Designed by 19th century German psychologists in order to improve educational efficiency, whole word became widely adopted in the U.S. in the 1930s. The phonics reading manuals, with words broken down into syllables, were jettisoned in favor of the infamous Dick and Jane books.
Alarm bells rang at the beginning of the 1950s, when the military saw a dramatic drop-off in reading ability among recruits. At first, military brass suspected draftees were faking it, trying to appear less literate to avoid service in the Korean War. In actuality, rejection rates due to illiteracy rose from less than 3 percent in World War II to approximately 17 percent during the Korean War, to 21 percent during the Vietnam War.
After the first salvo was fired in 1955 with the publication of the wildly popular book, Rudolf Flesch’s “Why Johnny Can’t Read,” another war began between the proponents of phonics and whole word. Despite dozens of studies showing that phonics is vastly more effective, public school educators have largely stuck with whole word — with disastrous results.
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- Debbie Hepplewhite
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