McWhorter on how to teach kids to read

September 4, 2021 • 11:30 am

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!

33 thoughts on “McWhorter on how to teach kids to read

  1. Every human being who reads English fluently learned to decode through phonetic cognition. One might have not been taught it formally, in school or otherwise, but the skill was acquired at some point.

    Here is the test: when encountering a word (which might nor might not be in the person’s vocabulary) can they sound it out, to discover the word?

    Devoid of decoding, a person cannot read English.

    I was thrilled to read McWhorter’s newsletter page when it arrived yesterday. It is a ringing endorsement for the proper solution to the Reading Wars, which is of stupendous importance and relevance.

  2. You can bet your bippy …

    Wow, man, reachin’ all the way back to Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In for that one.

    Like a monk in the Dark Ages solemnly passing down the wisdom of the antiquities.

  3. The educrat establishment is periodically swept by crazes even more fatuous than fads in teenage dress. One such craze, about 60 years ago, was for “whole language” teaching instead of phonics. I know a few adults who read this way, consistently mistaking one word for another of similar appearance; my Down Syndrome son Aaron, who was taught to read between ages 3 and 5 by a phonics-based method, reads more accurately as well as more fluently than these adult victims of educracy.

    The “whole language” fad was followed by the “new math” fad, which helped to foster innumeracy along with illiteracy in the US population. Its contemporary successor is, of course, “ethnomathematics” and various other programs to “decolonize” instruction by substituting woke slogans in place of content. The fashion waves in the Schools of Ed just keep rolling on.

    1. I learned to read by the phonics method around the time of the Kennedy-Nixon campaign, though there were public school systems nearby that we’d heard had begun using the whole-language system. Some of them were also teaching the “new math,” though the nuns at my grade school weren’t having any of that newfangled stuff.

    2. “whole language” came back in the late 1990’s. It made teaching interesting for me in the early 2000’s.

      Things in the ed biz (as Tom Lehrer called it) continue to be interesting. I had several meetings this week that add weight to my feeling that I am too old for it. One speaker (affiliated with a uni that both Prof Ceiling Cat and I have been anointed by) opened with a description of how to apply neurobiology to secondary ed. If you do exercises to build up the myelin sheath in the forebrain, every student can be gifted. (I am not kidding. This was the first five minutes. The psych and bio teachers were, to put it bluntly, shocked. It was a very long two hours)

      I wish that I could say things have changed in over the last forty years, but my level of respect for most ed researchers have been dead stagnant. The standards are low, and the pseudointellectual (to borrow a term from them) and pseudoscientific (to use an appropriate one) structure is pretty much in line with other postmodern `social science’.

      If only I could afford to retire, or at least drop the second job.

  4. Jon, just to amplify ..

    Maria Montessori and all other phonics-first advocates identify the sensitive period for learning to decode at the exact range you mentioned … between 3 and 5.

    Adults who struggle as you identified a) have a smidgen of phonics, but were not taught systematically in the sensitive window; and b) were proactively stamped (by Whole Language activists) with the notion that decoding is not necessary or beneficial.

    I have had success helping near-illiterate adults to gain the skill.

    1. John, I think you are quite right about the “whole language” semi-literate adults I know. Interestingly, my Downser son Aaron, beneficiary of learning to read early through phonics-based instruction, remains fascinated to this day by words qua words. He loves to play Scrabble and UpWords, a more
      complex variant, and is rather good at them, sometimes beating me. Some years ago, a British friend who is a member of the Royal Society joined us in a couple of games, and was astonished at how well Aaron did.

  5. No idea how I learned to read, just that my (one year) older brother taught me, and before I started kindergarten. Which led to me to thoroughly detest having to “learn” go through boring Dick and Jane series. They didn’t even introduce Puff the Cat until the second year, as I recall.

  6. I’m a parent and a retired librarian with experience in adult literacy programs. I enjoyed reading this piece by McWhorter and I wholeheartedly endorse his prescription. I’d like to broach the subject of spelling reform, which he kind of dismisses out of hand. He seems to be saying that it’s all or nothing and that etymology is an important reason to preserve certain spellings. We can and have changed the spellings of Latin, Greek, French, and Old English cognates, such as encyclopedia, economy, color, and plow. Let’s continue to simplify the spellings of the most egregious brain busters, namely, the “igh” and “ough” words. In this connection I’m thinking of the little-known Dr. Seuss book, The Tough Coughes as He Ploughs the Dough. And we shouldn’t worry overly much about etymology. Witness some examples from Spanish: abogado from the Latin advocatus and obispo from the Latinized Greek episcopus.

    1. Spelling reformation can take place rather quickly in societies which are small and highly literate. In Swedish, the words for “some” or “somewhat” are något and någon . A generation or two ago, people just stopped pronouncing the “go” sound in them,, leaving “nåt” and “nån” in common speech. By now, the words are often printed as nåt and nån, although I don’t know if any official academy has recognized this yet for formal Swedish. In English, of course, we have so many discrepancies between pronunciation and spelling that the needed reforms are much larger. Still, some have begun, as witness the frequent sensible spelling of “donut”.

      1. Doughnut … ie a cake/ made out of dough. If I were seeing the word donut for the first time I would not have a clue how to pronounce the word.

        British versus American pronunciation of lieutenant … How many “effs” are their in lieutenant? The same number as there are “Rs” in colonel. I counted them twice.

      2. It works for Swedish also because Swedish isn’t widely spoken outside of Sweden, so it’s easier to agree on and implement spelling changes. The problem with English spelling reform, apart from the decisions that John mentions, is that you’d have to get all the countries in which English is the majority language to agree – and that hasn’t worked out in the past (see UK vs US spelling).

        A good thing about Swedish is that (at least nowadays) words that are borrowed are adapted to Swedish spelling rather than keeping the donor language spelling – so ‘phonetic’ is ‘fonetik’ and ‘umbrella’ is ‘paraply’ (from French ‘parapluie’).

        The one reform I wish we could implement in English is to bring back ‘thorn’ (þ) to represent the interdental sounds now spelt with ‘th’.

        1. I like that idea. I still struggle to figure out which (US vs. UK) spelling to use. I was raised mostly abroad and attended international schools where my instructors for the most part were English speakers of the UK variety. I was homeschooled in the US for 9 mos. between two of these periods, and attempted to teach myself Latin. I’ve been told I speak French with a British accent. I live in the US now and folks are quite condescending when they correct my pronunciation or spelling, not realizing that there is more than one way that is globally accepted.

      1. Thomas Morton’s 18th century English play is titled “Speed the Plough” (and introduced the infamous blue-nose, Mrs. Grundy).

        Whereas David Mamet’s late 20th century American play is titled “Speed-the-Plow” (about the exploits of Hollywood hustler Bobby Gould, who’s always struck me as a kind of updated version of Sammy Glick from Budd Schulberg’s 1941 novel What Makes Sammy Run?).

  7. Wow! I haven’t heard or thought about phonics in a long time. I encountered it in second grade. I kinda sorta learned to read in the first grade, but phonics was a revelation I quickly became a voracious reader and have remained so for 66 years. I was so thrilled I fell in love with my teacher. I used to to linger to be the last to leave class so I could give her a hug. Thank you Mrs. Eubanks!

  8. My first language is Spanish and I came to the United States at the age of 9.

    I was fortunate to come to the US at a time when most of its public schools were overwhelmingly English speaking. English pronunciation is a little hell. But I had grade school teachers who would stay with me after school to practice sounds. Total Eliza Doolittle. My parents, btw, never learned English.

    I don’t have a Spanish accent in English, largely because of the schools I went to. Interestingly enough I know several people who came to the US at same time I did and to the same city….but their Spanish accents in English is unbelievably heavy. It was an issue of how much English v Spanish they were hearing at their schools.

    There was also alot of memory work involved in learning English…..but that is true of many languages.

  9. In recent years, the big thing in the UK for teaching English in the early years has been so-called “synthetic/blended” phonics. I’m not sure that I taught my kids so methodically, but the basic principles are pretty much common sense and they could all read and write by the time they started nursery school/kindergarten (I was a “stay-at-home dad”).

    by Mark Twain (or perhaps an “M.J. Yilz”)

    For example, in Year 1 that useless letter “c” would be dropped to be replased either by “k” or “s”, and likewise “x” would no longer be part of the alphabet.

    The only kase in which “c” would be retained would be the “ch” formation, which will be dealt with later.

    Year 2 might reform “w” spelling, so that “which” and “one” would take the same konsonant, wile Year 3 might well abolish “y” replasing it with “i” and iear 4 might fiks the “g/j” anomali wonse and for all.

    Jenerally, then, the improvement would kontinue iear bai iear with iear 5 doing awai with useless double konsonants, and iears 6-12 or so modifaiing vowlz and the rimeining voist and unvoist konsonants.

    Bai iear 15 or sou, it wud fainali bi posibl tu meik ius ov thi ridandant letez “c”, “y” and “x” — bai now jast a memori in the maindz ov ould doderez — tu riplais “ch”, “sh”, and “th” rispektivli.

    Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld.

  11. When you combine Romance languages with Anglo-Saxon you get what you deserve. English is terribly inconsistent. Phonics works because it is scientific, consistent and practical: it identifies the forty-odd separate phonemes of the language and introduces children to the different spellings of the sounds from the the most common to the rarest.

    There was a fabulous book on the subject about twenty years ago: Why children can’t read and what we can do about it, by Diane McGuinness. Phonics seems to have been resisted for ideological reasons, but we’re getting there, because it works.

    1. I wish my late father had told me more about his views of teaching reading, at which he was expert. I think he used flash cards.

      I believe that some words are best treated as ideograms like Chinese characters, & that you just learn to say the sound when you see the image.

      Recall the ITA system of writing & reading? Look it up but it used special characters to better represent the sounds of English. Any reform of spelling just piles up the problems – it has to be universal, it removes us from the huge body of work already written, & if based on how a word is pronounced, based on whose dialect or sociolect? Otherwise it would vary from person to person.

      Take the few novels written in a style of spelling as pronounced – I think there are a few but the one that comes to mind is Russel Hoban, Riddley Walker. Brilliant writer… hard to get into the style but it works.

      1. Good observation. The English”ideograms” you refer to fall under the category of “sight words” in formal reading instruction and are given special treatment in the wider context of phonics.

  12. Some of us think differently. I am dyslexic and I had to learn to read by learning the shapes of the words. I still can not sound out words. My husband laughs at my attempts to sound out new words and thinks my spelling is hilarious. I have learned to cope by using technology. I can now hear words sounded out and spell check corrects

  13. I learned to read before 1st grade when my mother taught me using a series of phonics cartoon strips printed in the Chicago Tribune. This was in the very early 60’s. In the 80’s I taught both my kids using the same method, and they were reading books before kindergarten.

    The school district, however, emphasized whole-word method and what they called “invented spelling,” meaning no spelling correction until about 4th or 5th grade. Even so, I was shocked to discover that, in 2d grade, my daughter was testing between a 7th and 11th grade level in reading. And I was also highly suspicious. No. She was bright, but that made no sense.

    When I finally got ahold of the test and a teacher to explain how it was measured, it turned out that, if she could read the words “equivocal,” “abstract,” and “hindrance,” it was counted as having a high school level vocabulary. I actually had to point out to the teacher that being able to pronounce the words, and being able to comprehend them, were two different things.

    1. I wonder if she did know the meaning? My son was taught to read using phonics (we had him in a small private school – mixed age classrooms, classical education style) but I still remember it being painful. He was clever enough to guess what the words in the Bob Books should be, and would just fake his way through without actually reading each word. I had been an early reader, and so was dismayed at how long it seemed to take. I seriously worried there was something wrong. However, slow and steady can still win the race, and when he did take to his first novel, it was a whirlwind of reading. He’s always had an excellent vocabulary (probably partly because he’s an only child whose parents never dumbed-down their words for him). He probably could have read, and loosely defined those words in second grade, if not perfectly.

  14. I attended the University of Oregon and was taught Direct Instruction by Zig Engelmann. Zig and his approach to learning have been marginalized by educational leaders to the detriment of all students because it didn’t match their preconceived notions about what constituted proper instruction, e.g., whole language. As Pogo might have put it, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

  15. I was personally highly motivated to learn to read and picked up on it easily. I don’t remember any frustration. I was taught how to write my name in pre-school (age 4), and in kindergarten we started with basic words and something that must have been phonics, which was taught throughout 1st grade, and that’s all I really remember of the instruction since I rapidly accelerated to reading several grades ahead and devoured anything that came my way. I peaked early, I guess. But being hooked on phonics seemed to work for almost all of the kids in the class to read at the appropriate grade level.

  16. In first grade I stayed many a night with my grandparents. He was the principal of my school. (His formal pedagogical training consisted of two summers at a teachers college.) I would read to him an hour a night, a minimum of four nights a week. He basically employed phonics, though he never uttered the word. If I mispronounced a word he would correct me. (I had a bit of trouble with the word “ancient.”) It was pretty straight-forward. He was a conscientious teacher, I a conscientious pupil. By the end of the Year he had me at the seventh grade reader. I could have easily enough been at 8th or higher. So much for graduate specialist degrees in reading. Seems at least some parents could do this, as opposed to taking the infotainment/entertainment path of least resistance via television, the laptop or the smartphone.

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