The Weekly Sam: A Review of Sam’s Book “The New Illiterates”

The latest phonics reading program promises to make a reader out of
your child. All you need is the program ($199 plus tax: plus shipping and
handling), various manuals and workbooks, a blackboard, flashcards, a record
player, a cassette player, a VCR, a computer, and a nuclear reactor. Well, okay,
so I exaggerate a bit–but we do have a tendency to make simple things rather

A good antidote to this irksome tendency is The New first
issued in 1973, and every bit as relevant in this 1988 edition [The Paradigm
Company, Box 45161, Boise, Idaho 83711]. No one knows as much about
America’s reading problems, or the solution, as Sam Blumenfeld. With skill and
erudition, he has devastated the “look-say” reading establishment. And he has
produced a true phonics program without all the distractions and frivolities
which characterize some of the products on the market. (I have taught, and am
teaching, my children to read using Mr. Blumenfeld’s so I am
not exactly an unbiased observer when it comes to praising his works.)

There are some 25 or 30 million functional illiterates in our fair land,
and, as Mr. Blumenfeld notes, “no professional educator has stepped forward to
accept responsibility for having helped create this state of affairs. It is assumed
by virtually everyone that all of this ‘just happened’ and that no one’s to blame.
Certainly none of the educational leaders of the last fifty years is to blame. After
all, no one’s been fired.” (preface) The powers that be among the educrats
would like us to believe that these folks are illiterate because they have minimal
brain damage, perceptual retardation, and a host of various and sundry learning
disabilities. Rather than attributing illiteracy to genetic deficiency in the
learner, Mr. Blumenfeld identifies it as “the inability of about half the children
taught to read via Dick and Jane to acquire an adequate sight vocabulary that can
take them beyond the controlled reading materials of the third or fourth
grades.” (pg. 72) Even the dread “dyslexia” is simply “a fancy medical term
coined especially to describe the perfectly normal, intelligent youngster who
can’t learn how to read by the whole-word method.” (pg. 108)

One of the strengths of Mr. Blumenfeld’s book is that he does not just
describe the current Situation, but he places it in its historical context. Present
problems are traced back to such scoundrels as Horace Mann in the 19th
century and John Dewey in the 20th. We learn that in the 1830’s in Boston was
a major philosophical battle concerning the nature and methods of teaching.
Mann and his disciples opposed the traditional and conservative educational
practices of the Boston schoolmasters. Mann is quoted as saying, “I am satisfied
that our greatest error in teaching children to read, lies in beginning with the
alphabet.” (pg. 147) Thus, Mann declared that the alphabetic method, which
had been used for thousands of years in cultures which had an alphabetic
language, was in error, and English, an alphabetic language, should be taught as
if it were an hieroglyphic language. This ranks as one of the worst educational
decisions ever made in America. Mr. Blumenfeld comments that in Mann’s
time, there “was a climate of revolt against traditional academic discIpline, and
for many refonners the alphabet seemed to symbolize that discipline.” (pgs.

Despite the labors of Mann and his cronies, most American children were
taught to read via McGuffey’s readers and Webster’s spellers. Thus, throughout
the 19th century, most American children were not intellectually crippled by
the “look-say, whole-word” method. It was not until the 20th century that the
“second wave” of proponents made this method virtually universal, led by the
terrible trio of Francis Parker, G. Stanley Hall and Dewey. For these champions
of progressive education, the look-say method was perfect. It kept the students
sufficiently passive so that they could work toward their real goal, a new social
order. “The theory behind progressive education was that life adjustment, or
the development of the proper social spirit, was really the primary purpose of
education and that the traditional academiC approach in which the tools of
learning were first mastered was not appropriate for the new age of social
consciousness.” (pg. 156)

Thus, a foreign method of the teaching of reading was thrust upon the
children of America–“we have forced millions of children to read as if the
alphabet had never been invented. And we have seen an entire educational
system perverted to accommodate the illogic and confUSion of a defective
teaching method.” (pg. 214) The second half of this book is a phonics primer,
so that parents can teach their children how to read. It’s short, it’s simple, and
it works.

A final word from Mr. Blumenfeld. “When one begins to think of the
incalculable damage done to the young minds of America through defective
teaching techniques, one can scarcely contain one’s anger. (Rudolph) Flesch
was accused of writing in anger by his critics. as if anger were an inappropriate
reaction to gross pedagogical malpractice which has had a ruinous effect on the
literacy of millions of children … If it bothers you to see children suffering and
failing needlessly because of defective teaching methods obstinately adhered to
against all criticism. you will become angry … While researching this book I
have been amazed at the coolness of the leading members of the sight­
vocabulary establishment, the detached way in which they have been able to
catalog and discuss all of the things that were wrong with normal children who
couldn’t learn to read by way of an outmoded method discarded by the deaf. If
there is one thing these teachers have lacked it is humility. and a teacher
without humility is no teacher at all. Their stupidity has only been excelled by
their pride and their greed.” (pg. 21)