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Newsweek and dyslexia

By Dr. Samuel L. Blumenfeld

Newsweek's cover story on Dyslexia, in its November 22 issue, is a masterpiece of unintended misinformation. Even the title of the article, "Dyslexia and the New Science of Reading," is an indication of the misinformation to come. Reading is not a new science. It is a very old learnable skill, easily acquired if taught in the proper manner. We know that much from more than two thousand years of experience. When alphabetic writing was invented, learning to read became so simple that literacy was quite widespread in ancient Greece and Rome. It was very widespread among the Hebrews who had to know how to read the Torah in order to practice their religion.

Yet, here in modern America, we have widespread dyslexia. The article states, "Millions of otherwise bright children struggle with words, but recent brain research shows there's hope -- if parents and teachers know what to look for." You would think we were looking for a cure for cancer. The article goes on to state, "Until recently, dyslexia and other reading problems were a mystery to most teachers and parents."

But it was no mystery to Rudolf Flesch who wrote "Why Johnny Can't Read" in 1955, in which he clearly identified the cause of Johnny's problem. Johnny couldn't read because he had not been taught to read in the correct phonetic manner, a method used for thousands of years with an unparalleled track record of success. Johnny had been taught by a sight method, and that was the problem.

It was also no mystery to Dr. Samuel T. Orton, a neuropathologist, who wrote an article for the Journal of Educational Psychology in 1929 entitled, "The 'Sight Reading' Method of Teaching Reading as a Source of Reading Disability." The "Sight Reading" method was the new whole-word, or look-and-say method being introduced in the schools with the new Dick and Jane books.

In my book, "The New Illiterates," published in 1973, I explained how the sight reading, or look-and-say, method had been invented in the 1830s by the Rev. Thomas H. Gallaudet, the famous teacher of the deaf and dumb. He had been teaching his students to read by juxtaposing words with pictures because the deaf could not hear sounds and thus could not be taught to read phonetically.

Gallaudet thought this method could be adapted for use by normal children, and so he wrote the first sight-reading primer, which was published in 1835. It was adopted by the Boston primary schools in 1837 and produced such horrendous reading problems among the students that in 1844 the schoolmasters rose up in rebellion and wrote a blistering critique of this new method. I reprinted that critique in my book so that anyone could see that it was already well understood in 1844 that a sight approach to a phonetic system would cause what we call today dyslexia.

It became apparent that normal children, with normal hearing, could not be taught to read as if they were deaf. Yet, this is the way most children in America are taught to read, and it explains why "millions of otherwise bright children" become dyslexic when taught to read by the sight method. In the sight approach, children are taught to memorize a sight vocabulary before they even know that letters stand for sounds. They are taught to look at each word as a whole configuration, like a Chinese character, and to look for distinctive characteristics, such as word shapes, tall letters, short letters, dangling letters, in order to remember the word.

This sort of practice produces the symptoms of dyslexia: reading words backwards, reversing letters when writing, gross misspellings, word guessing, word skipping, leaving out words, putting in words that aren't there, mutilating words, truncating words, etc. The reason why dyslexia is so hard to cure is because the child has acquired a holistic reflex, that is, he or she automatically looks at words in their whole configurations.

The child may have been taught some phonics somewhere along the line: beginning consonant sounds, for example, to help reduce the ridiculousness of some of the guessing. But this kind of incidental phonics cannot undo the holistic reflex, because it merely becomes phonetic information stored in the brain and requires effort on the part of the reader to use it. What that holistic reflex does is create a blockage against seeing the phonetic structure of the word, particularly if the reader has had very little or no phonics. Why should we assume that children will know the letter sounds and their blends if they have not been taught them?

However, if the child is taught intensive, systematic phonics from the outset, that child will develop a phonetic reflex, that is, the automatic ability to convert letters into sounds and to see the phonetic structure of the word. This permits the reader to sound out any new multisyllabic word by seeing its transparent syllabic structure.

It's amazing how easily Newsweek dismisses the whole problem of teaching methods. The reporters write, "Which reading method works best? The answer is a lot more complicated than the much-ballyhooed 'reading wars' of the last decade, in which proponents of whole language or phonics each claimed the true path to literacy. The often highly politicized debate distracts from the real issue, that both methods are failing too many kids."

So what's causing dyslexia? Faulty wiring of the brain, say the scientists, who have identified four chromosomes that may be involved. How do they know this? By studying the brains of dyslexics and good phonetic readers. "Brain scans," notes Newsweek, "are now showing that when dyslexics try to decipher words, certain areas in back of the brain are underactivated, while other areas in the front are overactivated. ... This suggests that dyslexics have to work much harder to analyze sound patterns. The sounding-out process wasn't efficient."

Well, of course, if a child were reading with a holistic reflex, as if he were deaf, he'd have difficulty with the sounding-out process. What the brain scans reveal is that a faulty teaching method can actually affect how the brain works. That is why an adult dyslexic in his 40s, whom I taught to read some years ago, told me that he would rather be beaten than have to read. The painful psychic damage done to him by his primary school teachers had been with him right into adulthood.

The dyslexia that afflicts the "millions of otherwise bright children" is caused, beyond a shadow of a doubt, by the acquisition of a holistic reflex early in life. That holistic reflex may be created by a child memorizing all the words by sight in a Dr. Seuss book. Some of these preschool readers come with audio tapes so that the child can read the book and memorize as many as 200 words by sight. Thus, parents must teach their children to read phonetically before allowing them to memorize words by sight if they want to prevent their child from becoming dyslexic.

Curiously enough, even Dr. Seuss knew what caused dyslexia. In explaining to a reporter how difficult it was to write his simple books, he said,

"They think I did it in twenty minutes. That damned "Cat in the Hat" took nine months until I was satisfied. I did it for a textbook house and they sent me a word list. That was due to the Dewey revolt in the twenties, in which they threw out phonic reading and went to word recognition, as if you're reading a Chinese pictograph instead of blending sounds of different letters. I think killing phonics was one of the great causes of illiteracy in the country. Anyway, they had it all worked out that a healthy child at the age of four can learn so many words in a week and that's all. So there were two hundred and twenty-three words to use in this book. I read the list three times and almost went out of my head. I said, I'll read it once more and if I can find two words that rhyme that'll be the title of my book. (That's genius at work.) I found "cat" and "hat" and I said, "The title will be 'The Cat in the Hat.'"

And that is how the Dr. Seuss preschool, sight-word books were born. The publishers believed that if the children could memorize the words in the books, they would be better prepared for the sight-reading instruction they would get in the first grade. That is how we know that the road to dyslexia can start at home even before a child gets to school. Now, if only the reporters at Newsweek had read my book, "The Whole Language/OBE Fraud," they would not have had to reveal how ignorant they are of a problem that has been with us for over 50 years.

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