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The season for dyslexia

By Dr. Samuel L. Blumenfeld

About 4 million children will be entering first grade in the public schools this fall. They all expect to be taught to read. After all, that's what school is all about. Some of these children will be better prepared than others. Some of them will already know how to read because of having been taught by their parents. Others will have had little or no previous instruction in reading. And little do they know that, one year from the beginning of school, they will be found to be "learning disabled," or "reading disabled," or "dyslexic."

Parents will be told that their child has a reading problem, that 30 percent of all children experience great difficulty in learning to read, and that the only solution is special education or Ritalin. The latter is prescribed because children experiencing great difficulty in learning to read also become intensely frustrated and can make nuisances of themselves in the classroom. So Ritalin is prescribed to enable the child to concentrate better and sit still in the classroom.

What most parents don't realize is that the reason why their child is having a problem learning to read is because of the way he or she is being taught. Faulty teaching methods can cause reading problems. We've known that since 1955 when Rudolf Flesch wrote his famous book, "Why Johnny Can't Read." In that book, Flesch wrote, "The teaching of reading -- all over the United States, in all the schools, in all the textbooks -- is totally wrong and flies in the face of all logic and common sense."

He then explained how in the early 1930s the professors of education changed the way reading was taught in American schools. They got rid of the alphabetic-phonics method -- which is the proper way to teach children to read an alphabetic writing system -- and put in its place a new whole-word, look-say method that teaches children to read English as if it were Chinese, an ideographic writing system. Flesch argued that when you impose an ideographic teaching method on an alphabetic system, you create reading problems.

So we've known the cause of our reading problem at least since 1955. Yet our schools still insist on using a faulty whole-word methodology in our schools. In the old days it was the Dick and Jane books that were used. Today, the method is called whole-language. The only real difference is that the Dick and Jane textbooks were dull and uninspiring, while today's whole-language teachers can use any reading books they want, including trade books. But do the children learn any better?

Some of today's adults who were taught with the Dick and Jane books can read very well. And that's because most of them were also taught phonics by an older teacher who knew the importance of phonics in learning to read. But today's younger teachers, who never had any phonics training at all, have bought the lie from their professors of education that 30 percent of all children can't learn to read because of something wrong with the children.

The simple truth is that virtually every child can learn to read if properly taught with intensive, systematic phonics. In fact, most reading problems can be avoided by teaching a child phonics at home before he or she goes to school. But that phonics instruction has to be thorough enough so that the child develops a phonetic reflex, that is, the ability to see the phonetic structure of the word he or she is reading.

Why is that important? Because in today's first-grade classrooms, where whole-language is being used, children are being trained to develop a "holistic reflex," that is, they are being trained to automatically look at each word in its whole configuration, like a Chinese character, and to remember it on the basis of its shape, not its letter sounds.

When children develop this "holistic reflex," they automatically become dyslexic, because they cannot see the phonetic structure of the word, since they have had little or no phonetic teaching. Can a parent know when a child is being trained to develop a holistic reflex? Yes, very easily. If your child is being told to memorize a sight vocabulary, that is, a set of words without having been taught what the letters stand for, then you know that your child is on the road to dyslexia.

Many parents think they are doing their child a great service by helping him or her memorize a sight vocabulary. What they are actually doing is helping their child become dyslexic. The definition of dyslexia is the inability to see the phonetic structure of the words being read. Ours is an alphabetic writing system. In other words, we use graphic symbols -- we call them letters -- that stand for the irreducible sounds of the language. Every spoken word can be written by using these symbols.

To teach a child to read phonetically, you first teach the child to recognize the letters of the alphabet, then you drill the child on the sounds the letters stand for with consonant-vowel combinations. For hundreds of years this was done by having children repeat "ba, be, bi, bo, bu," or "ma, me, mi, mo, mu," or "ab, eb, ib, ob, ub," etc. The purpose of the drill was to make sure that the child developed the needed phonetic reflex. Once that was done, the child was then given simple words, sentences, and little stories to read.

This was the method that created the high literacy of our founding fathers, the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence. Back in those days, biblical literacy was considered imperative, and therefore everyone was taught to read either at home or at a dame's school. Those little alphabetic-phonics primers did the job extremely well.

If you want something similar to those old primers, get my book, "How to Tutor." Or get my Alpha-Phonics kit, which has audio tapes for parents who never had phonics but want to teach their children to read phonetically.

The sorry truth is that today's public schools cannot be trusted when it comes to the teaching of reading. To avoid reading problems, dyslexia, cognitive dysfunction, etc., you will have to do the job at home. Fortunately, good teaching materials for parents are now available.

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