Illiteracy: An Incurable Disease or Education Malpractice?

Illiteracy: An Incurable Disease or Education Malpractice?
by Robert W. Sweet, Jr.
President and Co-Founder
The National Right to Read Foundation

Illiteracy in America is still growing at an alarming rate and that fact has not changed much since Rudolf Flesch wrote his best-selling expose of reading instruction in 1955. Illiteracy continues to be a critical problem, demanding enormous resources from local, state, and federal taxes, while arguments about how to teach children to read continue to rage within the education research community, on Capitol Hill, in business, and in the classroom.

The International Reading Association estimates that more than one thousand research papers are prepared each year on the subject of literacy, and that is very likely a low figure. For the past 50 years, America’s classrooms have been used by psychologists, sociologists, educationists, and politicians as a giant laboratory for unproven, untried theories of learning, resulting in a near collapse of public education. It is time we begin to move away from “what’s new” and move toward “what works.”

The grim statistics

According to the National Adult Literacy Survey, 42 million adult Americans can’t read; 50 million can recognize so few printed words they are limited to a 4th or 5th grade reading level; one out of every four teenagers drops out of high school, and of those who graduate, one out of every four has the equivalent or less of an eighth grade education.

According to current estimates, the number of functionally illiterate adults is increasing by approximately two and one quarter million persons each year. This number includes nearly 1 million young people who drop out of school before graduation, 400,000 legal immigrants, 100,000 refugees, and 800,000 illegal immigrants, and 20 % of all high school graduates. Eighty-four percent of the 23,000 people who took an exam for entry-level jobs at New York Telephone in 1988, failed. More than half of Fortune 500 companies have become educators of last resort, with the cost of remedial employee training in the three R’s reaching more than 300 million dollars a year. One estimate places the yearly cost in welfare programs and unemployment compensation due to illiteracy at six billion dollars. An additional 237 billion dollars a year in unrealized earnings is forfeited by persons who lack basic reading skills, according to Literacy Volunteers of America.

The federal government alone has more than 79 literacy-related programs administered by 14 federal agencies. The total amount of money being spent on illiteracy by the federal government can only be guessed at, because there has never been a complete assessment prepared. A conservative estimate would place the amount at more than ten billion dollars each year, and growing steadily.

Why does America have a reading problem?

The question that must be asked is this: Why does America have a reading problem at all? We are the most affluent and technologically advanced of all the industrial nations on earth. We have “free” compulsory education for all, a network of state-owned and -operated teachers’ colleges, strict teacher certification requirements, and more money and resources dedicated to educating our children than any other nation on earth.

Rudolf Flesch, author of “Why Johnny Can’t Read,” wrote the following in a letter to his daughter in 1955, after teaching his grandson to read:

“Since I started to work with Johnny, I have looked into this whole reading business. I worked my way through a mountain of books and articles on the subject, I talked to dozens of people, and I spent many hours in classrooms, watching what was going on.

What I found is absolutely fantastic. 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. Johnny couldn’t read until half a year ago for the simple reason that nobody ever showed him how.”

Time magazine called his book “the outstanding educational event of that year” and suggested that he represented “the devil in the flesch” to the education establishment.

There is an answer to “why Johnny can’t read,” but the answer is tough medicine to swallow. It requires education professionals, who for years have been engaged in a form of education malpractice, to admit that the methods of teaching reading they have vigorously advocated and staunchly defended ever since the 1930’s are dead wrong.

If we are to seriously reverse the increasing number of illiterate adults in America and prevent the problem of illiteracy, we must swallow the medicine, as quickly as possible, and reject the instructional methods that have resulted in the widespread illiteracy we have today.

Here’s what you can do:
1. Establish a chapter of The National Right to Read Foundation in your community.
2. Identify parents, teachers, and community leaders who are successfully teaching phonics to children at home or in the classroom.
3. Organize workshops where trained teachers can share the benefits of phonics instruction with parents, teachers, school board members, and the press.
4. Teach your child to read at home, before he or she goes to school.
5. Submit an article to your local newspaper describing how your child learned to read using phonics.


11 thoughts on “Illiteracy: An Incurable Disease or Education Malpractice?

    1. Sadly, I’m sure most every politician has read Machiavelli. And even if they haven’t, they know how much easier it is to govern the illiterate.
      No one read the Bible until Luther came along. Before that, everyone learned from looking at pretty pictures. Subsequently the Catholic church lost it’s monopoly on Christianity.


  1. Jack Barlow

    Thomas Jefferson cited a direct correlation between literacy, citizenship and successful self-government. With literacy came knowledge and discernment and with these came the means of safeguarding self-government and independence. Jefferson hypothesized that literacy and self-government work hand in hand and was a key component to self-preservation. The basis for Jefferson’s belief system on the merits of literacy was derived from his own personal experiences related to reading in the pursuit of knowledge.
    Reading paved the way for self-discipline, self-governance, and self-efficacy. Jefferson viewed the link between literacy and successful citizenship as unambiguous and direct. He saw literacy as a liberating and transforming force the equalizer for the masses and the essential mechanism necessary for human liberation.


  2. Remembering back to when I learned to read in the fifties, my brother was positioned as my teacher, sitting on the sofa together while he listened to me read. Our mother would listen in the background and help sound out words phonetically. At school there was ‘backup’ on the walls of the words in the Dick, Jane and Spot books that we’d been reading at home.

    Then it was my little sister’s turn and we sat on the sofa together reading about Dick, Jane and Spot. Through ‘phonetically sounding out the words’, sheer repitition and someone who would work with her, my sister learned to read.

    Early in my life, before school, my mother introduced me to the library. I was not able to check out books until I could write my name in pencil on the accompanying card in the book. I still remember my first time writing on the card, getting the card stamped and walking home with the books in my arms. All my senses were engaged! Can you remember that smell of the books as you turned the pages to pick them out and read them at home? My world grew!

    Libraries would give summer contests for anyone willing to read. Just keep a log of all the books and then show up for the final party at the park. Many summers were filled with books that caused my mind to soar. Little did I know that the foundation of an author was being built inside me.

    We have campaigns, “No Child Left Behind”, or “Reading is Fundamental”, but what really keeps us a literate natiion is family. Unfortunately we see more families ‘fractured’ and no one is there who is ‘sitting on the sofa and sounding out words’ for the child to learn to read.

    This is only a portion of the literacy issue, but just like “Reading is Fundamental”, family is foundational. Begin a ‘foundation’ of literacy early in your children’s lives, give them a respect for the written word, and spend time enjoying the pleasure of reading together.


  3. Kathe Molloy

    Hi Philip,
    That is a great article and right on th money as far as I’m concerned. Up until recently I’ve worked in public school classrooms for 25 years and I have been in despair over the teaching of reading for most of those years. I will never forget the day I was working at a desk in the hallway with a second grader who was having difficulty reading. I started teaching him the phonetic way. After fifteen or twenty minutes he looked up at me, eyes shining and said, “Hey, I can do it, I can read!” He got so excited, it was wonderful to see him. As we progressed I continued to coach him when he needed it. Apparently the “reading specialist” who was in the classroom teaching the other children finally worked her way to where she could hear us out in the hall. She came out of the doorway, I could tell she was angry with me but didn’t want to show it in front of the student, she said, “That is NOT the way we teach reading here.” Then she proceeded to show the child how he was suppose to look at the pictures to try and figure out what the story was about. She then looked at me and said, “That is the way we do it here.” When she left his excitment was all gone. It broke my heart so much to see his face I moved down the hall with him and continued working with him the way I had been before she came out. The whole situation was such a sad commentary on how children are taught, or not taught, to read.

    Posted by Kathe Molloy


    1. Wow! I volunteer in my children’s school and I’m trying to get some teachers to look at teaching phonics more. Many have been excited to have the help.

      I understand looking at pictures and using all the strategies. Sounds like this teacher doesn’t understand the real balance necessary to read! Phonics is the foundation! It would be like trying to teach multiplication to a child who has no number sense.

      Anyone who feels phonics is the foundation and knows of a school or teacher ignoring this fact needs choose some form of action to help remedy the situation. Let’s walk the walk!


  4. Jennifer Gottesman

    My son is one of those children. He was in sixth grade when his test scores revealed that he was reading at a forth grade level. He basically had been faking/struggling his way through school. By the time he was in 9th grade, I threatened to go to the local paper and tell them that they were going to knowingly pass an illiterate student to graduation if I didn’t get some help. That prompted a chain of reactions that ultimately led to him teaching himself how to read. Fifteen after this son, I had another son. I put him in private school. He’s thirteen now & thriving.
    Posted by Jennifer Gottesman


  5. THANK YOU for addressing this problem, offering solutions, and suggesting ways people can get involved in finding a solution!!!!
    I have a blog to support parents teaching a child to read. It offers teaching tips and resources that are phonics based.
    I’ll share the story of how my children learned to read and some problems my daughter had because of the way her school taught reading.


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