Why Can’t American Children Read?

Why can’t children read? To start, the age of English, the difficulty of memorizing English spellings,. and the dull nature of phonics reps.

Many years ago, a parent of a friend was a high school teacher in a rural district. He told us, “There are these kids, maybe four or five per class, and they can’t read at all. I had to create a special curriculum for them that doesn’t require reading. I don’t know how this happened, but they’re in high school and they are illiterate.”

Why can't children read -- it's phonics and it's the age of the English language too.

This was 1980 or so. The problem is not new. It has been ongoing.

Emily Hanford Broke this Story, 40 Years After the Case Should Have Been Closed

Emily Hanford is a journalist who has been working the “why children can’t read” story line for the past ten years. She shocked the country with her claim that in the average American 4th grade, 65% of them were low in reading. Most laymen said “but that’s impossible.” But generally, the data doesn’t lie. And my experience as a 4th grade teacher bears her out. So what happened?

There is more than one reason. But one that’s received attention of late is the lack of knowledge about teaching reading in our everyday classrooms.

A Teacher Discussion Led to This Blog Post

This week I was delivering a set of phonics flash cards to one of the second grade teachers, and we started discussing the teaching of the phonics sequence in second grade, which phonograms you teach first, and which ones later. When you should review.

We discussed questions such as what is a dipthong, what type of phonogram is igh? “Really,” she said, “I graduated in elementary education but they didn’t teach us much about phonics at all. Do you think you could hold a training in the fall so that you could share more about phonics and how to teach it?

I wondered if that would be possible. Is there time for an everyday interventionist to give PD to the school?

But say they did give me a PD. What would I tell teachers? What is the foundation of why students can’t read, and what do we do about it?  

I guess I would start at the beginning.

Why is English so hard to learn to read?

English is harder to read than other languages because it is so old, and because it comes from several different languages: Old German, French, Latin and Greek, to name a few, each of which has its own spelling conventions.  English has a huge vocabulary and many spelling rules. The English vocabulary, at about 600,000 words, dwarfs most other modern languages. Spanish has 80,000 words, French 130,000, even Chinese, spoken by far more people, has only 370,000.

What’s more, in a thousand years the pronunciation of the many words in English has changed dramatically. This is why we have spellings such as “ough” which makes six different sounds. In time, words which are hard to say change. Look at “said.” Originally, it would have been say-ed. If you look at the phonics, you spell it s-ai-d, phonetically for the old pronunciation. But, people don’t like to say, “say-ed.” They use a schwa, and the word becomes “sed.”

English is not Just Old, It’s an Old, *Written* Language

Since English has been, since very early, a written language, it retains many old spellings for earlier pronunciations. That’s why college students can still read Chaucer, (with margin notes) who wrote in the 14th century.  

English is also the common language of world communication, spoken as a second language by about 750 million people. It is the most common second language in countries around the world.

This being the case, when we struggle to teach reading to first graders, we struggle for their well being. Writing, speaking and reading English is sought by many. The work we teachers do with children imparts something valuable. Other languages are valuable too. But if English is the most commonly studied second language, doesn’t that make you wonder if it’s very valuable, as well, as a first language?

So, English is an old, well established language with a huge vocabulary. That’s one reason why can’t children read — because there are so many ways to spell our words. There’s just more to memorize.

And what does that have to do with phonics? Is phonics why can’t children read?

Well, these foundational aspects of English are the reason why there are so many unique spellings in English. Theoretically, one should be able to teach the children the sounds of 26 letters and set them loose. In Spanish, that’s basically possible. Unfortunately, for us, it’s not that simple. English has, according to the Orton-Gillingham line, 77 phonograms or letters and sets of letters that make sounds. For struggling readers, all these sounds and the letters that signify them must be taught, painstakingly, to the student.

There are two types of phonics, explicit phonics and implicit phonics. Implicit phonics are what you get when you “learn by doing” where the teacher reads the book and somehow, miraculously, the student is reading. It is not a lie that this happens. Actually, it happens often. Many students seem to have a special knack for identifying and memorizing spelling patterns. And once they’ve learned the 26 letters of the alphabet, they can infer the spelling patterns. Most naturally skilled readers can do this.

“Inferential” Phonics Works for Many, But Also Leaves Many Behind

The problem is that many students struggle to learn reading this way. They cannot discern the sounds from listening and reading along and applying the 26 letters to make new constructions in their heads. These students need explicit, advanced phonics, which are the letters and sets of letters, followed by the sound or sounds made by that letter or letters. The name for an individual sound-making letter or letters is a phonogram. Phono, from sound, gram from write. The sounds written. Many students need to memorize them all.

If I did my own PD for teachers at my school, or any primary teachers, I would give the following instruction:

I would provide the teachers with the list below, showing all the phonograms and when I would introduce them. I adapted this list from the teaching standards in California, of all things.

Teaching Phonics is Time Consuming

If you ask why can’t children read in your class, you will find in the vast majority of cases, they don’t have complete grasp of the English phonics system. You have to teach them. This is rote work. When teaching phonics you’ve got to show the phonogram, ask the student to produce it, and then if they don’t’ know it, in three seconds, you tell them. There’s no point in wasting longer. “Think time” does not apply to phonics, it applies to higher order questions. Some kids need ten reps, and some need 200. There’s no telling why this is. Some kids have other problems, in particular, blending difficulties or a tendency to rearrange the letters when producing the sounds. These difficulties can generally be addressed, but it takes time. For more on why this is difficult, consider Phonics in Primary is Hard — What Happens When You’re Getting Tired?

I would tell them that teaching phonics is often super tedious and that I sometimes think this is the true reason they fell out of favor. However, if that is the truth it’s a travesty, because it would be a case of the students’ needs being subjugated to the convenience of the teacher. Yes, I know it’s more fun to read The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, but reading that book, even if you read it over and over, won’t teach the class to read.

Phonics Isn’t Everything — But It’s Pretty Much the First Thing

I would tell them that those pundits who are saying phonics isn’t everything are right. But before you teach the class comprehension and love of literature, they’ve got to be able to access that literature. Without decoding skills the students won’t be able to do this. And that’s why phonics is so important.

I would give them the Orton Gillingham cards I gave to the second grade teacher above. I would suggest that they use them in small group with struggling readers. These cards are keyed to the Phonics Based Assessment we use at our school.

I would encourage them, at any rate, to choose an intervention for students who are low in phonics, and use a phonics assessment (perhaps like this digital one at Wham Phonics) every two or three weeks. If the intervention is working, keep doing it. If it’s not, try something else.

Phonics takes Patience and Practice — For Both Student and Teacher

I would tell them that teaching phonics explicitly takes practice and patience, but even if they just practice with the students every day for two or three minutes from the flash cards, they will see results.

I would tell them that there’s time for us to develop our phonics and other instructional knowledge. We need to avoid complacency and going down blind alleys (not to mention, I would add, too much time on computer screens). But the opportunity to be an effective instructor of children, in reading, and in all the subjects, is out there. It just needs to be developed.

Most teachers will have years to do this. The idea that we’re going to just give everyone an extra course at university and fix the problem isn’t realistic. As my friend Kim says, teaching is mostly on the job training. And phonics knowledge, and perhaps more importantly the knowledge of how to impart phonics knowledge, takes time to develop.

You can’t just snap your fingers and have it be there.

And that’s a thumbnail sketch of why can’t children read.

1 thought on “Why Can’t American Children Read?”

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