Turning Back the Tide of Illiteracy

The purpose of this book is to combat illiteracy in America – a purpose the author ably achieves by showing us what is required, both in theory and in practice, in learning to read.

The book begins by explaining that there is a crisis in reading today because children never learn the means of breaking the code of written language: phonics. Under the phonics method, children are taught to analyze a printed word through its component syllables and letters, thereby discovering for themselves its sound. But today's education establishment is opposed to instruction in phonics. It is better, teachers claim, that children begin immediately with a complete word, like "house," which they already understand. This is the "whole language" approach to reading, by which students must immediately recognize the unique form for each and every word.

As Hoerl points out, this approach re- quires much more memorization than phonics does – indeed, an impossible amount. Phonics, by contrast, reduces writing and reading to a manageable number of rules. Research consistently shows that phonics works best because, as Hoerl states, only phonics teaches a child how to read.

Hoerl realizes that this issue of reading is actually an issue of thinking: "The real horror was that these students were crippled in their ability to think. Instead of learning to struggle through problems – using logic to figure things out – they had learned to guess. . . . This left them helpless in mathematics and science classes."

The rest of the book – its major part – is a practical manual for teaching to read with phonics. The anti-phonics premise is now so ingrained that even if a teacher or parent wants to teach a child phonics, he simply doesn't know how to do it. It is precisely for such a person that Hoerl's book is written.

The lessons are divided into six sets. Set I focuses on the 26 letters of the alphabet and short vowel sounds. (As in Montessori education, the child begins with writing rather than with reading.) Set II introduces the long vowel sounds, and Sets III to VI teach consonant combinations and the main rules of spelling necessary for writing and reading. At the end of the six sets of lessons, Hoerl writes, "children are experts in systematic phonics and can read anything they can understand."

Hoerl does occasionally make unwarranted concessions, sometimes suggesting that her method – which is pure phonics – somehow includes "whole language" elements. But such minor flaws aside, this is a very valuable book for anyone who wishes to teach children to become literate – and who wishes to understand why their teachers will not or cannot.

(214 pages)

This review is courtesy of and copyright © by the Ayn Rand Bookstore.