I have been studying the Reading Wars (phonics vs. Whole Word) for several years. The crime mystery of the century, if you ask me.
One thing that makes research difficult is that educators in the USA slip around in secrecy. Remember, they’re embracing philosophies, and promoting policies, that nobody ever voted on or even discussed in public. If you look back over the last 100 years, you’ll see a sludge of bad ideas that seem to bob in on the tide. John Dewey set the tone around 1900 with his decision to transform the country’s educational system in a clandestine manner by taking control of the ed schools, and using them to indoctrinate successive waves of new teachers.
A new book reveals that developments in England were similar but more overt. The Labour Party, often in power, was shamelessly Socialist and pushed a philosophy called Progressivism. One goal was egalitarianism any way they could get it. One tactic was to dumb down the schools, and the chief weapon there was Whole Word. In short, the UK story is our story but made visible. This story is spelled out in a wonderful book called “The Great Reading Disaster” by two remarkable women, Mona McNee and Alice Coleman.
If you’re curious about the details of the reading wars and the ed wars, this is a must-read.
I just learned of this book (published in 2007) about two weeks after I’d finished a new article called “The War Against Reading” (#30 on Improve-Education.org). My piece is about the US, not the UK; it’s an historical essay, not a book. Still, it’s remarkably parallel in tone and conclusion. The difference is that I’m often tiptoeing around because I can’t always be 100% sure that X did Y for Z reason. Our educators don’t have mea culpa moments. I make a circumstantial case that our top educators really were trying to dumb down the country with their wrong-headed ideas. Phonics had to be driven out, Whole Word had to be made king. Social engineering went amuck, and now we have 50,000,000 functional illiterates.
McNee and Coleman don’t have to tiptoe. Everything is more out in the open. The dumb ideas are official government policies. Predictably, the situation there got even worse than here.
I’ll just mention two of the book’s main recommendations: every last scrap of Whole Word must be eliminated (including the mixed bag called Balanced Literacy); and the ed schools should be closed as the authors admit they can’t imagine how they can be reformed, so entrenched are the bad ideas!
Here are two particularly lovely quotes: “The real villains were not the victimized teachers who carried out the intellectual child abuse but the training establishments that brainwashed them into doing so.”
“Deweyism is inherently self-contradictory. For all his talk of child-centeredness, he really aimed to sacrifice children’s individuality to the group...While he derided the traditional authority he wanted to replace, he did not hesitate to incorporate more intense authority of his own.”
I have a review of this excellent book on Amazon.com, if you want more details.
YouTube Postscript: I find that even well-educated people have little understanding of why Whole Word is sinister. I am always looking for clever ways to explain this quickly. I created two graphic videos for YouTube titled “Phonics vs. Whole Word” and “Phonics vs. Whole Word--Take 2.” Together they require only about 8 minutes. Then you’ll know!
About the Author
Bruce Deitrick Price's main site is Improve-Education.org, now up to 50,000 words of original content. Many articles deal with reading wars, ed wars, and efficiency in teaching.