Commentary: Why Johnny can’t read — 100 years of teaching without phonics

Minnesota reading scores will remain dismal, and the gap between African Americans and Latinos and whites will persist, until our schools adopt systematic pure phonics to teach our children to read.


The Minnesota Department of Education just released test scores for 2022. More than 50% of Minnesota third-graders didn’t pass the state reading test. Over 70% of African-American third-graders didn’t pass. Eighty-five percent of African-American third-graders in Minneapolis Public Schools didn’t pass.

How did this happen? Because a majority of our schools still do not truly embrace systematic phonics instruction.

Some 50 years ago in 1955 Rudolf Flesch wrote “Why Johnny Can’t Read,” in which he laid out the destruction of phonics instruction carried out in our schools, led by Columbia Teachers College. Since the invention of the alphabet in 1500 B.C., children in every country with an alphabet have learned to read with phonics, the simple process of memorizing the sound of the letters in the alphabet (for English with 26 letters there are 44 possible sounds).

American children learned phonics for over 100 years with Noah Webster’s Blue-Backed Speller, followed by the McGuffey and Beacon readers. Webster realized that an English primer had to be based on phonics: “I have given you a thorough investigation of the sounds of the English language,” what he called “the power of the letters.” For 170 years of America’s history phonics was successfully used to teach children to read.

In the 1920s the professional education establishment adopted the “New Word” method. Going forward, students would learn to read starting with whole words rather than individual letters, using clues from the context and photos. Without any evidence whatsoever that this method worked, the education establishment decided that “the good reader takes in a whole word or phrase at a single glance.” Flesch called this “reading by guessing.”

If an educator mentioned phonics in this new world of reading, she was met with “derision, furious hostility, or icy silence.” Webster’s Blue-Backed Speller and the McGuffey and Beacon readers were taken off the shelves and replaced with new ones written by “the high priests of the word method.” With the sight word method, knowledge of the letters was not important: “current practice in the teaching of reading does not require a knowledge of the letters.” Teachers were never to tell the children that there are letters and that each letter represents a sound. “Contextual clues (would) aid them” in “guessing” the word … resulting in a “sight vocabulary.” Flesch knew that all this was absurd, and that if a child isn’t taught the sounds of the letters, then he has nothing to go by when he tries to read a word. All he can do is guess.

Learning to read means learning to sound out words. Period. Flesch uses the word “nymph” as an example of the superiority of phonics. A child in the whole-word regime wouldn’t have a chance reading that word, but a child skilled in phonics would easily sound out n and y and ph and read the word off the page. Flesch describes how the new “whole word” teaching dumbed down reading in just 25 years. Now kids well into the sixth grade were stuck reading simple sentences like “quack quack said the duck” instead of the likes of Arabian Nights and Fairy Tales.

Fast forward to 1990 and we have the National Reading Panel, a group of 14 eminent scholars whose several thousand page report concluded that without question phonics worked and whole word didn’t.

To quote Education Week: “Decades of research have shown that teaching young students how to crack the code of written language through systematic phonics is the most reliable way to make sure that they learn how to read words.”

So that should have been the end of it, but due to the education establishment (which is led by the teachers unions) the whole-word method wouldn’t die. It just morphed into something called “balanced literacy.” Two-thirds of all elementary school teachers in America now use this new camouflaged sight word approach, still using “cueing” instead of sounding out, still dumbing down reading with the so-called leveled readers with limited vocabulary.

Pure phonics — explicit systematic instruction on how sounds and letters go together —continues to remain a distant cousin in the core curriculum of the schools of education.  And it is still the case that only 22% of the professors in these colleges believe in systematic phonics. More than half of these professors still believe that students can understand unfamiliar words they see on a page even if they don’t have a good grasp of phonics. Yet research conducted by the International Dyslexia Association found that over 60% of students need systematic phonics to become proficient readers.

In the face of the continued horrible performance of American students on reading tests, the establishment is finally being forced to give ground to phonics advocates, which includes the NAACP (good for them!). A recently enacted Minnesota state law now requires phonics instruction for new teachers, and based on this requirement the MDE in 2021 introduced a teaching training program which at least has a strong phonics component.

Minnesota reading scores will remain dismal, and the gap between African Americans and Latinos and whites will persist, until our schools adopt systematic pure phonics to teach our children to read and rid themselves of “whole word” and “balanced fluency” for good.


Greg Pulles

Greg Pulles is a lifelong Minnesotan and retired attorney who practiced in Minnesota for over 40 years.