Why Johnny Doesn't Like to Read

According to, an aliterate is “a person who is able to read but rarely chooses to do so.” Aliteracy in America is increasing.

Don Potter commented about a 21 August 2007 AP article by Alan Fram titled One in Four Read No Books Last Year stating,

Should we be surprised that one in four Americans did not read a single book last year when we know that a majority of the American public is suffering from at least some degree of artificially induced whole-word dyslexia? The cognitive conflict caused by reading using the silent, right side of the brain makes reading a very unpleasant, tiring activity. No doubt the exquisite joy of reading poetry has been especially vulnerable since sound is of the essence in poetry.

A May 2001 Washington Post article, The No-Book Report: Skim it and Weep, states:

A 1999 Gallup Poll found that only 7 percent of Americans were voracious readers, reading more than a book a week, while some 59 percent said they had read fewer than 10 books in the previous year. Though book clubs seem popular now, only 6 percent of those who read belong to one. The number of people who don't read at all, the poll concluded, has been rising for the past 20 years.

This is likely caused by whole word teaching, which makes reading unpleasant by introducing “cognitive dissonance” in the brain. Even many programs with "phonics" in their name or programs that do teach some phonics often teach a minimum of 220 sight words, and also often have many features of whole language programs such as guided reading or vocabulary controlled texts. In 40L volunteers' experience with remedial students, these 220 sight words are enough to cause reading difficulties and a dislike of reading in a significant number of children.

Geraldine Rodgers explains how she has experienced this type of unpleasantness when reading shorthand, which forced her into the same method of reading that sight word teaching produces:

Short vowels, present in Gregg shorthand manuals before 1918, were not present in shorthand manuals after that date but only unmarked vowels which could be either long or short. As a stenographer of Gregg shorthand who learned it at the age of sixteen without the use of the critically important short vowels, I can assure anyone that transcribing such Gregg shorthand, with its additional reliance on “brief forms” (a kind of sight word) can only be done with heavy, conscious, context guessing. Although I have taken shorthand rapidly and quite accurately for over fifty years, I find transcribing it requires conscious judgments (“psycholinguistic guessing”) and is therefore unpleasant. I much prefer to use longhand to take notes because I can read it automatically and avoid unpleasant conscious decoding. I pity those who must read all printed matter “psycholinguistically.” It is no wonder they prefer to watch television. [1]

Geraldine E. Rodgers describes how her research led her to discover two radically different types of readers:

My second-grade testing research had indicated that two different types of readers, or various mixtures of those types, are developed as a result of the degree of emphasis on either the “meaning” or “sound” approach in teaching first-grade reading. The “meaning” type reads with the conscious help of context, and so can never read automatically, while the “sound” type reads by the sound of print, not with the conscious use of context, and so can read automatically. [2]

She then goes on to describe the implications of this discovery:

The frightening reality is that the initial teaching method when used on alphabetical print determines the type of reader a child becomes, very possibly for life. The “meaning” method develops a subjective reader, who is permanently crippled by conscious context guessing, and who is unable to read at all unless he consciously concentrates on decoding the print. That leaves only part of his attention free to concentrate on the message, sharply lowering his “reading comprehension” and seriously interfering with his enjoyment from reading. The “sound” method when used on alphabetic print develops an objective reader, who is able to read as automatically as a computer can, with his whole attention left free to concentrate on the message, if he chooses to pay attention. The objective “automatic” reader can therefore enjoy his reading, without focusing consciously on decoding the print, just as a person who walks “automatically” can enjoy the scenery on his walk, without having to concentrate on where he puts his feet. [3]

Rodgers further explains,

Pupils taught by the pure deaf-mute “meaning” method of Picture Story Reading Lessons had developed crippled conditioned reflexes in reading. [4]

On 40L's Dyslexia Page, you can see how to achieve proper conditioning of reflexes, along with a full explanation of how sight words and whole language teaching can induce or increase dyslexia. Recent brain research has found that the adult brain of good readers does not process words as wholes, but instead, as Stanislas Dehaene explains in his article, The Massive Impact of Literacy on the Brain, by analyzing the individual letters and letter teams at the same time in a "massively parallel architecture." [5] More information about brain research is on 40L's dyslexia page. It also explains the cognitive dissonance induced by conditioning the reflexes with whole word methods.

The Hidden Nature of the Reading Problem and its Impact on Vocabulary Development

From 1826 to 1876 and again from 1930 to the present day, whole word methods of many types and names have pervaded American schools.  In Retarding America: The Imprisonment of Potential, Michael Brunner states,

Ever since the late 1920's, the professors of reading have been supportive of one form or another or whole word instruction, many believing this instruction makes learning easier and more rewarding.  The tragic side effect of this deleterious instruction has been countless millions of illiterates and functional illiterates. [6]

The marginal literacy rates in the United States (and Canada and England) are a hidden problem: people can read text that is written at a low vocabulary level because of the high proportion of sight words in such text and can guess many of the rest from context. According to Geraldine Rodgers,

Only about 3,000 of the highest frequency words compose about 98 per cent of almost any discourse. Words from the remaining half-million or so words in English normally compose the remaining two percent of any untreated, natural discourse. However, when written material is artificially simplified in the deliberate attempt to remove that two percent of low-frequency words, the harm that is being done to vocabulary development is hidden. It is usually not even suspected. Such vocabulary control is the real reason for the drop in test scores at the high school and college levels. [7]

It is only when reading difficult material that their reading problems become apparent. Therefore, many people with reading difficulties or who dislike reading don't even realize they have a problem. According to the 1992 National Adult Literacy Survey,

Perhaps the most salient finding of this survey is that such large percentages of adults performed in the lowest levels (Levels 1 and 2) of prose, document, and quantitative literacy. In and of itself, this may not indicate a serious problem. After all, the majority of adults who demonstrated limited skills described themselves as reading or writing English well, and relatively few said they get a lot of assistance from others in performing everyday literacy tasks. [8]

Many children with poor vision think everyone sees the world as blurry as they do. It is only after they get glasses that they realize how poor their vision was. Because they can read material written with controlled vocabulary, which includes more and more books and newspaper articles, and even modern Bibles in a continued dumbing down process, many people with reading difficulties do not even realize they have a problem. They don't realize that they are reading with blurred vision, and that it is possible to enjoy reading even complex material.

According to Geraldine Rodgers, even most teachers are not aware of the extent of the problem right under their noses:

Yet most third grade teachers do not even know there is a real problem. If a child stumbles over a lower frequency word which has not already been taught, the teachers pronounce it and think the problem is solved, because most children can read their controlled-vocabulary sight-word reading books very well and score very well on the phony standardized “reading comprehension” tests given annually. That is, of course, because only l,000 words of the highest frequency compose about ninety per cent of most reading materials. Once children know those 1,000 highest-frequency words (which account for about 90 per cent of almost any material), they are automatically reading above the frustration level on most reading comprehension test materials. They are therefore able to guess the meaning of most of the unknown words in the remaining 10 per cent from the context of the selection, particularly if those words are already in their spoken vocabularies, and they can therefore guess the answers to the questions.

Their inability to read independently only shows up on oral word list tests which lack a written context from which to guess the words, or on demanding materials which contain difficult unknown, low-frequency words, well beyond the 10,000 commonest words.. Such reading disabled children (and most American elementary school children are reading-disabled) cannot pronounce, and therefore “hear,” low-frequency words because they are not already in their spoken vocabularies, even when they can guess the “meaning” of low-frequency words from the context of a selection.

The sounds of words are really only labels for the ideas being named. If the sound of a word cannot be resurrected from memory when it is needed, then the idea behind that word is rendered useless. When reading-disabled children encounter unknown low-frequency words, they may be able to guess their meanings, but the low-frequency words will lack a “sound” hook with which the children could have filed the word in their memories for future use, and with which hook they could have retrieved the word in the future. As a result, instead of accumulating their vocabulary through their reading, as healthy readers can do, reading disabled children cannot increase their vocabulary in a normal fashion, any more than badly taught deaf-mutes can. The stunted vocabularies of reading-disabled children are the real reason for the low so-called “reading comprehension” scores that show up so consistently today at the high school and college levels. [9]

“Context guesses” for little sight-word readers with normal hearing can obviously only be made for words which are already in the little “readers'“ spoken vocabularies. These little sight-word readers lack enough phonic ability to sound out truly unknown words so that they can add them to their spoken vocabularies. For such readers, vocabulary knowledge therefore cannot be increased by reading, but only by listening to oral speech. By contrast, phonic readers can sound out an unknown word from all of its letters and figure out its meaning from the context. Phonic readers therefore add both the spelling and the meaning of a previously unknown printed word to their vocabularies. The effect, of course, is cumulative: phonically-trained readers reach high school with larger vocabularies, besides being able to spell better and to read automatically with ease instead of with conscious, unpleasant, “psycholinguistic,” “whole language” guessing. [10]

This cumulative effect of vocabulary development was termed “The Matthew Effect” by Dr. Keith Stanovich. Stanovich explains in his article Matthew Effects in Reading, "The very children who are reading well and who have good vocabularies will read more, learn more word meanings, and hence read even better. Children with inadequate vocabularies--who read slowly and without enjoyment--read less, and as a result have slower development of vocabulary knowledge, which inhibits further growth in reading ability." [11] Its effects are real, and large, and have been proven in at least one legal case. This online article by Dr. Kerry Hempenstall further explains the Matthew effect, showing the vocabulary differences that accumulate each year:

struggling readers may read around 100,000 words per year while for keen mid-primary students the figure may be closer to 10,000,000, that is, a 100 fold difference. For out of school reading, Fielding, Wilson and Anderson (1986) suggested a similar ratio in indicating that children at the 10th percentile of reading ability in their Year 5 sample read about 50,000 words per year out of school, while those at the 90th percentile read about 4,500,000 words per year. [12]

Here is a comparison of the King James Version (KJV) of Romans 12 to the New International Version (NIV) version of Romans 12 to show both the nature of vocabulary restrictions caused by whole word teaching and also to show how uncomfortable it is to be a reader taught with whole word methods. The KJV is on the first page, the NIV is on the second page. If you were taught with whole word methods, you would have to guess at several of the words (those words not in the most common 10,000 words in the English language) based on their first and last letters. Depending on your memorization abilities, several of the red words would be difficult and would require study, and the purple words would be slightly more difficult to remember. The KJV has 10% of its words that are not the most common 10,000 words in the English language; the vocabulary impoverished NIV has only 2%. If reading everything was this uncomfortable for you, you might prefer TV as well!

In his online article, “The Gift of Language,” Psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple eloquently describes his experiences in England with people who were unable to fully express themselves because of their lack of vocabulary development:

With a very limited vocabulary, it is impossible to make, or at least to express, important distinctions and to examine any question with conceptual care. My patients often had no words to describe what they were feeling, except in the crudest possible way, with expostulations, exclamations, and physical displays of emotion. Often, by guesswork and my experience of other patients, I could put things into words for them, words that they grasped at eagerly….[13]

He explains how his Father was able to get an advanced education, but his uncle was not. He explains how expressive and talkative his father was, yet,

My uncle, by contrast, remained trapped in the language of the slums. He was a highly intelligent man and what is more a very good one: he was one of those rare men, much less common than their opposite, from whom goodness radiated almost as a physical quality. No one ever met him without sensing his goodness of heart, his generosity of spirit.

But he was deeply inarticulate. His thoughts were too complex for the words and the syntax available to him. All through my childhood and beyond, I saw him struggle, like a man wrestling with an invisible boa constrictor, to express his far from foolish thoughts-thoughts of a complexity that my father expressed effortlessly. [14]

He sums up the article with this thought:

Everyone, save the handicapped, learns to run without being taught; but no child runs 100 yards in nine seconds, or even 15 seconds, without training. It is fatuous to expect that the most complex of human faculties, language, requires no special training to develop it to its highest possible power. [15]

This training begins with the proper phonetic training in reading and spelling. Even most phonics programs in the schools today use a fair number of sight words, and most schools do not teach spelling based on phonetic patterns. 40L recommends our online spelling lessons and phonics lessons, or the spelling and reading books and programs listed here.

40L volunteers have remediated many students taught with whole word methods, and the change is amazing. They learn to enjoy reading instead of dreading reading, and their whole outlook on life changes as their self confidence improves.

And yet, as explained above, for many, their reading problem is hidden. You can determine if someone can profit from phonics remediation by giving the MWIA (available from Don Potter's Education Page) or this New Elizabethian test based on a constructed language. Phonetically trained readers will be able to read this constructed language with ease, but those taught with sight words will stumble or be unable to read many of the words at all. Anyone with more than a 10% slowdown on the MWIA needs phonics training. Poor spelling is also usually a result of whole word teaching, and anyone who is a poor speller can benefit from 40L's free online spelling lessons.

1. Rodgers, Geraldine E. "The History of Beginning Reading," 2001, p. 1075

2. Rodgers, Geraldine E. "The History of Beginning Reading," 2001, p. 1737

3. Rodgers, Geraldine E. "The History of Beginning Reading," 2001, p. 1738

4. Rodgers, Geraldine E. "The History of Beginning Reading," 2001, p. 1518

5. Dehaene, Stanislas, "The Massive Impact of Literacy on the Brain and its Consequences for Education," Human Neuroplasticity and Education, 2011, p. 23 [Note: Stanislas Dehaene's 2009 book "Reading in the Brain" has a more detailed explanations and compares many different studies.]

6. Brunner, Michael S.  Retarding America, the Imprisonment of Potential, 1993. p. 37

7. Rodgers, Geraldine E. "The History of Beginning Reading," 2001, p. 1759

8. Adult Literacy in America: A First Look at the Findings of the National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS), August 1993, Available online at:

9. Rodgers, Geraldine E. "The History of Beginning Reading," 2001, p. 1052 - 1053

10. Rodgers, Geraldine E. "The History of Beginning Reading," 2001, p. 14

11. Stanovich, K.E. (1986). Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, 21, p. 381. More reading research from Dr. Stanovich is available at his website.

12. Hempenstall, Dr. Kerry. "The Matthew Effects," ReadbyGrade3 Reading and Reading Disabilities, 1996.

13. Dalrymple, Theodore. “The Gift of Language,” City Journal, Autumn 2006.

14. Dalrymple, Theodore. “The Gift of Language,” City Journal, Autumn 2006.

15. Dalrymple, Theodore. “The Gift of Language,” City Journal, Autumn 2006.