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Why Our Children Can't Read and What We Can Do About It

A Scientific Revolution in Reading

About The Book

In America today, 43 percent of our children fall below grade level in reading. In her meticulously researched and groundbreaking work, Diane McGuinness faults outmoded reading systems for this crisis -- and provides the answers we need to give our children the reading skills they need. Drawing on twenty-five years of cutting-edge research, Dr. McGuinness presents bold new "phoneme awareness" programs that overcome the tremendous shortcomings of other systems by focusing on the crucial need to understand and hear reliably the sounds of a language before learning to read. Maintaining that any child can be taught to read fluently if given proper instruction, she dramatically reveals how dyslexia and behavior problems such as ADD stem not from neurological disorders but from flawed methods of reading instruction. With invaluable information on remedial reading programs that can correct various ineffective reading strategies, this book is a must for concerned parents, teachers, and others who want to make a difference.


The Jamesons were a model middle-class family. Jim and Pat had college degrees. Jim earned good money as an engineer, and Pat had a part-time consulting job setting up computer systems for small businesses. They were devoted parents to their three children, umpiring for little league, running car pools to diving lessons, dancing lessons, and soccer practice. They valued learning and read bedtime stories every night. They often consulted dictionaries and encyclopedias whenever one of the children introduced an unfamiliar topic. Dinner conversations were lively, and filled with accounts of the children's daily activities.
Their youngest son, Donny, started kindergarten after two years at a well-run preschool. Donny could recite the alphabet, write most of his letters, his first and last names, and could count to 2,000 if anyone would let him. In kindergarten, Donny got more practice reciting the alphabet, copying out letters, and memorizing "sight words." He could read several short words. During first grade he taught himself to read simple books and enjoyed writing stories about airplanes, guns, and robots. He got an A on his report card for Language Arts. His teacher said he was the "best reader in the class" Mom and Dad were pleased, the teacher was pleased, and Donny was pleased. As he told his Grandma: "I can read faster than anyone in the school."
In second grade the words got longer. Donny had trouble remembering all of them. He began to ask his friend, "What does this word say?" He would try to memorize it for the next time he saw it in a story. As the year went by, he had to ask his friend more and more often. Meanwhile, his stories got more interesting, and his handwriting a little neater. This year he wrote a lot about submarines. He could spell "submarine" correctly. The word was on the cover of five books he had at home and he practiced copying it over and over again. Here is one of his stories:
The Submarine Rtet
Kpn John tol hz cru fl sdm a ked. Takr dun. The submarine sek to the osn flor. It was qit. Tha cud ker the df crjz fling ner bi. But tha yr saf.
[The Submarine Retreat. Captain John told his crew full steam ahead. Take her down. The submarine sank to the ocean floor. It was quiet. They could hear the depth charges falling near by. But they were safe.]
This particular story, replete with spelling mistakes, was up on the wall on parents' night. Jim and Pat were alarmed. In fact, they had already discussed asking the teacher about Donny's written work. The teacher told them not to worry. She pointed out that Donny was a model student. He worked very hard. She asked them to notice the excellent vocabulary in the story (she was adept at reading her students' spelling). She asked them to notice that Donny was the only child who put a capital letter at the beginning of every sentence. She said that this was "transitional spelling." The children would be taught to spell with "conventional spelling" in third grade.
In the middle of second grade the children were given a nationally normed reading test. Donny scored just below "grade level," about average for his age. His teacher was pleased, because most of the children in her class were "at grade level," just where they should be. She was proud of her record in getting most children "at grade level" over the six years she had taught second grade.
In third grade the words got longer still. The books had more pages. Donny couldn't remember lots of these words, even when he asked several times. He had to guess so many of the words when he was reading that he couldn't make sense of the story. It helped a lot if there were pictures. Pat spent more time listening to Donny read and correcting his mistakes as they went along. Despite this extra tutoring, Donny's reading did not improve. When he wrote stories, they looked pretty much the same as "The Submarine Retreat." Paradoxically, Donny was the best speller in the class. His teacher told the Jamesons that his spelling was perfect. He got 100 percent week after week on the class spelling words. She said not to worry, because the "conventional spelling" he was learning would eventually transfer to his creative writing. "It just takes time." The teacher saw nothing odd about the fact that Donny's spelling was "perfect," yet he could scarcely spell a word in his creative writing.
At the end of third grade, Pat went to see the school counselor about Donny's poor skills. By now, she had discovered that Donny could memorize the week's spelling words long enough to pass the test, but forgot them completely only days later. The counselor said that Donny was "not severe," that there were scores of children worse than him, and there was a ten-month waiting list for testing. Instead, Pat and Jim got Donny tested by a school psychologist in private practice. It cost them $600.00. Donny was a year and a half behind in reading, two years behind in spelling, and had an IQ of 124. The school psychologist said he needed private tutoring. She said it could take up to two years, but that she didn't do private tutoring herself and couldn't recommend anyone.
They found a tutor in the Yellow Pages. The cost was $40.00 an hour, and Pat took on more consulting work to pay for the extra expense. Meanwhile, Pat and Jim didn't tell anyone about Donny's problem except the immediate family. They were embarrassed and upset. How had they failed their child? Why was it that Donny had these problems when the other two children were fine? Did he have some kind of brain damage? What would happen if the reading specialist couldn't teach Donny to read and spell? Mealtimes changed from joyful, happy occasions, to a tension-filled experience, as Donny was asked to tell everyone exactly what he had done in school, exactly how many pages he had read, and exactly what his spelling words were for that week. Pat accused Jim of not taking enough time with Donny, so Jim spent every evening listening to Donny read. Jim wasn't always patient ("I've told you that word a hundred times"), and the session often ended in tears. Pat and Jim read books on the subjects of "dyslexia" and "learning disabilities." Nothing they read held out much hope. While all this was going on, the other children were pushed into the background and became silently angry and resentful.
What is the ending to this story? It depends on whether Pat and Jim found the right reading clinic. If they did, they would be given an accurate diagnosis of Donny's problem. The clues are all contained in the story. Donny's problem was quite simple. He didn't understand the alphabet code because he had never been taught it. Instead, he was using letter names instead of "letter sounds" to create his own code ('captain' = "kay-pee-en" kpn), or trying to memorize whole words by sight. This made it impossible for him to decode text (read) and encode text (write and spell). There was nothing wrong with him. He had excellent auditory skills as shown by his use of letter names to spell sounds in words. He had a superb visual memory. Not many children can memorize a list of spelling words they can't read entirely by sight. He had a terrific vocabulary. These are the ingredients that should have produced an expert reader. A good reading specialist could teach Donny to read and spell in about twelve hours or less, and family life would quickly return to normal. Donny would shoot ahead to near the top of the class, which is where he should be with an IQ of 124.
Unfortunately, an unhappy ending is considerably more likely. Instead of an expert reading specialist, Pat and Jim found a reading "tutor." This person was kind and patient, but knew as much about how to remediate reading problems as Pat and Jim, especially after all the books they had read on the subject. The tutor merely listened to Donny read and corrected his mistakes, just as Pat and Jim had done. The unhappy ending can continue for a lifetime unless proper help is found. The unhappy ending includes expensive schools for "dyslexics," more private tutoring, more family worry and discord. Donny would eventually get a high school diploma from his special school, go to college and flunk out, and end up in a job where he didn't have to read anything. If parents aren't as lucky as Pat and Jim and can't afford to pay for outside help or private schools, the situation is even more hopeless. Ultimately, a child with an unremediated reading problem can never function at his full potential and suffers incredible emotional damage and loss of self-esteem.
The Jamesons are fictional, but Donny is not. He is the prototype of many real children I have seen in my research and in my clinic. Donny is the product of the "whole language" classroom, the dominant reading method in most English-speaking countries today, sometimes called "literature based" reading or "real-books." According to the tenets of whole language, children can "discover" how to read and spell on their own. They can do this because whole language advocates believe that spoken and written language are essentially alike, and should be learned the same way, "naturally." Whole language is not the only reading method that fails many children.
How many children are like Donny? Outside the United States there is no answer to this question. There is no literacy testing using accurate demographic sampling and controlled testing procedures. Instead, there is either no testing at all, testing by the classroom teacher, or the use of standardized tests normed on large samples of children. These are tests like the California Test of Basic Skills (CTBS) or the Schonell Reading Test used in England and Australia. Standardized tests provide information on how a particular child is reading compared to all other children in the sample population. If the population as a whole has poor reading skills, then a score of average means you are a poor reader. If the population as a whole has good reading skills, then a score of "average" means you are a good reader.
To assess literacy properly, you need an objective definition of literacy for each age. This means setting an absolute standard of literacy which is independent of the population's reading level. To date, only the United States and Canada have carried out this type of testing on very large population samples, and only the United States has tested children. This puts the United States in the unenviable position of being the first nation in the English-speaking world to discover the shocking truth about actual literacy rates, truth which has revealed a "literacy crisis" in America.
The National Assessment Governing Board, in conjunction with the National Center for Education Statistics, carried out two studies in 1992. One tested nearly 140,000 American children in grades 4, 8, and 12. The second tested 26,000 adults in the age range sixteen to sixty-five years. They used careful demographic sampling with accurate proportions of males and females, all ethnic and racial groups, and balanced for geographic location (urban, inner city, rural, etc.).
An important innovation was the development of an objective way to measure reading by setting absolute standards or "achievement levels." A panel of experts determined ahead of time what literate adults and children in various grades should be able to do. They emphasized "functional literacy," the ability to read text, find information, and perform operations ("functions") on that information. All test items were drawn from published materials and included stories, poems, nonfiction, newspaper articles, and common "documents" such as bus timetables and simple graphs.
Equally important was the methodological rigor in which the testing and scoring was carried out. Up to this time, school-district testing had become a national disgrace. Some schools blatantly teach to the test, using the same test year after year. Parents have told me that teachers asked their child to stay home on the day of testing because he or she was a poor reader. To circumvent this, personnel from the Education Testing Service (ETS) ensured that all participants were monitored during testing by an outside tester. Strict guidelines were set up for scoring responses, and data analysis was done by trained specialists at a central location. All test items were secured, and no school had access to any of them or even examples of them.
Using a complex scoring procedure and statistical model, NCES established "levels" of competence based on achievement criteria and test item difficulty scores. For the student population there were four levels: advanced, proficient, basic, and below basic. Students who were "below basic" could not understand the overall meaning of what they read and were considered to be functionally illiterate according to expectations for that particular grade. I want to spend some time addressing these findings because they provide a number of clues about what is wrong with the way schools in America teach reading, and no doubt in other English-speaking countries as well.
The report on the student population provides a detailed breakdown of the fourth-grade data. Buried at the back of the report, on page 250, is an astonishing table. It reveals that, on average, the states claimed that 12 percent of the students were untestable! Think what this figure means for the validity of typical district-wide testing. ETS personnel disallowed 4 percent of these exclusions. This left 3 percent, who were excused because of limited English proficiency (LEP) and 5 percent who were in special education programs and had an individual education plan, or "IEP." These children spent less than 50 percent of their time in the classroom. Typically, the majority of students with an IEP have been diagnosed with a learning disability (LD), meaning they "can't read."
National statistics show that about 2 to 3 percent of school children are mentally retarded, blind, or deaf. The remaining 2 to 3 percent, who were excused from testing, could have been tested. This means the results are biased toward higher reading achievement than is actually the case.
States were ranked according to statewide proficiency scores. The literacy rates for states in the top and bottom five ranks in the continental United States are shown in Table 1-1. Bear in mind that this table underestimates the number of otherwise normal children who are below basic levels in reading.
The top five states averaged 29 percent of all students below basic-level reading skills. The bottom five states had double this rate. The national average for fourth grade was 43 percent of children reading "below basic level."
These dismal results continue to dominate the adult survey. Remember, all test materials were drawn from printed text that a normal adult would be likely to encounter in everyday life. For adults, there were five levels of competence. Level 1 required only the most minimal level of competence. For example, from an eight-sentence newspaper article, the reader had to find this information about a cross-channel swimmer:
What did Ms. Chanin eat during her swim?
Altogether, 22 percent of the adult population were only able to perform at a Level 1 proficiency or lower. This translates to forty-two million functionally illiterate American adults. Forty-eight percent of all adults scored at Level 2 or worse, barely literate. Hardly anyone (3 percent of all adults) performed at Level 5, the "advanced level." One Level 5 test item was a fact sheet sent to potential jurors outlining jury selection procedures. It is sobering that only 3 percent of potential jurors can read and fully comprehend how the jury selection process works. Statistics Canada, which carried out the same kind of testing in the United States, Canada, and five non-English speaking European countries, replicated these findings for the United states. The study also showed that U.S. high school students and young adults (16 to 25 years old) were six times more likely to be functionally illiterate (Level 1) than those in Sweden, and twice as likely as those in Canada. Both surveys show that the "golden age" of literacy in the United States is the 35- to 45-year-old age group, with 30 percent scoring at Levels 4 and 5. This group learned to read during 1955-1965. Only 13 percent of today's 16- to 25-year-olds scored at Levels 4 and 5.
There is little evidence that the number of years of schooling plays any major causal role in improving literacy. Only ten percent of college graduates and 16 percent of graduate school students scored at Level 5 proficiency when the majority should score at this level. Four percent of college graduates were functionally illiterate (Level 1). Fifteen percent of college graduates scored at Level 2 or worse, showing they could not function in a sophisticated work environment. National statistics show that about 80 percent of the American population graduates from high school. Half of these students enter college (40 percent of the population), and only half of this group (20 percent) gets a four-year college degree. Fifteen percent of these students have marginal literacy skills. This means that about 17 percent of working adults, thirty-three million people, are both well educated and sufficiently literate to work effectively in a complex technological world. We are dooming the vast majority of Americans to be second-class citizens.
The authors of these reports do not speculate on causes for these extraordinary illiteracy rates, but causes can be inferred from the statistics. There was an extreme range of literacy levels between the states. With such a large population of children, this cannot be attributed to chance or random variation. We can conclude, with some confidence, that some states train their teachers better and use more effective methods in the classroom.
There was also a large discrepancy between the states in the number of students identified as "IEP" and in need of special remedial classrooms. IEP rates varied from 14 percent in Florida and Massachusetts to 7 percent in six states. As no one state could possibly have a monopoly on students who inherently require remedial education, this discrepancy also must be due to pedagogic factors and to different methods of identifying "LD" children.
The student survey included data on Catholic and other private schools. Students from these schools were far and away superior to those in public schools. Catholic schools draw from a similar population to public schools, including a high percentage of Spanish-speaking children. Based solely on demographics, their results should be identical to those of the public schools. But Catholic schools had 17 percent more students at or above basic level skills at all grades tested (grades 4, 8, and 12). This shows that some schools have better programs for teaching reading, and/or are run more effectively, due to greater academic rigor, higher student expectations, more homework, and better discipline. Catholic schools, for example, tend to use a phonics-based reading method.
Comparisons of teacher salaries and per pupil expenditure across states show, yet again, that throwing money at the problem doesn't make a difference to literacy rates. The Catholic school results are a powerful illustration of this fact, as these schools spend less money per student than the public schools.
Fourth-grade teachers were asked to provide information about which method they used most or least for reading and spelling instruction. In general, these reports are too idiosyncratic to be of much value, especially as fourth-grade teachers are not responsible for teaching children to read. However, there is one state where a single reading method was mandated statewide in 1987. This state is California, and California teachers were overwhelmingly more likely to report "heavy use" of whole language/literature-based reading methods (87 percent of teachers) than teachers in any other state. California ranked near the bottom in the nation, and results from the 1994 testing, published in 1996, place California in a tie for dead last with Louisiana. In 1996, California passed legislation to reintroduce "phonics" back into the classroom along with 1 billion dollars of funding for teacher workshops, new guidelines for teacher training, and new textbooks and curriculum.
When nearly all teachers in a state report a "heavy use" of a particular method, and the state in which they teach has nearly 60 percent of its children below basic levels in literacy, this means the method isn't working! There is simply no other argument for these kinds of numbers. Nor, I might add, is 27 percent of children below basic level acceptable either, which is the best any state could do.
The truth provided by these statistics is that children's reading problems, and ultimately adults' reading problems, are caused by the school system, and not because there is something wrong with poor readers. It is impossible that 30 percent to 60 percent of all school children have an inherent or "brain-based" deficit leading to reading failure. In any case, reading and spelling are not biological properties of the human brain. People are illiterate because none of the current methods of reading instruction work for everyone. Later, I will review evidence which shows that any child or adult who isn't mentally retarded or deaf can be taught to read if given proper instruction.
Over the last quarter century, there has been a revolution in our understanding of how to teach reading, the outcome of an explosion of scientific research. So far, this revolution has escaped the notice of most educators. These studies show conclusively that to learn an alphabetic writing system, a child must be taught the sounds of his language and be trained to hear the order of these sounds in words, because it is these sounds that the letters represent. Furthermore, while this ability is highly trainable, it doesn't appear spontaneously in all children simply because they are exposed to print or taught "the sounds of letters." The next step is to teach children how each of these sounds can be spelled in a carefully sequenced way. We now have the knowledge to teach these skills correctly, leaving nothing out. When programs based on this knowledge are tested in the classroom and the clinic, all children learn to read rapidly and accurately.
This book is divided into three sections. The first section looks in depth at writing systems and reveals firsthand why children can easily become confused about our writing system and fail to learn to read and spell. The section begins with typical examples of the incorrect strategies that children routinely adopt to decode text. These strategies harden into habits that are difficult to overcome without remedial help. The next two chapters show that all current teaching methods (yes, even phonics) will fail at least 30 percent of children, because they are based on ignorance about how writing systems work. The last chapter in this section provides an analysis of the sounds of the English language, how the English spelling code evolved over 700 years, and what the structure of this code looks like. The complex syllable patterns in our language, plus the complexities of our spelling system, make the English alphabet code one of the most complex writing systems in the world. Unless we understand how it works, we cannot teach it.
The middle section focuses on the scientific evidence. This has shown that certain subskills must be in place in order for a child or adult to master an alphabetic writing system. The good news is that these subskills are highly trainable. Additional research has shown that children's linguistic and logical development are of critical importance in setting up the proper sequence of instruction. The last chapter in this section reviews training studies based on this research, studies which prove that auditory-linguistic skills are a major missing link to reading success. These skills are so trainable, at any age, that the terms "dyslexia" or "learning disabilities" cease to have any meaning.
The final section of the book is devoted to method. Given what we know about the skills involved in learning to read, about how the English alphabet code actually works, and our new understanding of the young child's linguistic and logical development, what does a reading program look like which takes advantage of all of this information? Chapters 9 and 10 set out the details of such a program for the classroom or for home instruction.
Millions of youngsters and adults have serious reading problems through no fault of their own. Reading and spelling problems are completely remediable with proper training. People who cannot read a word can be taught to read, write, and spell, fluently and efficiently, if they are taught by the right methods. Chapters 11 and 12 are devoted to the topic of remedial instruction, reviewing programs with solid research support. These chapters provide a detailed explanation of how a good clinical method works. As well, there are diagnostic tests and techniques to pinpoint individual learning deficiencies and guidance on how to deal with the emotional problems of children or adults with severe reading delays.
The final chapter offers suggestions about what parents can do to help rather than hinder their children before they go to school, along with some practical ways to help develop skills that are important in learning to read. For families with a child or other family member who has reading or spelling problems, there is advice about how to work with the school system, and how to evaluate a remedial reading program in your school or private clinic.
We have the answers to the problem of illiteracy. We have had many of the answers for over 25 years. So far, members of the educational community either do not know about these research findings or are threatened by them, because it will mean an overthrow and a restructuring of everything that is familiar. These new ideas belong in the classroom, because we are harming our children and ourselves by creating a nation of illiterate citizens.
This book is for the millions of concerned parents, the millions of intelligent people with poor or absent reading skills, the thousands of teachers who have been falsely blamed for the literacy crisis, for the dedicated scientists and reading specialists who persist and persist, as well as for the enlightened members of the educational community who care enough to make a difference.
Copyright © 1997 by Diane McGuinness

About The Author

Product Details

  • Publisher: Free Press (March 24, 1999)
  • Length: 400 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780684853567

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Raves and Reviews

E.D. Hirsch, Jr. author of Cultural Literary A superb achievement...This clearly written and authoritative work is the work to read for parents and teachers who wish everyone in our democracy to be able to read.

From the Foreword, by Steven Pinker author of The Language Instinct and How the Mind Works Why Our Children Can't Read is one of the most important books of the decade. Read it for your own pleasure and enlightenment, and buy copies for the people in control of your children's education.

Rita Kramer The Wall Street Journal The real news this book brings us is that no child has to fail at learning to read, that there are ways to help those who have trouble without consigning them to the dustheap of special ed classes. For parents of children with reading problems, this book is a clear guide to effective remedial programs.

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