A Recent Newspaper Editorial on Literacy
Have you ever felt compassion for a huge group of people because of a very serious problem that they have that you know how to solve but which almost no one in the group has the remotest idea how to solve? I have. Please consider this quote from the first two paragraphs of a recent editorial about reading education in the Washington Post.
“Many people, famous and not so famous, took time out last week to read to schoolchildren as part of the annual Read Across America Day, which encourages young people to read. They had their work cut out for them, because the sad reality is that two-thirds [66 percent] of students in this country can’t meet the critical literacy milestone of reading on grade level by third grade. For disadvantaged children, the numbers are even grimmer, with some four-fifths [80 percent] not proficient. It’s an urgent problem that demands more than a day’s attention, and that’s why a new campaign to help children learn to read earlier is so important.”
The article then tells about “The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading,” involving the efforts of 70 foundations and donors, headed by Ralph Smith of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. If efforts to get students reading on grade-level by fourth grade are unsuccessful, the students are at increased risk of never graduating high school. This campaign claims to be different from numerous similar campaigns over the last half-century in that in addition to focusing on improvements in school instruction, it also focuses on the following:
- Involve the parents and the larger community.
- Raise standards and do something about low-performing schools.
- Pay attention to prenatal health.
- Teach parents the importance of verbal interaction with children who have not yet started speaking.
- Line up activities with what is being taught in early grades to strengthen preschool.
- Pay special attention to students who are chronically absent in early grades.
- Use more imaginative ideas for combating the loss of learning during the summer months.
The article ends with the admission that it is unlikely that there will be the vast new financial resources needed for this effort, and that Arne Duncan, the U.S. Education Secretary, will be trying to initiate planning and legislation to help fund this effort.
What the article did not mention, however, is the great difficulty in getting enough parents “and the larger community” to take any effective action to make any statistically significant improvement. Most parents today must spend so much time and energy in simply “making a living” that there is little time or energy left for concentrating on what they should be doing that the schools cannot do for their children. The schools would undoubtedly like parents and the community to be involved in some way in all of the listed items except item 2 — if they are in a low-performing school.
Furthermore, most present-day parents believe that teaching children to read is something that the schools should do or that only the schools can do. We have, of course, many examples of schools which have raised their standards. If the problem were simply that most of the students do not try hard enough, this might have some measure of success. The main effect of raising the standards, however, often does nothing more than “flunking out” the poorer students. With only the better students left, there is an appearance of improvement, but it is only at the expense of the poorer students.
What is obviously needed, instead, is an improvement in the teaching so that everyone can succeed. More importantly, the article gave absolutely no hint of why students have such difficulty in learning to read, when compared to students in other nations. Or, to put it in question form, why do so many students become “functionally illiterate”? In the U.S., as this Washington Post article states, from 66 percent to 80 percent of students entering fourth grade cannot read at grade level. This translates into a U.S. adult population in which 48.7% of them are functionally illiterate — defined as being unable to read and write well enough to hold an above-poverty-level-wage job — as proven by an analysis of the Adult Literacy in America study, the most comprehensive and statistically accurate study ever commissioned by the U.S. government. The findings in this study were verified by a 2006 follow-up literacy report.
The inability to read and write well enough to hold an above-poverty-level-wage job is the most accurate and reliable indicator of functional illiteracy because employers have a serious financial interest in accurately determining if a prospective employee can read and write well enough to be a profitable employee. All other methods are subject to unintentional (or even intentional) manipulation by the choice of time period, size, and subjects of the data base and by the choice of methods for gathering and calculating data. Almost every American student can read at least a thousand simple words they learn by sight in the first three grades in school. If that is all they can read, however, they are functionally illiterate. They read very poorly, do not like to read, and seldom try to read. Almost half of adults never read an entire book after leaving school.
The Provable CAUSE of Illiteracy in English
How can anyone possibly solve a problem if they do not know what is causing it? All anyone can do if they do not know the cause of the problem is to try to reduce the symptoms of the problem.
Stated very simply:
What is the problem? Learning to read English is very difficult.
What are the symptoms of the problem? About half of American students never become fluent readers without a year or more of one-on-one tutoring by a competent tutor. Most of those students who do become fluent readers require at least two years to learn to read well enough that they can continue to improve their reading skills after third or fourth grade in school, after which all but remedial reading instruction ends in most American schools.
What have we been doing about the problem of illiteracy in English for over 250 years?We have been fighting the symptoms of illiteracy by trying to get a higher percentage of fluent readers and trying to teach them to read sooner, so that they become fluent readers before reading instruction ends (in third or fourth grade). We attempt this by various methods: better school facilities, better reading textbooks, better teachers, or new and better teaching methods. Everyone blames a lack of one of these “better methods”
or they blame the students for not trying hard enough
or blame the parents for not helping and encouraging the student
or they blame a multitude of pleasant activities that students spend time on instead of studying
or they blame a large number of problems adversely affecting the students;
but we never correct the one aspect of learning to read that affects every student — the problem causing learning to read English to be so difficult.
Most people who learn to read learned as a child and have long ago forgotten the difficulty they had. Their eyes glide easily over a multitude of traps for beginning readers. After reading instruction ends and before students become fluent they must be able to guess at the meaning of unfamiliar words by knowing the context or they must find the word in a dictionary. In short, students learning to read English must add words to their reading vocabulary one-at-a-time by rote memory or by repeated use of a word to become literate.
This characteristic of learning to read (adding words one-at-a-time to your reading vocabulary) is unique to English. In alphabetic languages other than English, students who know the pronunciation of the word also know the spelling of the word. After students in other languages learn which letters represent which sounds in their language and how to blend those sounds into words, which takes from one day to twenty days in as many as 95 percent of the languages and as long as three months in a very small percentage of the languages, every word in their speaking vocabulary is also in their reading vocabulary.
Very few people realize that students of about 98 percent of alphabetic languages can learn to read fluently in less than three months. Most of all, they do not realize that English is not an alphabetic language — it is a logographic writing system like Chinese writing. In the same way that a certain stroke in a certain position represents a word or part of a word in Chinese, certain letters in a certain order represent a word in English. As a result, like Chinese writing, every word in a person’s reading vocabulary must be learned one-at-a-time by rote memory or by repeated use of the word.
Unlike the invariable representation of words in Chinese writing, however, with English spelling the human mind searches for logic in the arrangement of the letters and is confused by so seldom finding any logic. Often, when the problems with English spelling are highlighted, some people feel the need to “defend our Mother Tongue.” They will say, “English is a beautiful language” or “After all, I learned to read, and I’m no genius.” But any thoughtful person cannot help but wonder how “beautiful” those struggling to learn to read consider the English language.
Those aware of the shocking failure rate in learning to read English cannot logically defend English spelling, especially when they consider the following facts. Many people will claim that if we just returned to teaching phonics, the problem would be solved. Many teachers, however, will claim correctly that English is not phonetic. It is true that if you choose only one way of spelling each of the phonemes (the smallest sound in a language or dialect used to distinguish between syllables or words), about 20 percent of English words are phonetic. The problem is that there is absolutely no way of knowing which words are phonetic and which are not.
The lack of logic in English spelling is because when Dr. Samuel Johnson prepared his well-received dictionary in 1755, he used the spelling of each word as he believed it was spelled in its language of origin — and he was sometimes mistaken. In 1755 English was a conglomeration of eight languages, the original Celtic and that of every conquering nation that occupied England prior to that time: Norse, Icelandic, Latin, Anglo-Saxon, German, Danish, and French. Since that time, according to Henry Hitchings, in his book, The Secret Life of Words, words from an additional 350 languages have been adopted into the English language, often with the original spelling.
Furthermore, Professor Julius Nyikos of Washington and Jefferson College, in an article titled “A Linguistic Perspective of Functional Illiteracy” in The Fourteenth LACUS [Linguistic Association of Canada and the United States] Forum 1987,detailed his extensive study of six standard desk-size dictionaries in which he found 1,768 ways of spelling 40 phonemes! Logically speaking, a “true alphabetic language” should have only one way of spelling each phoneme. As a result, there is not even ONE English spelling rule that does not have exceptions — and some of the exceptions have exceptions! A computer programmed with 203 English spelling rules was able to correctly spell only 49 percent of a list of 17,000 common English words. Very few humans could match this computer’s performance!
To be a logical alphabetic spelling system, there should a one-to-one correspondence of phonemes and graphemes (a grapheme is a letter or a specific combination of letters used to represent each phoneme). How bad is English spelling? A student can learn to read English by knowing the spelling (letter or letters used, i.e. the grapheme used) for 38 phonemes. Ideally, since there are 26 letters in our alphabet, we could spell all words with 26 single letters and 12 two-letter graphemes. Instead, in present English spelling, in addition to 26 single letters, we have at least 184 two-letter graphemes, at least 131 three-letter graphemes, at least 22 four-letter graphemes, and at least four five-letter graphemes! That is a total of 367 graphemes when only 38 are needed!
For Reading (How do you pronounce or what sound do you think of when you see a certain grapheme?): Since there are only 38 phonemes, a large number of these graphemes obviously respresent more than one phoneme. In fact, only five of the graphemes (B, K, P, R, and V) represent only one phoneme; all of the other graphemes represent from two to six or more different phonemes. Adding to the confusion, however, all but six of the single graphemes (H, Q, U, W, X, and Y) are doubled in some words and not in others, and there is no reliable way of knowing when a letter is to be doubled!
For Spelling (What grapheme do you choose when writing a certain phoneme or pronunciation?) Two phonemes (H as in hat and TH as in then) are spelled with only (!) four different graphemes; the phoneme U as in nut is spelled with at least sixty different graphemes!
NOTE: Most English-speaking people do not realize that the number of pronunciations of a letter or letters compared to the number of letters available to spell the sounds are not different in other languages as they are in English.
If you cannot learn by spelling rules, the only alternative is to learn each new word added to your reading vocabulary, one-at-a-time, by rote memory or by repeated use of the word. Most fluent readers have a reading vocabulary of 20,000 or more words. Some readers have reading vocabularies of more than 70,000 words.
Another Recent Newspaper Editorial On Literacy
A recent editorial in the Salt Lake Tribune proclaimed the need for teaching Utah students to read. It begins with the obvious statement that “Literacy is not only the key to a life-sustaining career, it is the doorway to all other learning. Or, as the saying goes, ‘First a student learns to read, and then reads to learn.’” The editorial then stated that it is in the preschool years when the seeds of reading proficiency are sown and bemoaned the fact that the Utah legislature in session at the time had not properly funded preschool teaching. The irony is that I personally presented a request to Vern Anderson, the Editorial Page Editor of the Salt Lake Tribune a couple of years ago to publish an article on their editorial page which would explain how to definitely and permanently solve the problem of learning to read English.
Instead of continuing for century after century to fight the symptoms of our ridiculous spelling, my article advocated solving the problem of English spelling by making our words phonemic, like the words of all of the alphabetic languages in the world. My article was summarily rejected because Mr. Anderson said the policies of the Salt Lake Tribune did not allow publication of articles advocating a product (in other words, my book). Articles on the Salt Lake Tribune’s editorial pages must be so short that in order to present enough of the case for spelling reform to have a chance of being convincing, it was necessary to refer the reader to my book for all the missing facts which would justify what the editorial staff may have thought was “too radical.” Those are the words of rejection I received from the editor of the book review pages to whom I had presented a copy of my book and a proposed book review article a few months earlier.
Without understanding the details of how serious and widespread the problem of English illiteracy really is and how easily it could be solved with a perfectly phonemic spelling system, it was evidently inconceivable to the Salt Lake Tribune staff that I was passionately concerned about solving the problem rather than about making money selling my book. If selling my book were my main objective, I would have given up 24 years ago. I am admittedly a very poor marketer. Since 1985, when I began my humanitarian project of ending English illiteracy, I have spent at least $40,000 more than I have earned from book sales. My biggest expense was for review copies. I have mailed hundreds of free copies to reviewers and have spent thousands of dollars on marketing programs and related expenses. I firmly believe, however, that many people would be willing to invest large sums of money if they understood how seriously every English-speaking person on earth — and not just the illiterates — is affected by our inconsistent, illogical, and chaotic spelling.
Some people are such skeptics that absolutely nothing can induce them to spend any of their precious time investigating the problem of English illiteracy. For those who are a little more rational, however, please allow me to challenge you to carefully, honestly examine the facts presented on our ending functional illiteracy in English website.
This website gives a good introduction to the humanitarian project for ending illiteracy of two non-profit organizations, Literacy Research Associates, Inc. and NuEnglish, Inc. If you are even a little compassionate about the serious physical, mental, emotional, medical, and financial problems of illiterates — problems that we would consider a crisis if we had to endure them — let me challenge you to examine this website. Reading the home page will take only six minutes. Each of the five brief statements about the problem and six brief statements about the solution are proven by the “Read More” pages. If you are not in the mood to read, please watch the video by clicking on “Media Page” near the top of the left-hand column.
If you are still not convinced to join in this humanitarian project, the problem is so serious that you are challenged to read the much more complete and authoritative information found in Let’s End Our Literacy Crisis, Revised Edition about our literacy crisis found on Amazon.com. This website has an editorial review by Dr. Robert S. Laubach, President Emeritus of Laubach Literacy International (which has now joined with Literacy Volunteers of America to form ProLiteracy, Inc.) and ten customer reviews, nine of them five star (the maximum) and one of them a four star review. Some of these reviewers are “Amazon Top 500 Reviewers.” The website also has a good explanation of how the humanitarian project of ending illiteracy evolved in the section “More About the Author” in the middle of the page.
For those who doubt my passion in helping an estimated 600 million English-speaking people around the world who are functionallly illiterate in English and desperately hoping we will help them: I am now offering Let’s End Our Literacy Crisis, Second Revision at no cost or obligation of any kind on our http://LearnToReadNow.org website’s home page. This is a 265-page e-book version of the award-winning Let’s End Our Literacy Crisis, originally published in 2005. The second revision was self-published in late 2012. It is updated with 20 pages of front matter, 164 pages of text, 8 Appendixes in 46 pages, 178 extensive notes and references, a Glossary, an extensive bibliography, an index, and other end matter. It is available in .pdf format by clicking in the left-hand column of the home page.
As you no doubt know, no project — no matter how worthy — can succeed without publicity. If you know personally a person of influence, such as Vern Anderson of the Salt Lake Tribune or Ralph Smith of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, or Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education, or any of the well known celebrities who have expressed an interest in education, literacy, or dyslexia (Andre Agassi, Troy Aikman, Julie Andrews, Jeff Bridges, Garth Brooks, Jimmy Buffet, Jose Carreras, Cher, Deepak Chopra, Bill Cosby, Tom Cruise, Jamie Lee Curtis, Neil Diamond, Michael J. Fox, Whoopi Goldberg, Jeff Goldblum, Tom Green, Valerie Harper, Faith Hill, Mick Jagger, George Lucas, Yo-Yo Ma, Wynton Marsalis, Dr. Phil McGraw, Rupert Murdoch, Dolly Parton, Itzhak Perlman, Keanu Reeves, Rob Reiner, Geraldo Rivera, Nolan Ryan, Carlos Santana, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Maria Shriver, Sylvester Stallone, Elizabeth Taylor, Charlize Theron, Justin Timberlake, John Travolta, Selena Williams, Oprah Winfrey, Princess Beatrice, Halle Berry, Christopher (Ludacris) Bridges, Sergey Brin, Warren Buffet, William J. Clinton, Phil Collins, Michael S. Dell, Matt Dillon, William H. Gates, Wayne Gretzky, Tom Hanks, Goldie Hawn, Samuel L. Jackson, Earvin (Magic) Johnson Jr., Angelina Jolie, Jon Bon Jovi, Ashley Judd, Jessica Lange, Jay Leno, Lindsay Lohan, Yao Ming, Mike Myers, Lou Diamond Phillips, J.K. Rowling, Kurt Russell, Brooke Shields, Gary Sinise, Sharon Stone, Alex Trebek, Denzel Washington, or Kate Winslet) or you know someone who knows them personally, for the sake of hundreds of millions of English-speaking people around the world who are functionally illiterate in English — including more than 93 million in the U.S. alone — please urge them to examine our website, http://LearnToReadNow.org.