Phonics versus Look-and-Say

The problem of illiteracy perplexes American educators. One possible explanation for illiteracy is that Americans abandoned the old method that was highly successful (phonics) for a new method that has proven a failure (look-and-say):

“In 1955, Rudolf Flesch published Why Johnny Can’t Read, which explained precisely why the problem with reading instruction in U.S. schools. He said, ‘So, ever since 1500 B.C. people all over the world–wherever an alphabetic system of writing was used–learned how to read and write by the simple process of memorizing the sound of each letter in the alphabet…This is not miraculous, it’s the only natural system of learning how to read.’ Flesch notes that every single nation throughout history with an alphabet taught reading in this way–except ‘twentieth-century Americans–and other nations insofar as they followed our example. And what do we use instead?…We have decided to forget that we write with letters and learn to read English as if it were Chinese.’

“The educational establishment did not respond well to Flesch’s observations. For example, in the NEA Journal Flesch was accused of trying to ‘discredit American education.’ In November of 1955, the Journal published another attack on Flesch entitled ‘Why Can’t Rudy Read.’ It was apparent rather quickly that Flesch had hit a nerve. Although the NEA reacted to his criticism, the continued problems we have with illiteracy show that they did not learn from it. In 1981, Flesch published another book entitled Why John Still Can’t Read. He reported on the progress since his first book. There hasn’t been much. ‘Unfortunately my advice fell on deaf ears. With heart-breaking slowness, phonics-first crept into some 15 percent of our schools, but an estimated 85 percent of them still stick to old discredited look-and-say. The results of this mass miseducation have been disastrous.'”

~From Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning by Doug Wilson



One thought on “Phonics versus Look-and-Say

  1. Mortimer Adler, I think, would agree to an extent. His focus, though, is that the education system doesn’t teach any reading levels beyond elementary reading. As a result, people aren’t good readers. We never learn how to read inspectionally, analytically, or syntopically. Those are covered in How to Read a Book, which, if you haven’t read, I recommend. I still need to read it analytically so I can’t lend it to you right now, but if you’re willing to wait a long time, I’ll lend it to you.

    Interestingly, there are some newer educational materials that teach phonics. LeapFrog tends to do that, actually. They show a letter and say, “‘B’ makes the ‘buh’ sound.” I didn’t realize how uncommon that was.


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