Three Reasons Why Many Never Learn To Read

#1 Reading is difficult because English is confusing

Throughout history, a variety of different writing systems have been developed. Two cultures – the Sumerians and the Chinese developed syllable based writing systems, and researchers have found that all other cultures used some type of sound-based unit for their writing system (McGuinness 1997, page 56). In order to develop efficient writing systems, the goal was to minimize the number of symbols that needed to be memorized. If a language allowed, use of an alphabet was avoided. The Phoenicians, for example, developed an early writing system that was partly like an alphabet, using only consonant sounds. Another type of writing system is the consonant-vowel (or CV) writing systems, which is also called a diphone system (diphone means two sounds in Greek).

Our English language could not be written using a diphone system for two major reasons. First of all, the English language has a complex syllable structure. It has 15 possible syllable structures instead of just a simple CV pattern like a baby saying ‘da-da’ or ‘ma-ma’. Secondly, due to its Germanic roots, English frequently uses consonant clusters (two or three consonants together like: stretch, brunch, thrift, cramp, etc.). A syllable-based system would not have worked for English either since English sounds can combine to form over 55,000 syllables. As a result, English must be written with an alphabet, although its an imperfect alphabet at that!

So what does an ideal alphabet look like? A true phonemic alphabet uses the most basic sound units (phonemes) that people can hear and gives each individual sound a unique symbol (what we refer to as letters). The alphabetic code should have no alternative spellings for a sound, and the symbols should not overlap to represent more than one sound. If an alphabet is designed in this fashion and taught properly, it can be a very efficient way to teach reading and writing. The Greeks were the first to develop such a system when they had one symbol for each consonant and each vowel sound.

Lets see how English measures up to these strict standards of a pure and efficient writing system. The biggest problem with English is that there is not a perfect one-to-one correlation between the sounds and letters. English has a 26-letter alphabet; however, it contains 43 sounds (26 consonants and 17 vowels). To make up for this shortage of letters, the use of two letters is often required to represent a single sound (as in ch, ng, qu, sh and th). Furthermore, four letters (c,x,w,y) are essentially useless because they borrow sounds represented by other letters. For example, the letter c borrows the sounds /k/ as in cat and /s/ as in city.

Another problem stems from the fact that only a few sounds are consistently represented by just one symbol (as with the letters b, d, p). In fact, its more common for a sound to have multiple spellings. For example: the /o-e/ sound can be spelled in many different ways: coke, total, boat, flow, sew, and dough. Furthermore, some letter combinations can overlap to represent numerous sounds. For example, the letter u is involved in several vowel sounds: cut, full, cute, burn, and ruin. As this analysis clearly illustrates, English is far from being a perfect alphabetic writing system.

Reading English is also difficult because auditory analysis (the ungluing and examination of distinct phonemes in words) is an extremely demanding task. Writing alphabetically forces us to divide sounds in abnormal ways that are very different from how we talk. For example, we hear our friends ask us, Howuzyorday? as if they are saying one complete word instead of as isolated sounds and words. We also have a difficult time hearing distinct sounds in consonant clusters (like str, spr, ntch) or hearing consonants separate from vowels (to illustrate try to say /d/ and not duh). Once phonemes are blended together into full words, the task of identifying the individual sounds in a word becomes extremely difficult.

#2 Reading is difficult because many lack the required underlying processing skills

Parents, researchers, and educators have long wondered why some children fail to learn to read when other children in the same classroom with the same curriculum have learned to read. Is there something wrong with those that fail to read? Do they have some sort of disorder? Lets examine the research to see what factors do and do not play a role in reading failure.

Dyslexia is a common diagnosis for individuals with reading problems. Its a Greek word meaning poor with words, poor reading, or a disturbance of the ability to read. Those who believe that poor reading is due to a neurological disorder often use the term. The problem, however, is that this fails to consider normal variations of mental skills or abilities. Remember that reading has been invented and is not an innate, biological capacity of just one part of the brain. In fact, we actually use numerous parts of our brain to read. Deficiencies in particular mental skills – most often due to normal variation, not brain damage – are the neurological basis for a reading problem. Twenty years of research on the brain have conclusively shown that those diagnosed dyslexic do not have damage to any part of the brain (McGuinness 1997, page 118).

Others maintain that many children struggle with reading because of their learning disabilities. The problem, however, is that a learning disability is not an objective, clear-cut diagnosis. Federal guidelines, under Public Law 94-142, set the criteria for the diagnosis of learning disabilities and funding for special education services. These guidelines utilize a discrepancy model to determine if there is a gap between IQ and reading (achievement). If the reading scores are approximately two years or more below the IQ (mental skills) scores, the student is labeled learning disabled (LD) and the school receives funding. Research indicates that the label for learning disabilities based upon the discrepancy model does not significantly correlate with reading scores (Fletcher, et al. 1994). Research has also found, however, that students with reading problems, regardless of IQ, score poorly on a test measuring the ability to analyze individual sounds in words (Pennington, et al. 1992).

Numerous other studies have also demonstrated a high correlation between the ability to read and understand text and the ability to hear and manipulate sounds in words (Rosner and Simon 1971; Calfee, Lindamood and Lindamood 1973; Liberman, et al. 1974). Although this skill has been called many different things (auditory processing, phonemic awareness, phonetic awareness, phonological awareness, or phonological processing), it can be summarized as the ability to ‘unglue’ sounds in words, blend sounds to form words, and analyze sounds within words. In other words, many students with reading problems struggle to hear, analyze, and separate the individual phonemes in words. Furthermore, it has been shown that children dont automatically learn to segment words into sounds simply because they are exposed to a reading system (Liberman, et al. 1974). In summary, research consistently shows that phonemic awareness is the major predictor of reading ability, independent of reading scores themselves (McGuinness 1997, page 133).

Other research has found that many poor readers struggle with verbal short-term memory as well. These students have more trouble repeating back lists of letters or words in a given sequence (house, car, fork, ball, etc.) and have abnormally slow naming times when they are presented with a list of pictures, letters, or digits (Liberman, et al. 1974; Denckla and Rudel 1976).

Yet another group of poor readers are those who have severe speech problems. These students have trouble hearing rapid transitions between individual speech sounds (particularly consonant contrasts like /ba/ to /da/). This ability to discriminate contrast between consonant clusters can be easily trained, however. Although individuals with severe speech problems can struggle with reading, severe speech disorders affect only a very small number of children, three percent or less according the National Speech and Hearing Survey (Hull, et al. 1971).

Other factors that impact learning to read to a lesser degree include attention and visual processing. Although attention is important for every learning task, visual processing plays its greatest role in reading comprehension. Inheritance is also a factor, but poor reading is not inherited (McGuinness 1997, page 125). Reading cannot be coded in genes anymore than any other skills such as typing or playing the piano. What may be inherited is not a reading problem, but the tendency to have difficulty blending, segmenting, and analyzing sounds. Once again, however, these problems can be corrected

#3 Reading is difficult because it is often taught incorrectly

By the start of the twentieth century in the United States, larger class sizes, age grouping, and teachers lecturing from the front of the class became the norm. All students were expected to do the same thing at the same time. Under this system, many children have struggled to learn to read, so a variety of different approaches to reading instruction have been used in the hope of finding a better approach. Unfortunately, each strategy has failed a large percentage of our students. Various teaching methods have become educational buzzwords and then fallen from favor again. These include phonics, look-say, whole language, and mixes of the others. Educators swing from one end of the spectrum to the other in terms of what is the right way to teach reading. Lets quickly look at these various methodologies, and why they have failed to teach so many students to read.

Jeanne Chall wrote a well-known book called, Learning to Read: The Great Debate (1967). In it she pointed out that reading methods were generally on one end of the spectrum or the other: phonics or read for meaning/whole word approaches. Although at the time of her writing (1967), the look-say method was the whole word approach, today many see that the debate still centers around only two choices: phonics or whole language. In order to better understand the debate, lets take a closer look at each method.

Whole word, read for meaning methods like whole language, and especially look-say which preceded it, are based on the central assumption that reading develops naturally in the same way as speaking does. Proponents of whole language begin with the premise that children can easily memorize letter patterns standing for whole words as they are exposed to good literature. These experts believe that meaning can be readily derived from context clues, pictures, sentence structure, grammar, the appearance of the full word, and a natural understanding of sound patterns in speech. Essentially, they hold that readers should use the least amount of information possible to make the best guess possible, rather than sounding out words letter by letter (Goodman 1976).

Research indicates that whole language-type approaches are highly ineffective, however. First of all, a whole word writing system cant work because evidence indicates that there is a natural limit on human memory of approximately 2000 symbols (McGuinness 1997, page 45). We simply cannot memorize by sight all of the English words commonly used in writing. Furthermore, the assumption that children will naturally be sensitive to individual phonemes has been repeatedly disproven (McGuinness 1997, page 72). In summary, whole language or look-say approaches are not effective reading instruction approaches (McGuinness 1997, page 55).

In response to the failure of whole language, there has been a revival of phonics (Greek for sounds)a revival of the principles of Rudolph Fleschs book (1955) Why Johnny Cant Read which popularized the need to return to memorizing the sounds of our letters. Phonics has varied meanings in educational circles today but is broadly understood to represent any program teaching sounds versus whole language. According to Websters Dictionary, phonics is a method of teaching beginners to read and pronounce words by learning the phonetic value of letters, letter groups, especially syllables. In other words, phonics teaches, letters have sounds. This definition seems to describe the overwhelming majority of today’s phonics programs aptly and reveals the fundamental flaw of all such programs: they teach the alphabetic principle backwards! They instruct that letters have sounds, rather than teaching that our speech has sounds, which are represented in writing by letters.

Furthermore, we have 26 letters but 43 sounds in the English language. Phonics programs fail to teach all 43 phonemes and all of the alternative spellings for those sounds. They teach a number of reading and spelling rules, which actually fail a large percentage of the time. They do not teach or bring to an automatic level, skills of phoneme analysis, segmenting, and blending. Phonics programs also use misleading and incorrect language by consistently referring to silent letters, long and short vowels, etc. Additionally, they often teach consonant clusters and word families are often taught incorrectly as only one sound. Although this just briefly highlights some of the major weaknesses of phonics programs, you can begin to see why even the best phonics programs have a fail rate of around 30 percent (McGuinness 1997, page 345).

While many simplify the debate about which approach to reading is best to a choice between phonics or whole language, other reading programs try to blend bits and pieces of both approaches. Due to the shortcomings of each approach separately, however, these blended approaches also fall far short of what is required to teach all children to read. Combining two poor approaches does not result in a fantastic reading program! In fact, an eclectic approach, with over 40% failure, wastes three years and derails many children (McGuinness 1997, page 33).