John McWhorter’s “subscriber only” columns seem to appear in the online NYT even if you don’t subscribe, but I wouldn’t always count on it, for they also disappear rapidly. His latest column (click on screenshot) is about linguistics—I suspect he’ll alternate between race and politics on one hand and linguistics on the other—and will be of interest mainly to parents with young children, for it’s about the best way to teach kids to read.
Again, compared to what McWhorter is capable of writing when he’s on a roll (and I think he is close to the Orwell/Mencken class of essayist), this one is fairly tedious, though it has useful information you might want if you have kids on the cusp of reading. Like his other columns that don’t hang together well, it’s a pastiche of somewhat related ideas that seem to have been thrown together to meet a deadline.
The first is why English is spelled so un-phonetically, so that words like “comb,” “tomb” and “bomb”, or “tough,” “bough” and “through”, look the same but are pronounced very differently. A kid learning English has to grapple with that. Attempts to spell words phonetically, and he gives a few examples, are ridiculous to our eye.
He then recounts the controversy about “ebonics” (remember that?): the use of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) as a way to teach kids to read. I well remember this controversy, in which white opponents thought that it was going to teach black kids that proper English consisted of the black street vernacular. McWhorter says that’s wrong; it was always intended to engage kids in reading regular English by using their own argot to teach them.
Finally, he makes a big push for what he considers the only proper way to teach kids to read the difficult language of English: phonics. I didn’t learn that way, but you can read about the principle and methodology here and here (there are several teaching methods, and McWhorter favors the “Direct Instruction Method”.
Since I can already read, and don’t have kids, I didn’t find this column of particular interest, but you might, and so I’ll give a few quotes:
Scientific investigators of how children learn to read have proved repeatedly that phonics works better for more children. Project Follow Through, a huge investigation in the late 1960s led by education scholar Siegfried Englemann, taught 75,000 children via the phonics-based Direct Instruction method from kindergarten through third grade at 10 sites nationwide. The results were polio-vaccine-level dramatic. At all 10 sites, 4-year-olds were reading like 8-year-olds, for example.
Crucially, the method works well with poor as well as affluent children. Just a couple decades ago, the method was still kicking serious butt where it was implemented. In Richmond, Va., the mostly Black public school district was mired in only a 40 percent passage rate on the state reading test until the district started teaching the phonics way, upon which in just four years passage rates were up to 74 percent.
However, there is a persistent disconnect between the world of reading science and the world of people teaching children to read. Only 15 percent of programs training elementary-school teachers include actual instruction on how to teach children to read. There remain people who favor the whole word method, or a combination of whole word and phonics, or even no particular “method” at all.
Using phonics, he says, obviates the divisive need for Ebonics, since the “Direct Instruction Method,” whatever that is, works much better than the marginal gains in reading ability of African-American children achieved by teaching them in AAVE. Finally, he recommends a book if your kid isn’t being taught to read via phonics:
In our moment, as our children go back to school, pandemic-related issues are a clear priority for all of us. However, school boards should be pressured as much as possible to teach reading via the Direct Instruction method of phonics. And if they won’t, there’s what I call the magical book: “Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons,” by Englemann with Phyllis Haddox and Elaine Bruner. I’ve seen this method work in my own home, having used it with both of my children and watched that light go on.
McWhorter’s a linguist, so he surely knows whereof he speaks. However, I’d prefer that he write just one column a week, and if it’s about linguistics it should be about as engaging as Pinker’s The Language Instinct. So far McWhorter’s not in that territory, though I haven’t read any of his linguistics books.
I’m looking forward far more eagerly to his upcoming tome, due out October 26. Click on screenshot to go to the Amazon page. You can bet your bippy that this book ain’t getting any starred reviews from Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, or Booklist!