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Rudolph Flesch points out the elephant in the room...

By 1955, the American academic elite had come to an almost universal conclusion: phonics was dangerous. In that year the most eminent publication on reading instruction, ‘The Reading Teacher’ in its editorial penned by the ‘distinguished’ (Terman and Walcutt, 1958 p110) Emmett Betts concluded that children taught by a phonics approach ‘can call words but cannot read…’ (1955, p2). Phonics instruction was almost completely discarded and where it was utilised this manifested itself in remedial teaching after the second grade as part of a mixed-methods paradigm with a variety of alternative word attack strategies (Terman and Walcutt, 1958).

This was quite enough for one Austrian-born lawyer who had fled Europe and was residing in New York wondering why so many children couldn't read.

In 1955 Rudolph Flesch published ‘Why Johnny Can’t Read’: a coruscating, polemical attack on the prevailing ‘look and say’ methods that had been incubated and propagated by the powerful Chicago and Columbia Universities that dominated reading instruction in American schools. The book was a sensation and remained in the best-seller lists for thirty-two weeks. Flesch (1955) was emphatic: the only way to develop early reading was through systematic phonics instruction delivered at the earliest opportunity. He based his assertions on a clear and coherent analysis of eleven research papers which, he attested, emphatically supported the efficacy of phonics instruction over other methods, and he saved particular vitriol for Gates’s (1928) study and recommendation of incidental phonics.

At the heart of Flesch’s argument was his analysis of the Hay and Wingo (1968) systematic phonics programme ‘Reading with Phonics' (1968) which ensured children taught by the method were consistently above the national reading norms (Terman and Walcutt, 1958). In the Bedford Park school visited by Flesch that utilised the Hay and Wingo (1968) method there were no non-readers and all grade one children were able to read a newspaper report fluently. This aligned with the extensive study carried out in Champaign, Illinois by Hastings and Harris (1953) in which the experimental group outperformed the control group in reading assessments by twenty-five percent with all children fluent by the second grade.

‘Why Johnny Can’t Read’ is often seen as a watershed in reading education and the tipping point for the return of phonics as a reading instruction approach. It was no such thing, as evidenced by Flesch’s need to write the follow up book ‘Why Johnny Still Can’t Read’ (1981). It was Flesch’s abrasive style and evident outrage that almost certainly undermined his influence along with an implication that the publishers of the ‘look and say’ primers and the academics who wrote them were engaged in an elitist conspiracy. Although he had completed a PhD from Columbia University, he was treated as an academic parvenu by an establishment that closed ranks against him and his book which, although it sold well to a general public bemused as to why their children were unable to read, was largely ignored by the teaching community.

The academic community circled their wagons and fought back with a plethora of articles of riposte. The sternest and most influential defence against Flesch came from Harvard University’s Carroll (1956) who suggested that Flesch had distorted the research. Carroll (1956) accused Flesch of failing to discriminate between the different kinds of phonics instruction adopted in the studies thus misleading readers over whether or not phonics had actually been used. Flesch was rigorous in his distinguishing between the techniques being utilised as either systematic phonics or incidental phonics. Carroll (1956) was also critical that Flesch (1955) failed to demonstrate any tested phonics techniques that could aid reading instruction; this despite Flesch’s inclusion of a detailed description of the Hay and Wingo (1968) programme and the Bloomfield (1933) method.

It was Carroll’s reliance on and careful selection of the researcher conclusions of the analysed studies that was the least scientific criticism of Flesch and yet gained the most traction in the academic world. By cherry-picking any and every statement of doubt and ambivalence over a phonics approach, Carroll created the impression that although each study may indicate an advantage for phonics instruction, the researchers harboured serious doubts as to its efficacy. There was particular amplification of the divergence between phonics instruction’s positive effects for word reading but the higher scores on paragraph reading and fluency for those taught by the word-method and incidental phonics which were tested through comprehension and not decoding accuracy. Carroll is considered to be pivotal in influencing the academic world that Flesch (1955) was wrong and that the acknowledged authorities knew what they were doing and could be trusted (Terman and Walcutt, 1958).

Flesch’s polemical, outraged and aggressive literary style was his downfall. It is ironic that if he hadn’t been so forceful, he may have had greater influence and not been partly responsible for the continuation of a method that condemned many to a life of semi-literacy. He made one further error: he sighted England as the home of good sense: a phonics utopia where all were taught by his espoused method and where all could read fluently. It was no such place.

Perhaps Flesch had the last laugh, however. His book was read by England’s Schools’ Minister Nick Gibb (2018) who has championed the teaching of systematic synthetic phonics and had the political influence to establish a policy of early decoding instruction across the country allied with a resilience to ignore the resistance, prevarication and inertia of the teaching unions and the teacher training institutions and institute an accompanying assessment and monitoring protocol that has gone some way to raising reading standards.

Flesch (1955) can be attributed with one further triumph: his book was also read by Theodore Geisel who, as a direct result, penned ‘The Cat In The Hat’ (1957).

This blog is number 13 in a series of blogs.

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