Back in the days of George Washington, as had been true for millennia, doctors had one overarching “treatment” in their arsenals. Leeches! A good bleeding was the answer to almost any illness– fever, bad coughs, seizures, heart disease, obesity, even mental illness. Poor George, who was reported to have laryngitis, was said to have lost over three quarts of blood in his final days–an amount that helped speed his departure to the afterlife.
Washington’s treatment was by no means special. Patients around the world endured similar fates as they were—with the best of intentions–administered the prescribed treatment of the time. Bleeding was THE way to help balance a patient’s body fluids, or “humors.” Doctors believed in their logic more than in the evidence. That was enough to keep them using the wrong solution.
Ironically, the problem was not in the use of leeches per se, but in the indiscriminate use of these blood suckers. In recent years, leeches have actually proven to be of value in treating selected conditions such as skin grafts and reconstructive surgery.
The parallels to reading may not be immediately apparent since the two conditions seem so different. But if we delve a bit, the commonalities begin to stand out. Of course, we do not know the precise failure rate of leech therapy, but all indications are that it was astronomical. We do know far more about the failure rate in teaching reading and it IS astronomical. As government figures from the National Center for Education Statistics tell us, approximately 40 percent of bright, capable children have trouble learning to read. (See http://nces.ed.gov/) The figure is so incredible that most people cannot wrap their minds around it. The feeling is “This can’t be true.” But it is.
And like the physicians of yore, the failure in reading is due to the use of inappropriate techniques. In the words of Chester Finn, a distinguished leader in education and public policy, “…the educational inadequacies of millions of (our nation’s) daughters and sons (should be viewed) not in terms of organic problems inherent in the children but rather as the fallout from unsound, inept or ill-conceived instruction by adults.”
That instruction invariably is one of the two systems that dominate reading. The most powerful one is phonics–which teaches the sounds of words; the second, less influential but still prevalent, method is whole language—which emphasizes books and the stories they tell. The battles between the two systems have been fierce–bitter enough to be referred to as “the reading wars.” As with leeches, the defense of each is based more on belief than on facts. Still of the two, phonics does yield somewhat better results. Even at its best, however, it does not make a significant dent in the reading failure rate.
The problem is not that sounds of phonics or the books of whole language are unimportant. They are vital. The problem is that they are not enough. Even when combined, they overlook a range of skills that are essential to effective reading and writing.
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