(This was a speech Sam gave at an event in Saint Louis in the early 1990s)
Every September about 4 million six-year-olds enter the public schools of America
where they expect to be taught to read. Every child wants to learn to read and these
bright-eyed and bushy-tailed youngsters eagerly enter their classrooms with great
Now these children feel very intelligent. After all they taught themselves to speak
their own language, without going to a school, without the help of a teacher, so that by
the time they enter that first-gradeclassroom, they’ve developed a speaking
vocabulary in the thousands of words. That is not only an extraordinary achievement,
it borders on the miraculous.
But, of course, we are all the products of the miraculous. And perhaps the greatest
proof of the miracles of creation is the fact that we alone of all the species learn to
speak. Why? The Bible makes it very clear. In the Gospel According to St. John we
read : “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was
God created language, and the Word is God’s power in action. After all, what do we
read in Genesis? “And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” It was done
by the Word, not by an electrician, not by a physical act.
God gave man the power of speech, because he made us in His image. And
speech has given man tremendous power. But what were the first instructions God
gave Adam? We read in Genesis: “And the Lord God took the man, and put him into
the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man,
saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the
knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest
thereof thou shalt surely die.”
Well, we all know the sad story of Adam and Eve’s disobedience. They were kicked
out of the Garden of Eden into the cold, cruel world to fend for themselves. But God
did not take back the gift of speech. He knew they would need it more than anything
else if they were to survive as human beings. And that is why every child is born with
that gift, to remind us of where we came from and who made us
The tragedy is that the public schools are not permitted to tell the children any of
this. And so the children enter their schools with great expectations, hardly suspecting
that a group of professors of education have conspired to make it certain that those
expectations will be dashed to pieces. But for centuries, those expectations were
fulfilled, whether the school was in a log cabin or a red brick building. The children
were trained in academic skills that would serve them well for the rest of their lives.
The traditional primary school curriculum, the teaching of the three R’s, has a very
long, successful history. In fact, we have an excellent record of how primary education
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was conducted in ancient Rome.
In a little book entitled The Education of Children at Rome by George Clarke,
published in 1896, we read:
“In the elementary school .. . instruction was confined to reading, writing, and
arithmetic…. For the methods employed in teaching reading and writing we are
dependent chiefly on Quintilian, who treats the subject at considerable length and with
his usual good jUdgment, in the first chapter of his book.
“In teaching to read the first step was to obtain familiarity with the forms and sounds
of the letters ….Tiles, on which alphabets or verses were scratched before baking,
were used in the youngest classes. Horace speaks of children being coaxed to learn
their letters by tid-bits of pastry….
“The letters having been thoroughly learned, the next step was to master their
various combinations into syllables . . .. (I]t would seem that it was usual to give pupils
successive combinations such a ba, be, bi, etc., ca, ce, ci, etc., to spell and repeat until
they had memorized them , and then to proceed to more difficult ones. Every possible
combination had to be thoroughly mastered .. . before the child was permitted to read
words… . ‘Much trust must not too readily be placed in the first act of memorizing;
constant and long-continued repetition will be necessary. In reading there must not be
too much haste about connecting syllables into words, or about reading fast, until the
pupil can form the combinations of letters in syllables without stumbling or hesitation,
or at any rate without having to stop to think about it. Then he may begin to form words
from syllables and continuous sentences from words.
“‘It is incredible how much delay is caused in reading by undue haste. It gives rise
to heSitation, interruptions, and repetitions when pupils attempt more than they are
equal to, and when, going wrong, they lose confidence even in what they already
know. Reading should first of all be sure, then continuous; it must for a long time be
slow, until by practice speed and accuracy are acquired. ‘”
That’s how intensive, systematic phonics was taught in ancient Rome. In fact, it was
taught the same way in the United States until the mid-19th Century when educators
began tampering with the basic method that had worked so well for 4,000 years.
That’s the proper way to teach children to read an alphabetic writing system .
Nobody knows exactly when or where the alphabet was invented. Scholars think it
was invented by the Phoenicians around 2000 B.C. Prior to the invention of the
alphabet human beings at first used pictographs which later evolved into ideographs.
A pictograph is a graphic symbol that looks like the thing it represents. You don’t
have to go to school to learn to read pictographs. We use them today on road signs or
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in airports. I’m sure you’re all familiar with the little figures on rest-room doors. One
figure wears a skirt, the other wears pants. But now that so many wear pants, it can be
confusing. In other words, even simple pictographs can be ambiguous.
As civilization became more complex the scribes had to depict things that did not
lend themselves to depiction. It’s easy enough to draw a picture of a tree or an animal.
But how do you draw pictures of abstract ideas? How do you draw pictures of good
and evil, right and wrong, never and forever? You can’t. So the scribes drew little
symbols that did not look like the ideas they represented. We call these symbols
ideographs. And now you did have to go to school to learn what all of these symbols
Modern Chinese is an ideographic writing system composed of 50,000 of these little
symbols, none of which look like the things they represent. It’s a terribly complex
system to learn, particularly for westerners.
However, somewhere around 4000 B.C. someone made a remarkable discovery.
Someone discovered that all of human language is composed of a small number of
irreducible speech sounds. And that person decided that instead of using a writing
system composed of thousands and thousands of symbols none of which looked like
the things they represented, and took years to learn and were easily forgotten, why not
create a set of symbols to represent the irreducible speech sounds of the language
and we would have a very simple writing system that required memorizing a very small
number of symbols that stood for sounds. And so the first alphabet was invented.
As I said, all of human speech is composed of a small number of irreducible speech
sounds. How many irreducible sounds do you think there are in English? No, not 26.
That’s the number of letters in our alphabet. The answer is 44. Yes, we have 44
sounds represented by only 26 letters, and that’s why some of our letters stand for ·
more than one sound, and some sounds are represented by more than one letter.
For example, the letter “a” stands for more than one sound. It stands for long “a” as
in April or apron; it stands for the short “a” as in cat or bat; it stands for the “ah” sound
as in father and car; and its stands for the “au” sound as in all and fall. Out “th” sound
is represented by t-h, the “sh” sound is represented by s-h, and the “ch” sound is
represented by c-h. And that is why it is important to teach children our alphabetiC
system in a logical, systematic way, starting with the simplest regular spelling forms
and progressing to the more difficult forms.
The invention of the alphabet was indeed revolutionary. It swept away ideographs
from the Western world and sparked the greatest intellectual advance in history. But
there is something else that is very important to know about the alphabet. As soon as
it was invented, the Scripture began to appear. Why then? Because man had to wait
until he had an accurate, precise means of transcribing the spoken word before the
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word of God could be written down.
Again, the importance of the Word. Alphabetic writing is a direct transcription of the
spoken word, and accuracy is the hallmark of alphabetic writing.
The purveyors of whole language are in open rebellion against the concept of the
alphabet. In the first place, they do not believe in accuracy in reading. In an article
entitled “Reading Method Lets Pupils Guess,” in the Washington Post of Nov. 26, 1986,
the reporter wrote:
“The most controversial aspect of whole language is the de-emphasis on accuracy.
. . . American Reading Council President Julia Palmer, an advocate of the approach,
said it is acceptable if a young child reads the word house for home, or substitutes the
word pony for horse. ‘It’s not very serious because she understands the meaning,’
said Palmer. ‘Accuracy is not the name of the game.'”
But even in ancient Rome they knew that accuracy is indeed the name of the game.
Whole language teachers make no distinction between an ideographic writing system
and an alphabetic one. In a recently published book entitled, Whole Language:
What’s the Difference?, the authors write:
“Oral language, written language, sign language — each of these is a system of
linguistic convention for creating meanings. That means none is ‘the basis’ for the
other: none is a secondary representation of the other.” (page 9)
Of course, they are wrong. Alphabetic writing, as distinguished from ideographic
writing, is a graphic representation of the spoken language. That’s what made it so
different from ideographic writing. That’s what made it so much easier to learn. Its
accuracy was a tremendous enhancement to intellectual development, permitting the
unlimited development of new words in every field of human endeavor.
But one can only grasp the true lunacy of whole language theory when we read the
book’s definition of reading:
“From a whole language perspective, reading (and language use in general) is a
process of generating hypotheses in a meaning-making transaction in a
sociohistorical context. As a transactional process, reading is not a matter of ‘getting
the meaning’ from text, as if that meaning were in the text waiting to be decoded by the
reader. Rather, reading is a matter of readers using the cues print provide and the
knowledge they bring with them (of language subsystems, of the world) to construct a
unique interpretation. Moreover, that interpretation is situated: readers’ creations (not
retrievals) of meaning with the text vary, depending on their purposes for reading and
the expectations of others in the reading event. This view of reading implies that there
is no single ‘correct’ meaning for a given text, only plausible meanings. This view is in
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direct contrast to the model of reading underlying most reading instruction and
evaluations.” (page 19)
No wonder the kids are confused! Incidentally, I wonder how many writers would
concur with this definition of reading. Writers generally take great pains to convey a
particular message. The last thing they want is for the reader to “create” a meaning
which is not there. The book elaborates on its definition. The authors write:
“Whole language represents a major shift in thinking about the reading process.
Rather than viewing reading as ‘getting the words,’ whole language educators view
reading as essentially a process of creating meanings …. Meaning is created through
a transaction with whole, meaningful texts (i.e., texts of any length that were written
with the intent to communicate meaning.) It is a transaction, not an extraction of the
meaning from the print, in the sense that the reader-created meanings are a fusion of
what the reader brings and what the text offers . … In a transactional model, words do
not have static meanings. Rather, they have meaning potentials and the capacity to
communicate multiple meanings.” (page 32)
If that isn’t pedagogical insanity I don’t know what is. The insane have a tough time
living in the real world. They live in a world of fantasy, much like our whole language
educators. They tell us that there is no objective meaning to anything you read. The
reader creates the meaning. If that’s the case, what’s the point in reading what others
write? Why not simply stare at the page and say anything you want? Or why stare at
the page at all?
Which brings us to the subject at hand: how to get your local school board to adopt
phonics. I imagine that any sane member of a school board, who took the time to read
what whole-language theorists say about whole language, would be convinced to
switch to phonics. Better still, send the member a tape of this lecture which can be
listened to with little effort while driving a car.
There is no reason why American children should be subjected to this educational
lunacy. They want to be taught to read. They don’t want to be turned into learning
disabled, intellectual cripples, programmed for a life of academic failure.
How can we save them?
School boards do respond to parental pressure, so you must do all you can to alert
and inform parents of what is happening in their children’s school. This can be done
by distributing literature about the harmful effects of whole language. I’ve written
several newsletters on this subject which you might consider using. Also, you should
let the school board know that there are many good phonics programs available on
the market: the Spalding program , Sing, Spell, Read and Write, and my own reading
program , ALPHA-PHONICS, which is presently being used by thousands of
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homeschoolers with great success. It’s inexpensive, simple to use, and all in one
Also, look into the possibility of presenting your case to the school board at a public
meeting. Do this after you’ve sent each board member the same literature you are
distributing to the parents. If you can get to talk to each member individually, that
would be even better. Call them on the phone and see if they are amenable to a oneon-one
Also, I would talk to the teachers. I don’t know of a teacher who doesn’t to do a
good job. They want the children to learn. But be diplomatic. Teachers like to
consider themselves the experts in these matters. Some will be very strongly
committed to whole language, but ask them to read the literature and respond to it.
You may be able to get them to think twice about their teaching theories.
But you may also find some teachers willing to listen and learn. My publisher, Peter
Watt, will be happy to supply you with a sheaf of letters from parents who have
successfully taught their children to read with Alpha-Phonics. There is nothing more
convincing than good stories of success.
Also, I strongly advise you to develop good relations with the local media: the
newspaper, local radio talk-show, and TV news and public service departments. Do all
you can to get the media on your side. It should be easy to convince the editor of the
newspaper that the future prosperity of his medium depends on schools turning out
good readers. If young people can’t read, that editor may soon be out of a job.
Are there districts where parents have succeeded in getting phonics into their
schools? Yes. In eight elementary schools in Houston, a phonics program, which had
been removed to make way for whole language, was reinstated. The schools had
been using Chapter 1 funds to pay for a heavily structured phonics program which the
children loved. But the Houston school district decided to cut off the funds and force
the schools to adopt a whole-language approach. The result was dismal.
However, after much pressure from parents, teachers and principals, the funding for
the phonics program was reinstated in the eight schools. Unfortunately, the other 162
elementary schools in the district are continuing to use whole language.
It is also important for the school board to know that there are many serious cri~iCS
of whole language among professors of education. Professors Pat Groff of San Diego
State University and Jeanne Chall of Harvard University easily come. to mind. In fact,
the January 8, 1992 issue of Education Week reports on recent studies that cast doubt
on whole language as a reading teaching technique. The studies were ma?e In
Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. and published in the December 1991 Issue of the
Journal of Educational Psychology. It may be worth your while to get copies of these
studies and hand them to your school board for review and comment.
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You would think that it would be easy enough to convince school board members
that intensive phonics is preferable to whole language in teaching children to read.
After all, intensive phonics has a track record of success going back thousands of
years, while whole language is based entirely on theory, not practice.
With the desperate literacy problem this nation now has, it certainly is no time for
experiments in a field where we know what works. Children get only one chance to be
six years old, one chance to be taught to read in the first grade. They ought not to be
experimented on. Nor should the school board want the children to be experimented
on. But if the school board permits this experimentation to take place, it should be
willing to present to the parents the results of the experiment.
Of course, if the children read inaccurately and make up meanings of their own, the
whole language educators can claim success. And if that is also the school board’s
idea of success, then you may have no choice but to take your own children out of the
school and urge your friends and neighbors to do likewise.
But we must assume that your school board is made up of rational, well-meaning,
and decent human beings. We’ve all heard stories of school boards’ utter disdain for
parents. But, who knows? Yours may be different. It’s at least worth a try. Certainly
the children deserve the effort, even if it’s not successful. After all, their welfare, their
future is at stake.
A link to this article in PDF: http://blumenfeld.campconstitution.net/Articles/How%20to%20Get%20Your%20Local%20School%20Board%20to%20Adopt%20Phonics.pdf