Mystery:Why is Phonics Taught in the UK but not the US?

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Same language, same heritage: the U.K. and the U.S. would presumably settle on the same optimal way to teach children how to read English. While the U.K. has chosen phonics for its obvious benefits, the U.S. public schools typically do not use real phonics. Why?

One reason may be the different political incentives in the two countries. The teachers' union is overwhelmingly Democratic.

That is not true, or not as true, in the U.K. The Labour Party is not struggling and does not fear losing power, and does not have as tight a grip over education as the Democratic Party holds in the U.S. Also, the Labour Party is not as dependent on illiteracy to win elections in the U.K.

The National Right to Read Foundation identified the following factors:[1]

  • Forces of tradition.
  • Interlocking relationships between basal reader publishers and reading experts.
  • Refusal of reading experts to accept outside criticism.
  • Reading experts' lack of knowledge about phonics teaching, negative biases toward phonic instruction, and fear that phonics advocacy equals political conservatism.
  • Negative attitudes toward phonics by teachers' organizations.
  • Unsubstantiated information in educational publications.
  • Expectancy that research will not affect teaching practices.
  • Refusal to admit that there is a literacy crisis.
  • Lack of legal redress for malpractice in reading instruction.
  • Establishment of public schools and teacher education as a monopoly.
  • Most teachers use methods of teaching reading that their professors teach them, or they follow the teachers' guide for the textbook series used in their school system, neither of which present logical and systematic instruction in phonics.

In an Education Week article, [12 June 1985], Rudolf Flesch concluded: "Decades of painstaking research have shown that neither our schools nor our teachers are to blame [for the illiteracy problem in America]. Rather, the fault lies with a method of teaching reading that was first proposed for general use in 1927 and has since been adopted in most of our schools. It is called the 'whole-word' [look and say] method because it relies on memorizing the shapes and meanings of whole words. It was introduced with the best intentions: the idea was to make learning to read more fun for our children. Today, it is almost universally used in this country." The results are evident in an illiteracy rate that is the highest in our history. We should not place the blame on our teachers but rather, we need a major overhaul of our teacher training institutions. We will not halt the continued spread of illiteracy in America without this critical reform."[2]


  1. Illiteracy: An Incurable Disease or Education Malpractice? NRRF. 13 May 2008
  2. Illiteracy: An Incurable Disease or Education Malpractice? op cit.