March 23, 2009

Why Johnny Still Can't Read

In 1955, the bombshell book Why Johnny Can’t Read disturbed a few nesting hornets. A half-century later, per-student education spending in inflation-adjusted dollars has quadrupled, but Johnny (and today’s Jareds and Jessicas) still can’t read.

According to a report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, more than two-thirds of the nation’s fourth-graders are reading below proficiency level. And they’re not outgrowing the problem: The American College Testing Program reported that an astonishing 49 percent of the 1.2 million students who took its college admissions test in a recent year lack college-level reading skills. Minorities and the poor fare worse: Only 21 percent of blacks, 33 percent of Hispanics, and 33 percent of students from families with annual incomes below $30,000 have mastered the complex reading tasks required for college success. Not counted, of course, are the 30 percent of high-schoolers who drop out and thus don’t take the test.

There’s plenty of blame to go around. Too many parents have been dot.conned into buying for their kids every piece of digital silliness Silicon Valley dishes up. Kids who used to sometimes pass the hours with a book—or being read to—now molder in front of computers, DVD players, PlayStations, and X-boxes, when they’re not engaged in narcissistic twittering. They wallow in iconography and visual imagery and “text” impoverished messages in a way not unlike life in the Dark Ages, before the printing press spread the gift of the unhurried but enriching processes of sustained written language. Shoot, we can even watch people play video games on television. What’s next? Watching people play computer solitaire?

But the blame doesn’t stop there.

The public assumes that colleges of education are preparing aspiring teachers to teach kids how to read by requiring rigorous courses in how to do so. One would think that the teaching of reading would be a college of education’s Prime Directive. To test that assumption, the Washington, D.C.–based National Council on Teacher Quality launched a sweeping examination of reading courses and textbooks at the nation’s colleges of education. The results are appalling. What masquerades as reading pedagogy is, with painfully few exceptions, a soggy confection of political correctness, collectivist social indoctrination, diversity training, and fluff courses that make basket weaving sound like advanced biophysics. An overgeneralization? To a degree, and some colleges of education actually do a bang-up job. But not enough.

Examples abound. One reading course syllabus says, “Knowledge is … constructed by individual learners through social interaction … learning occurs within a collaborative community.” Another says, “Reading and writing are acquired through social collaborative interactions and life experiences.” A popular reading textbook advocates “classrooms that allow children to design their own route to further knowledge about print; the role of the teacher is supportive assistant.”

According to the professionals, then, reading teachers don’t really have to teach reading. Like cheerleaders, they can lend sis-boom-ba support while kids magically teach themselves to read through “collaboration” and “social interaction” and “life experiences”—in much the same way they teach each other to reproduce bodily noises with their armpits.

Many of the courses are laughable in their lack of rigor. Here’s an assignment worth 20 percent of the grade in a college course in reading instruction: “After reading the book, design an original cover for it. . . .Make a commercial that convinces others to buy and read the book. Make a diorama of the book.” Here’s another: “Each person will choose a book from the book choice list to discuss and share as part of a small group.… As a group, plan a way to share what you learned about literacy learning and teaching from that book. Some book sharing ideas include poster/murals, puppet shows or plays, reader’s theater, role play, traditional book review, diorama or other 3-D method.”

These are teachers in training, captive to professors who in many instances owe their sinecures to taxpayers. They’re going to be your kids’ reading teachers, armed only with dioramas, posters, and puppet shows—and perhaps the ability to strum “Yellow Submarine” on the ukulele.

This grotesque abdication of responsibility has lifelong implications for kids. While the colleges of education spout their cant, they deny too many kids a shot at a meaningful higher education, higher earning potential, and more satisfying life work.

Worse, they deny kids the ability to connect with the timeless wisdom found in a novel by Faulkner or a poem by Frost, locking the next generation in a twilight world where the written word becomes alien and threatening rather than a source of liberation and enlightenment.

Michael J. O'Neal's novel of Civil War espionage, Crazy Bett, was recently published and is available at

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