Review: Leaving Johnny Behind, by Anthony Pedriana


Leaving Johnny Behind: Overcoming Barriers to Literacy and Reclaiming At-Risk Readers, by Anthony Pedriana. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2010. 202 pp. $32.95 (paperback). (Volume discounts are available by calling Lynsey Weston, 301-458-3366.)

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Conscientious parents and teachers have long wondered why so many educators are hesitant to teach phonics despite its known successes. Anthony Pedriana’s Leaving Johnny Behind: Overcoming Barriers to Literacy and Reclaiming At-Risk Readers answers this perennial question and explains how the educational community shifted from teaching reading based on phonics (alphabetic code) to the “whole-word” or “whole-language” approach.

Pedriana’s book is based on his thirty-five years of experience in education, first as a public school teacher and later as a principal in Milwaukee’s inner-city schools. Although initially committed to the whole word approach—by which students are taught to recognize word shapes rather than word components—he became increasingly frustrated at his students’ lack of reading progress. When a new teacher promised him that she could have every one of her second graders reading at grade level by the end of the year—if he permitted her to use a phonics-based approach called “Direct Instruction”—Pedriana gave her the green light. He was soon astounded by her progress: Even though many of her students were already a year behind, the teacher, using the phonics approach, had 95 percent of her class reading at grade level by the end of the year.

Having witnessed these results, Pedriana wanted all of his teachers to use the “Direct Instruction” method. Although he expected some resistance, he was surprised at how strongly many of the teachers opposed the program and implemented it only halfheartedly. Over the next few years, with the phonics program in place, Pedriana saw some gains made in reading at his school. But without the teachers putting forth the requisite effort and follow-through, these gains were negligible compared to what that one enthusiastic teacher had achieved, and Pedriana accordingly suffered much criticism for the program.

Pedriana soon retired but could not stop thinking about these events. He wanted to understand why a program that promised to help so many students was opposed by teachers, and he wanted to be able to answer critics of the program. Leaving Johnny Behind is the result of his search for answers.

Pedriana details how the conflict over how to teach reading in America unfolded, tracing its beginnings to the mid-1800s. Some educators at the time thought schools were too strict and rigid (indeed, schools of the day often harshly disciplined and ridiculed students). One concerned educator, Horace Mann, secretary of the Board of Education in Massachusetts, visited a school in Germany that was using what he regarded as kinder, gentler techniques to teach students to read, such as displaying helpful pictures above the words being taught so that students would associate the way the word looked with the concept it represented. “Mann found such tactics tailor-made to his progressive agenda that sought to foster literacy through kindness, respect and various other child-centered curriculum” (p. 37). Mann returned to America and began advocating a change in U.S. schools.

Although Mann pushed for the use of the German teaching technique, the method was controversial, and educators initially were hesitant to adopt it. By the early 1900s, however, the approach began to take root. By 1920, “whole-word” reading had mostly replaced phonics, and students began learning to read from books such as Dick and Jane, memorizing the shapes of words rather than letters and sounds.

According to Pedriana, this teaching method was widely used without public protest until the mid-1950s when Rudolph Flesch published Why Johnny Can’t Read. In his book, Flesch attacked the whole-word practices of the progressives. As Pedriana recounts, “[Flesch] was questioning the reasonableness of asking kids to memorize the specific contours of tens of thousands of separate entities when we could build independent word recognition ability with a mere forty-four symbols” (p. 45). Flesch’s book became a best seller and alerted many to the fact that children were struggling to learn how to read while being handicapped by the very method they were taught.

Pedriana reports that, thanks in part to Flesch’s efforts, there are now basically two schools of thought about how to teach reading: the constructivist camp and the “back-to-basics” camp. The constructivist camp emphasizes “whole-language,” “meaning-based,” “child-centered” practices and calls for individuals to construct meaning based on prior knowledge and experience. Constructivists claim that their approach focuses on comprehension and higher-level thinking skills, and that “drill and kill” (as they like to call phonics programs) bores students, turns them away from the joys of reading, and is developmentally inappropriate. The back-to-basics camp, on the other hand, focuses on the alphabetic code and phonics and emphasizes the importance of early instruction and a thorough, direct, systematic approach. As a great deal of research supports the effectiveness of this approach, this side of the debate is often labeled “research-based” practices.

Toward gauging the effectiveness of each approach, Pedriana reviews nine of the most comprehensive reading studies of the past five decades and then summarizes the findings of these reports in two points:

  1. Students who master the correspondence between sound and symbol at early levels are more likely to acquire literacy ability and to advance to higher reading levels than those who don’t.
  2. The ability to combine phonemes so as to recognize unfamiliar words does not in itself represent literacy but is an essential tool in its attainment. (p. 54)

Pedriana notes, with some frustration, that these reports provide unexplored opportunities for the camps in the reading debate to find some “common ground.” Many in the back-to-basics camp, he says, need to recognize that learning to sound out words is not the ultimate goal of learning to read. (That said, to my knowledge, few if any educators teaching phonics would ever claim that sounding out words is an end in itself.) More importantly, however, the constructivist side needs to recognize that a phonics-based approach is crucial to teaching reading. Students simply cannot focus on comprehension and meaning if they do not know what words they are reading.

Pedriana next details how the constructivist camp has worked tirelessly to undermine the scientific support for a phonics-based approach. One of its strategies has been to claim that student-teacher interactions are too complex to be successfully studied scientifically. Another strategy has been to claim that this type of research is invalid because it treats children not as individuals but as “data points.” Constructivists also try to politicize the science by associating the phonics approach with right-wing, conservative agendas. And when it becomes impossible for them to ignore all the research, says Pedriana, the constructivists simply include a small quantity of phonics in a larger, mostly whole-language program and call it “balanced literacy.” But even this smattering of phonics gets weeded out for the most part, as a large percentage of teacher training programs simply fail to teach it.

There is something almost Orwellian about the situation. One faction manages to maintain primacy by engaging in a continuous campaign of misinformation and plausible deniability. They ignore the data, obfuscate its message, and make unwarranted claims in opposition to it. These claims have little basis in scientific fact, but they are so ubiquitous in the literature, and are so appealing to adult sensibilities, that few are willing to take issue with them (p. 109).

From his own experiences in inner-city schools, Pedriana has seen first-hand the devastation wrought by the whole-language experiment. He relates that the children of poor families are often already at a disadvantage when it comes to learning to read: They may be exposed to less language overall, have fewer books in the home, and face economic instability. Without phonics, these children have an even greater difficulty learning to read. Pedriana shows how their failure at reading and in school work increases the likelihood that they will drop out of school and pursue a course that eventually lands them in prison. And he makes the point that although this is primarily a tragedy for these children, we all suffer to some extent through the costs of increased crime and lost productivity.

Although Leaving Johnny Behind has flaws (e.g., Pedriana says that literacy is a “right” that “society” somehow owes each of us), its virtues far outweigh its vices. The book is well researched, well reasoned, and well written. If you are curious about the history of the battle for a proper reading method, or if you need intellectual ammunition to defend the phonics-based approach, you will gain much from this book.

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