understanding within easy reach. Understanding is the translation of that code into meaning.

It is for many people a natural and fairly harmless mistake. Since they read for meaning, the code-cracking step is forgotten. Forgotten, that is, by those who read well. For others, self-disgust and despair engendered by halting progress in decoding sounds sets into play a fatal chain of circumstances which endangers the relationship to print for a long time, sometimes wrecking it forever. If decoding is a painful effort, filled with frustrating errors, finally a point is reached when the reader says, in effect, to the devil with it.

Another piece of dangerous philosophy is concealed inside whole-word practice—the notion that a piece of writing is only an orange one squeezes in order to extract something called meaning, some bit of data. The sheer luxury of putting your mind in contact with the greatest minds of history across time and space, feeling the rhythm of their thought, the sallies and retreats, the marshaling of evidence, the admixture of humor or beauty of observation and many more attributes of the power and value language possesses, has something in common with being coached by Bill Walsh in football or Toscanini in orchestra conducting. How these men say what they say is as important as the translating their words into your own. The music of language is what poetry and much rhetoric are about, the literal meaning often secondary. Powerful speech depends on this understanding.

By 1920, the sight-word method was being used in new wave progressive schools. In 1927, another professor at Columbia Teachers College, Arthur Gates, laid the foundation for his own personal fortune by writing a book called The Improvement of Reading, which purported to muster thirty-one experimental studies proving that sight reading was superior to phonics. All these studies are either trivial or highly ambiguous at best and at times, in a practice widely encountered throughout higher education research in America, Gates simply draws the conclusions he wants from facts which clearly lead elsewhere.

But his piece de resistance is a comparison of first-grade deaf pupils tutored in the whole- word method with Detroit first graders. The scores of the two groups are almost identical, causing Gates to declare this a most convincing demonstration. Yet it had been well known for almost a century that deaf children taught with a method created expressly for deaf children only gain a temporary advantage which disappears quickly. In spite of this cautionary detail Gates called this "conclusive proof" that normal children taught this way would improve even faster!

Shortly after the book’s publication, Arthur Gates was given the task of authoring Macmillan’s basal reader series, a pure leap into whole-word method by the most prestigious education publisher of them all. Macmillan was a corporation with wide-reaching contacts able to enhance an author’s career. In 1931, Gates contributed to the growth of a new reading industry by writing an article for Parents magazine, "New Ways of Teaching Reading." Parents were told to abandon any residual loyalty they might have to the barren, formal older method and to embrace the new as true believers. A later article by a Gates associate was expressly tailored for "those parents concerned because children do not know their letters." It explained that "the modern approach to reading" eliminated the boredom of code-cracking.

With its finger in the wind, Scott, Foresman, the large educational publisher, ordered a revision of its Elson Basic Readers drawn on the traditional method, a series which had sold 50 million copies to that date. To head up the mighty project, the publisher brought in William S. Gray, dean of the University of Chicago College of Education, to write its all new whole-word pre-primer and primer books, a series marking the debut of two young Americans who would change millions of minds into mush during their long tenure in school classrooms. Their names were Dick and Jane. After Gates and Gray, most major publishers fell into line with other whole-word series and in the words of Rudolf Flesch, "inherited the kingdom of American education," with its fat royalties. Blumenfeld does the student of American schooling a great service when he compares this original 1930 Dick and Jane with its 1951 successor:

"In 1930, the Dick and Jane Pre-Primer taught 68 sign words in 39 pages of story text, with an illustration per page, a total of 565 words—and a Teacher’s Guidebook of 87 pages. In 1951, the same book was expanded to 172 pages with 184 illustrations, a total of 2,603 words—and a Guidebook of 182 pages to teach a sight vocabulary of only 58 words!" Without admitting any disorder, the publisher was protecting itself from this system, and the general public, without quite knowing why, was beginning to look at its schools with unease.

By 1951, entire public school systems were bailing out on phonics and jumping on the sight-reading bandwagon. Out of the growing number of reading derelicts poised to begin tearing the schools apart which tormented them, a giant remedial reading industry was spawned, a new industry completely in the hands of the very universities who had with one hand written the new basal readers, and with the other taught a generation of new teachers about the wonders of the whole-word method.

Mute evidence that Scott, Foresman wasn’t just laughing all the way to the bank, but was actively trying to protect its nest egg in Dick and Jane, was its canny multiplication of words intended to be learned. In 1930, the word look was repeated 8 times; in 1951, 110 times; in the earlier version oh repeats 12 times, in the later 138 times; in the first, see gets 27 repetitions, and in the second, 176.1

The legendary children’s book author, Dr. Seuss, creator of a string of best-sellers using a controlled "scientific" vocabulary supplied by the publisher, demonstrated his own awareness of the mindlessness of all this in an interview he gave in 1981:

I did it for a textbook house and they sent me a word list. That was due to the Dewey revolt in the twenties, in which they threw out phonics reading and went to a word recognition as if you’re reading a Chinese pictograph instead of blending sounds or different letters. I think killing phonics was one of the greatest causes of illiteracy in the country.

Anyway they had it all worked out that a healthy child at the age of four can only learn so many words in a week. So there were two hundred and twenty-three words to use in this book. I read the list three times and I almost went out of my head. I said, " I’ll read it once more and if I can find two words that rhyme, that’ll be the title of my book." I found "cat" and "hat" and said, the title of my book will be The Cat in the Hat.

For the forty-one months beginning in January of 1929 and concluding in June of 1932, there were eighty-eight articles written in various pedagogical journals on the subject of reading difficulties and remedial teaching; in the forty-one months beginning in July of 1935 and concluding in December of 1938, the number rose almost 200 percent to 239. The first effects of the total victory of whole-word reading philosophy were being reflected in academic journals as the once mighty reading Samson of America was led eyeless to Gaza with the rest of the slaves.


11955 proved to be a year of great frustration to the reading combine because of the publication of Rudolf
Flesch’s hostile Why Johnny Can’t Read, which precisely analyzed the trouble and laid it at the doorstep of the reading establishment. The book was a hot seller for over a year, continuing to reverberate through the reading world for a long time thereafter. In 1956, 56,000 reading professionals formed a look/say defense league called the International Reading Association. It published three journals as bibles of enthusiasm: The Reading Teacher, The Journal of Reading, The Reading Research Quarterly. Between 1961 and 1964, a new generation of academics shape-shifted look/say into psycholinguistics under the leadership of Frank Smith, an excellent writer when not riding his hobby horse, and Kenneth and Yetta Goodman, senior authors at Scott, Foresman who had been widely quoted as calling reading "a psycholinguistic guessing game." From 1911 to 1981, there were 124 legitimate studies attempting to prove Cattell and the other whole-word advocates right. Not a single one confirmed whole-word reading as effective.

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