The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Our American Reading History

on February 16, 2020

Although I’ve written about the teaching of reading many times before, I feel that I must explain it once again. Too many schools have been persuaded to teach reading by using phonics, and as a result thousands of smart, healthy, children have been pushed into the misery of phonics rather than the pleasure of visually recognizing words

In order to explain the development of reading from the beginning of time to the present and how we should teach reading now, I will try to describe the world-wide history of language development as briefly and accurately as I can.

According to what was reported by researchers, ancient human beings began to communicate by making oral sounds and carving stone shapes that represented their thoughts, experiences, and needs. Over time, however, sounds and stone carvings were not good enough for them to communicate accurately, and so they used their mental and physical abilities instead. They began by turning grunts into howls, and then howls into precise sound forms now known as “words.“ They also began to carve small, distinct shapes on stones, sand, and dirt piles that became written words.

As the world grew larger and more complex, many human beings now called “people”, began doing what was necessary to merge with others of different backgrounds and behaviors. At first their languages were scrambled and not understandable; but finally when they moved into larger, healthier areas they improved their ability to increase wealth and power. Today, however, language differences still cause problems for people moving into a foreign country. The ones most affected are young children who must work hard to become successful readers

Today, life may still be complicated for American citizens because our written English still contains many old foreign words created in other countries with letter sounds that do not match speech. Although competent adult readers just ignore that problem, many children learning to read become confused by letter sounds. As a result their confidence and pleasure for reading may be damaged.

Although phonics leaders claim that sounding out words is the way to teach reading they ignore the fact that great time and effort are needed for children to learn that skill. It also damages young readers memories of what they were reading, and thus makes phonics unsuccessful. Nevertheless, phonics supporters ignore those problems along with the fact that there is a much easier way to learn reading. They reject the fact that human beings recognize objects, people, places, quickly and with ease. For example, normal young children learn early and easily to recognize their parents among family members, the foods they like best on a table, their own shoes in a crowded closet, and their own friends, classrooms, and favorite books,

None of those methods are difficult for healthy children to learn, and neither is recognizing written words once you become familiar with them. Yes, learning to read takes time, but it is not unpleasant. Teaching children to read requires often seeing words in different situations, saying them out loud, and maybe even singing them. Reading becomes easier and more pleasant than phonics if you have good teachers and students have good parents. If you don’t believe me, try teaching the words below to a child, first by phonics and then by sight familiarity, and see which way works better.

“Where”, “knot”, “plough,” “psychologist”, “character”, “enough”, “ballet”, “cough”, “knight”, “gnome”, “knew”, “who”, “wreath”, “origin”. 

Response to a critic:

Maybe I’m wrong about reading, but I was a successful principal in two schools and earned the award for “Principal of the Year” in Wisconsin.

9 responses to “Our American Reading History

  1. Anne says:

    Build a few more prisons for curriculum failures due to your ignorance. You’re on the wrong side of history.


  2. Sarah Hromada says:

    “Reading becomes easier and more pleasant than phonics if you have good teachers and students have good parents.” Children need strategies beyond skipping or guessing unknown words. What do “good teachers” and “good parents” do that the rest of us have missed?


  3. Julie Boesky says:

    Hi Joanne. I’ve been a reading specialist and orton gillingham tutor for fourteen years. There are several words on your sample list (such as where, enough, and who) that I wholeheartedly agree are best taught through whole word memorization because they are part of a (thankfully!) small group of irregular high frequency words. With regard to the vast majority of words in the English lexicon, thank goodness, we can actually teach children very specific patterns and guidelines for both decoding and encoding. Understanding word origin is very helpful — usually the letters /et/ at the end of a word make an /it/ sound, as in basket. This is much more common so we learn this first. In a very small group of words, /et/ makes a long sound because these words are French. The Greek root psych, pronounced as “sike”, means mind, and shows up at the beginning of many words of Greek origin. So no, I wouldn’t teach a child to memorize the word psychologist, but I would teach her the Greek root psych once it was appropriate. Similarly, the ch making a /k/ sound at the beginning of the word character is also a Greek feature, as in Christmas. Silent kn words are Anglo Saxon in origin – we learn that the k is always silent and the rest of the word can be sounded out, as in knight, knock, and knee. The beauty of the work behind orton gillingham is that the scope and sequence of when these items are taught to children follows a very specific structure based on how often we use these patterns, and how complex they are. Learning about the six syllable types in English is also extremely helpful for children, since syllable types control embedded vowel sounds. Sadly, you, like many many well intentioned educators, likely never had the opportunity to study these components of English in your training. I have a thriving private tutoring practice filled with children who really want to learn to read, but aren’t getting the instruction they need during the school day. Education shouldn’t be about enemy camps — it should be about remaining a life long learner and always reflecting and reexamining our work to help our kids. :- )


  4. Paige says:

    Can you further explain what you mean by “Reading becomes easier and more pleasant than phonics if you have good teachers and students have good parents.”?


  5. Ssh says:

    I would love to see some research that supports these ideas. Thanks!


  6. Heather says:

    I saw this blog mentioned in a post, but I had to actually come to your site because of the butterfly nose picture. I noticed you are in Portland near RMP famous for his butterfly nose pictures. I’ve had a few of those pictures myself! As for the post, my experience has been much different. My young son would often get the comment “Wow, he’s smart,” as his vocab was impressive for his pre-K/K age. It wasn’t surprising as we read so often. (Did you know you can max out a library card? The limit was 100 books.) I usually had 50-80 books at any time and we read often. But teaching words by sight was SO, SO, SO hard. The typical exposure to master a word was said to be 3 times. He still wasn’t getting a high-frequency word down consistently with what must have been 100’s of exposures. So the less frequent words weren’t sticking either. Finally, we were driven to an intensive program with phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, syntax, morphology, and basic comprehension. He had additional language arts teaching as well. Finally, he was becoming consistent with reading words correctly, even words he was seeing for the first time. Maybe it was boring and dull, but I have to say I believe it was lifesaving. I’ve also found many others who have shared my experience. The reading landscape is complicated as I’m sure you know, so blanket statements for any view are problematic. And again, I love the butterfly picture!


  7. wanda edge says:

    There’s a place for sight word reading as well as teaching phonics. Both need to be utilized to help students read with competency. Strong readers use both.


  8. Steve Dykstra says:

    How do you account for the overwhelming evidence that phonetic decoding is an essential reading skill, all skilled readers of English have it, instruction in phonetic decoding is correlated with improved reading outcomes, and all of this is supported by neurological findings and studies? Science thrives on converged sources and types of evidence, and very few scientific claims have better converged support than the central role of phonetic skill and instruction in reading success. Yet, you simply brush it aside with little or no explanation other than “I believe.”


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