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Why Johnny Can't Read--And What You Can Do About It

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The classic book on phonics--the method of teaching recommended by the U.S. Department of Education. Contains complete materials and instructions on teaching children to read at home.

240 pages, Paperback

First published October 28, 1966

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About the author

Rudolf Flesch

26 books27 followers
From Wikipedia,

Rudolf Flesch (8 May 1911 – 5 October 1986) was an author, readability expert, and writing consultant who was an early and vigorous proponent of plain English in the United States. He created the Flesch Reading Ease test and was co-creator of the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Test. He was raised in Austria and finished university there, studying law. He then moved to the United States and entered a graduate program at Columbia University, where he earned a Ph.D in English.

Flesch was born in Vienna, Austria. He fled to the United States to avoid the imminent invasion of the Nazis, to avoid Jewish prosecution. Once in America, he met Elizabeth Terpenning, whom he married. They had six children: Anne, Hugo, Jillian, Katrina, Abigal, and Janet. Flesch lived the majority of his life with his wife and children in Dobbs Ferry, New York, a small village in southern Westchester county.
[edit] Professional Information

Not long after finishing his degree, he wrote what became his most famous book, Why Johnny Can't Read, in 1955. The book was a focused critique of the then-trendy movement to teach reading by sight, often called the "look-say" method. The flaw of this approach, according to Flesch, was that it required learners to memorize words by sight. When confronted with an unknown word, the learner was stumped. Flesch advocated a return to phonics, the teaching of reading by teaching learners to sound out words.

Flesch flourished as a writing teacher, plain-English consultant, and author. He wrote many books on the subject of clear, effective communication: How to Test Readability (1951), How to Write Better (1951), The Art of Plain Talk (1946), The Art of Readable Writing (1949), The ABC of Style: A Guide to Plain English (1964), and Rudolf Flesch on Business Communications: How to Say What You Mean in Plain English (1972).

Flesch produced three other books of note:

In The Art of Clear Thinking (1951), Flesch consolidates research data and then-recent findings from the fields of psychology and education, and suggests how his readers can apply that information in their daily life. As he writes in his introduction, "It would be impudent to tell intelligent, grown up people how to think. All I have tried to do here is to assemble certain known facts about the human mind and put them in plain English."

In Lite English (1983), Flesch advocated the use of many colloquial and informal words. The subtitle of the book reveals his bias: Popular Words That Are OK to Use No Matter What William Safire, John Simon, Edwin Newman, and the Other Purists Say!

And in 1979, Flesch published a book he had produced while working as a communication and writing consultant to the Federal Communications Commission: How to Write Plain English: A Book for Lawyers and Consumers. This book was and is a "how to" for writing rules and regulations that must be read and understood by the general public.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 39 reviews
Profile Image for Meghan.
243 reviews33 followers
March 5, 2015
This is a highly opinionated book. It is inflammatory. Mr Flesch believes the educational system is completely misguided in their approach to reading. Although schools now say they use a 'balanced literacy' approach, locally our schools still follow the same outdated sight-words methods.. and Mr Flesch hit the nail on the head.

I loved it.

As a parent to a sight-words failure, this information is exactly what I needed. And it explains a number of issues my 'good' reader had as well (couldn't spell his way out of a wet paper bag, a lot of guessing, no comprehension).

But you can read the reviews for that stuff yourself.

What I wanted specifically to talk about is his phonics lessons in the back of this book. Between those incremental lessons and my instruction, my non-reading, book phobic daughter is finally reading effectively. Unlike her sight-words brother, she doesn't guess and can easily sound out almost anything. It is not exaggeration to say the lessons in this book were life-changing for her. And with a better understanding of the role of phonics in reading, I was able to suppliment my son's knowledge and he is a better reader, better speller, and enjoys the activity much more.

I understand the appeal of sight-words lists: kids seem to read much faster, and it looks stunning. Phonics can be a drag, is slow, and can be boring. But the journey is worth it. Mr Flesch has my undying devotion.
Profile Image for Anna Mussmann.
422 reviews68 followers
June 24, 2020
This book is on the syllabus for a class I wish I could take but can’t, so I read it as a sort of consolation prize.

It’s the classic text on why it’s (much, much) better to teach children phonics than to use the whole-language approach that dominated American public schools for a number of decades and still persists, to varying degrees, today. Until recently I had assumed that all modern schools have reinstated phonics, but my observation of local instruction (based on non-scientific evidence like talking to neighbors and a news article I happened to read) has made me realize this isn’t always true.

Overall Flesch is highly convincing--he left me wondering what on earth those whole-language educators were thinking. When it comes to the details he does make a few simplifications or overly-sweeping statements. I raised my eyebrows at his blithe assurance that dyslexia will not exist if students are taught phonics properly.

It was interesting to me that he complained that American schools need to start reading instruction earlier so as to be on-par with British schools and to overcome the disadvantage of possessing a less-phonetic language than those lucky German, Spanish, and Scandinavian kids. I’ve noticed that vintage textbooks for children do seem to expect a lower level of academic work and to give first or second-graders exercises that would seem more suitable to preschool and kindergarten nowadays. That must be what Flesch is reacting against. However, the frantic modern rush to make three-year-olds sit in chairs at school and practice handwriting has caused real problems, and isn’t a great solution either.

I’m already familiar with teaching phonics, but this book was a confirmation of how important phonics are and a colorful look at one aspect of the history of education. Flesch is a lively writer and makes his subject fun to read about.
Profile Image for Ginette.
77 reviews1 follower
October 25, 2012
I am a strong advocate for teaching kids how to read using the phonics "method." I put method in quotes, because, until I came to live in the States (I grew up and went to school in France), I didn't know that there was any other method for teaching alphabet-based languages. But apparently there is.

When I went to school to get my grades 1-8 teaching certification, we were given an overview of the various ways of teaching reading. When I got my first job as a 3rd grade teacher, I found out that the school used Reading Mastery (a direct-instruction, phonics-based reading program). I remember in the interview that it was kind of a big deal that I agree with teaching this method. It sounded great to me, because of course we would teach phonics. Also, this program is scripted, so it was a relief for me as a new teacher to know that the program would basically tell me how to teach. I had to attend a course to learn how to teach RM, which involves hand signals, never deviating from the script, and knowing exactly how to respond if a child gets a sound or word wrong. As a teacher, I loved the program, and I saw great strides being made by struggling students. I was shocked by how many students didn't know how to read at that age, so using a program that had such great results made complete sense to me. After I left teaching and became an editor, I continued to struggle with trying to understand why so many kids didn't know how to read in 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades. I am an editor of a phonics-based program, so I learned that phonics programs compete against whole-language programs. But I still didn't have a clear idea of what exactly whole language is. And then I picked up this book. It stunned and horrified me. And it all started to make sense. It actually made me want to go back into teaching.

And so now I say, read this book. Know what the two methods are. Know how your kids are being taught, and supplement their education with teaching them phonics if you need to.

Also, I want to hear about peoples' experiences with whole language, not only their own, but also their children's. I am trying to get a clearer picture of how prevalent whole-language still is. I want to know how people actually learned how to read if they did go to a school that taught whole-language. According to interviews conducted with students who were successful in such schools, they were either taught phonics by a parent, or they figured it out on their own that letters are connected to sounds. I add to the list those students who have a photographic memory and can learn whole words by sight.

My daughter goes to a school that uses a comprehensive literacy program which basically melds the two into one program. I don't necessarily have a problem with that, and that is probably what a lot of schools are doing, as long as phonics is a strong component of the program and is taught properly (basically, teach letter-sound and sound-spelling correspondences, and don't allow your students to guess at what they are reading, particularly if they are new to your class and come from a whole-language background). I am also not worried because my daughter was taught phonics at home long before she started kindergarten.

I plan on continuing to do some research, because I feel like I am finally getting at the root of a deep-seated problem. I know there are other factors at play with some kids struggling with reading, but I think this one is a whopper of a factor. I recently heard someone state that our reading program is hard to teach, not because it is hard to understand, but because it's challenging, but hey, teaching IS difficult if done properly, and it might mean going the extra mile to get struggling readers to where they need to be. I might mean working twice as hard to undo the damage that has already been done. But I think the results are worth it. As Marva Collins has said, these kids are our future teachers, doctors, lawyers, leaders, so it's also in our own interest, not just in the kids' interest.
Profile Image for Lisa.
794 reviews17 followers
March 1, 2011
Reading fascinates me. I went to college to prepare to teach young children to learn to read. In the end the math won out because it is so much more fun to teach all the way through school, and I really belong with older students.

This book is really important because it tries to show through the author's own experiments how much more effective phonics is than sight reading. This book was written in 1955 and newer experiments should be conducted to verify Flesch's results.

This book also includes 72 word lists and detailed directions on teaching reading. While I agree with Flesch's basic idea, I do think teachers or parents could deviate from the precise directions found in the book and still be successful.

This book caused me to reflect on my early days in the first grade when I learned to read from Dick and Jane basal readers (sight reading!) The books were stupid, but I was a good reader so I didn't let that bother me. I received a gift of 4 Doctor Seuss books for my 6th birthday and I followed my mom around the house reading them to her. I remember that clearly.

At the beginning of the 3rd grade my family moved to Virginia and I remember the class reading out loud from our various textbooks. Someone got stuck on a word and the teacher told the student to "sound it out." Wow, how about that? From that, I taught myself to sound words out.

I tried to remember what I was taught in college about how to teach reading. I think we were told about about phonics and sight reading and that we would teach whatever the school system told us to teach.

I thought it would be fun to teach my baby brother to read when I came home for the summer. My mom borrowed some phonics books from the neighbor. David, then 4, picked up the books and taught himself to read before I got home.

After graduation I taught kindergarten at an inner city Catholic school. Of course a Catholic school is going to go with phonics. I taught the kids in groups, and most of them were reading at least somewhat by the time school ended. It was a fantastic experience!

Later I taught my 4 year old son to read using phonics (nothing as elaborate as Flesch's plan). While he was kindergarten age, he was reading chapter books. The teacher had no idea. She told me at the end of the year, I should pick up some Bob books (sight reading I think)because he was probably ready for them. What were they doing in school?

The one thing that was not addressed in this book, which is directed mostly to parents, is that first you must convert the kids to books. I call it "convert" because you want the kids to love books and be deeply interested in them. Well, maybe I am just a zealot when it comes to books. When the kids are really little, buy them the board books. As they get older, buy or check out books with real pages and fantastic pictures. Get them the stuff they like. Look at the books together and laugh at them together, act scared at the spooky stuff, be totally silly, and generally cut loose. Here is a great tactic: tell them too early that it is time for bed. They can't tell time, but they never want to go to bed anyway. When they are in bed and begging you not to leave, agree reluctantly to read them just one book. After the book, agree to another one. You can read to them as long as you want and they will love it. When they are old enough to read to themselves, make them go to bed and tell them they can read for 15 minutes. They will still be reading an hour later when you go to check on them. They will be converted.

Nothing succeeds like success. Start early and celebrate your child's accomplishments with a high five and a hearty hug and laugh. Celebrate with a special dinner your child chooses and announce that dinner is in recognition of Johnny reading his first book all by himself--you have to eat anyway. If your kids are poor readers, they will hate school and do poorly in subjects that depend on reading.

Next, convert them to the math!
Profile Image for Jeff Ford.
133 reviews4 followers
August 4, 2014
Great book! I found chapter two most enlightening. It is interesting that we tend to view knowledge as something that can be constantly improved upon. Education is constantly reinventing itself but not always for the better. I think the phonics approach as explained by Flesch makes perfect sense.
55 reviews6 followers
July 21, 2009
I am reading this now, even though C is 2, so that i can be "in the know" when she's ready to learn to read. While it is outdated by many years, its message is a good one...that teaching phonics thoroughly first is the easiest and most successful route to a good reader (and speller!!!!) and not just a good guesser of words. He includes a helpful section in the back of his book for use at home. Thanks for the recommendation, Gina! I can clearly see why you emphasized its importance. :)
Profile Image for Kristen Rudd.
113 reviews10 followers
February 23, 2015
This might have just become my top recommendation for parents who are interested in homeschooling their kids. I don't know where the whole language vs. phonics debate stands now, decades after this was written, but I am one hundred percent sold on phonics. If you have kids or are interested in education, read this book. I'm buying this one as soon as I can get to a bookstore.
Profile Image for Krystal.
397 reviews
May 9, 2013
I've been wanting to read this for awhile. Basically it's going to be a book about why teaching kids phonics is better than teaching them the look-and-say method when teaching beginning reading. I'm already a firm believer in phonics, but I'm reading this book to find out more about why phonics works so well and the look-and-say method doesn't.
Profile Image for Bernadette.
374 reviews
November 20, 2015
Classic on reading, & best book for teaching reading to one's children, family & friends. Builds on phonetic approach to learning. Very hands on, good explanatory exercises. Used this to teach my own children to read as toddlers; all were reading before 4 years old, consistently read above grade level in school, and are adults who share a love of reading.
Profile Image for Tammy.
70 reviews2 followers
May 23, 2023
Must read if you have a kid or know a kid. We have failed our children and now adults. Everyone should be able to read. Everyone. We have a lot of work to do to fix this. Follow this book by Reading Crimes if the Educators. I’m using Blumenfeld’s Alpha Phonics (a primer for beginning readers) to help restore sanity to our society!
Profile Image for duKe.
86 reviews4 followers
March 6, 2021
A well researched and comprehensive study of the mechanics behind reading and writing.

Phonics is the answer.
Sight word reading is not.

I will be teaching my students, and children this method to equip them with the skills and love of reading and writing that ever person should possess.
Profile Image for Jia Jung.
93 reviews1 follower
April 10, 2014
The only reason I read this book is because my father was taught how to read from it (why this came about is a whole 'mother story)….and I'm so glad I did.

Flesch's impassioned writing had so much more verve and currency to modern language than one could ever expect out of a manual of English language and instruction, much less one written in the 1955. Also, everything he said was very true in a dire time; the dark ages between the 1920s and sometime around the 60s when the entire American educational systemdecided to drop phonic-based teaching for the "word method" of memorizing visual shapes of words. As a result, the youth of America trailed severely far behind other developed nations in literacy.

While reading this, my own education came rushing back…"A…E…I…O…U…"…These memories mean that I was so fortunate as to have begun my learning when the school system had come back to its senses (probably largely in thanks to this book) and reverted to the phonic method of teaching language. This book helped me to realize that the way I learned was not just a gift, but the hard won result of a real fight against the educational book industry's insistence that this ridiculous fad was legitimate. Good thing, or we'd really be in trouble as a nation today.
Profile Image for Zalee Harris.
16 reviews5 followers
June 12, 2014
Regardless to age, Johnny and Twanna need to be taught life skills and be re-taught how to read using the purest form of phonics. Yes, whether Johnny or Twanna is 3 or 30, they need to be taught how to sound out the alphabet. They need to learn and understand the vowels. They need to learn to read properly formed sentences. They need to learn how to use the dictionary and thesaurus. When Johnny and Twanna can start learning on their own, they will want to learn more. Once they are able to self-learn they can do anything their hearts desire.

Its that simple.
Profile Image for Jessica Bingham.
315 reviews9 followers
June 19, 2013
I must remember to buy this book when I have children. The reading exercises listed are so easy to follow. This book was written over 60 years ago and the information is still relevant. I also liked that Durham and Wake county school test results were listed from the 1930's. Interesting read!!
Profile Image for Britarya.
162 reviews1 follower
October 24, 2017
Awww, lol! ;P I randomly thought about this book; it must have been good because it taught me how to read. So many nostalgic memories. I do recall though that I did not enjoy learning from that book one bit, and I even hid it from my mom sometimes; *sigh* the struggles of childhood- I wish my biggest problems were still easy things like having to learn to read :P
17 reviews6 followers
January 22, 2016
Fascinating read about American methods to teach reading. Amazingly, the whole word method is still widely used in public schools across the country despite the research and evidence against it. I'm glad to see that the teaching methods Flesch suggest are utilized by our homeschool curriculum, A Beka.
Profile Image for Fishface.
3,083 reviews224 followers
January 30, 2016
A badly-needed book to combat the idiotic methods teachers use to teach reading in American schools. A section at the back allows the concerned parents to take matters into their own hands and teach the kids themselves, if they have to. And these days, they do have to.
Profile Image for Aaron Slack.
Author 1 book12 followers
November 11, 2012
An absolutely fantastic introduction to and summary of phonics, as well as a critique of look-say and whole language.
2 reviews
April 4, 2013
Refreshing read. If you think English is difficult to read, it is normal because the consonants and the vowels used in it NEVER reflect the accurate pronunciation of the words involved.
210 reviews
August 16, 2013
Goodbye Dick and Jane!!! Thank goodness someone out there is reasonable when it comes to proper reading education. :)
26 reviews
June 2, 2016
Very dated, but fascinating. Especailly interesting to note that remedial reading classes aren't necessary in Western Europe because the children are taught phonics from the get-go.
Profile Image for Eliso.
5 reviews
May 9, 2022
p. 5 ''The teaching of reading in the United States flies in the face of all logic and common sense''. He explained that by the 1930s, to rid their classrooms of what one education professor called ''heartless drudgery'', America's reading teachers abandoned the alphabetic code and began to teach children to guess and memorize the meanings of the tens of thousands of words they would see in print.

''What I suggested'', Flesch said recently, ''was very simple: go back to the ABC's. Teach children the 44 sounds of English and how they are spelled. Then they can sound out each word from left to right and read it off the page''. What he advocated has come to be known as phonics-first instruction.

p. 13 Our system of writing -the alphabet- was invented by the Egyptians and the Phoenicians somewhere around 1500 b.c. Before the invention of the alphabet there was only picture writing -a picture of an ox meant ''ox'', a picture of a house meant ''house'', and so on. (The Chinese to this day have a system of writing with symbols that stand for whole words.) As soon as people had an alphabet, the job of reading and writing was tremendously simplified. Before that, you had to have a symbol for every word in the language -10,000, 20,000 or whatever the vocabulary range was. Now, with the alphabet, all you had to learn was the letters. Each letter stood for a certain sound, and that was that. To write a word -any word- all you had to do was break it down into its sounds and put the corresponding letters on paper.

p. 14 Except, as I said before, twentieth-century Americans -and other nations in so far as they have followed our example. And what do we use instead? Why, the only other possible system of course- the system that was in use before the invention of the alphabet in 1500 b.c. We have decided to forget that we write with letters and learn to read English as if it were Chinese.

p. 20 It's a foolproof system all right. Every grade-school teacher in the country has to go to a teacher's college or school of education; every teachers' college gives at least one course on how to teach reading; every course on how to teach reading is based on a textbook; every one of those textbooks is written by one of the high priests of the word method. In the old days it was impossible to keep a good teacher from following her own common sense and practical knowledge; today the phonetic system of teaching reading is kept out of our schools as effectively as if we had a dictatorship with an all-powerful Ministry of Education.

And how do you convice thousands of intelligent young women that black is white and that reading has nothing to do with letters and sounds? Simple. Like this:

First, you announce loudly and with full conviction that our method of writing English is not based on pronunciation. Impossible, you say? Everbody knows that all alphabetic systems are phonetic? Oh no. I quote from page 297 of Reading and the Educative Process by Dr. Paul Witty of Northwestern University: ''English is essentially an unphonetic language''.

This is so ridiculous that it should be possible to just laugh about it and forget it. But the reading ''experts'' have created so much confusion that it's necessary to refute this nonsense. Well then: All alphabetic systems are phonetic; the two words mean the same thing. The only trouble is that English is a little more irregular than other languages. How much more has been established by three or four independent researchers. They all came up with the same figure. About 13 per cent of all English words are partly irregular in their spelling. The other 87 per cent follow fixed rules. Even the 13 per cent are not ''unphonetic'', as Dr. Witty calls it, but usually contain just one irregulary spelled vowel.
So our English system of writing is of course phonetic, but has a few more exceptions to the rules than other languages.

The next step in this great structure of nonsense and confusion is careful avoidance of the teaching of letters:

''Current practice in the teaching of reading does not require a knowledge of the letters'', says Dr. Donald D. Durell of Boston University. ''In remedial work, such knowledge is helpful.''
''The skillful teacher will be reluctant to use any phonetic method with all children'', says Dr. Witty.
''The child should be allowed to 'typewrite' only after he has a certain degree of ability in reading'' says Dr. Guy L. Bond of the University of Minnesota. ''Otherwise he is apt to become too conscious of the letter-by-letter elements of words.''

Otherwise, phonics is usually discussed in this literature as something that stupid and ignorant parents are apt to bring up.
Profile Image for Random Scholar.
242 reviews
September 13, 2020
I heard of this book when I was researching conservative theorists for an education class. I finally got around to reading it and I can say that every educator needs to read this book. In "Why Johnny Can't Read" Flesch talks about the common movement that was hurting reading instruction in elementary schools all across North America; that was the word method. In the word method, students learn to read purely from memorizing what individual words say upon sight. This seems fine but once students encounter words that are similar but not exactly the same, they miss them entirely. For example, a student trained in the word method can easily mistake "switch" for "bitch". In contrast, Flesch makes a persuasive case for why phonics instruction is more helpful to students than the word method. When students learn the phonic method, they learn the entire alphabet and all the corresponding sounds. This allows students to read anything once they have learned phonics. Anyone who works with kids should read this book, especially if they are a struggling reader. This book has some seriously dated language (like calling students retarded) but that this reflective of the times. The last half of this book contains exercises that can be used to develop students phonic skills.
Profile Image for Shawn.
310 reviews3 followers
September 9, 2021
Pretty straightforward, impassioned message, rather timeless, & essential. Fascinating: the push & pull, back & forth, over how to read & write, to such ends that guessing became the primary method of 'reading.' There were clear, undeniable proofs of the effectiveness of phonics. Today, the method appears to be a mix of memorizing sight words and of learning the phonetic method. This book is regarded as a classic and I'm not sure that its publication date matters at all: it's an engaging & driven read with a clear argument & precise remedies.
Profile Image for Shannon Marshall.
18 reviews2 followers
June 11, 2021
I thought this was a very intriguing and compelling case for why schools should teach phonics.

At times, I think the writer included his own opinions too factually (ex: saying that girls can read better than boys cause they're "a little less revolted" by the word guessing method and that if we just taught phonics everyone would be on the same page. He did say "I think" at the start of the sentence by still...)

Overall, I found this really useful and illuminating.
Profile Image for Nikki Baker.
275 reviews6 followers
July 14, 2019
Great read if you are interested in the Whole-Language vs. Phonics debate (or the Reading Wars). This books holds a place in that conversation and brought critical pieces to light in the 1950s. However, if you are interested in current Phonics research and instruction there are things more relevant.
Profile Image for Susan.
105 reviews7 followers
June 14, 2020
This was the first book I ever read. Well, I didn't read the whole book until I was an adult, but I read the word lists in the back. That is how I could read before starting first grade and why I felt such utter anger/bitterness/contempt/disgust/exasperation toward the idiotic Dick, Jane and Sally books they used at my school.
Profile Image for Tabitha C.
42 reviews2 followers
November 18, 2019
Excellent explanation! I wish I had read this book several years ago. Great for parents of public schoolers or homeschoolers. Recommend by Don Potter, who has many free resources available for this method.
Profile Image for Maggie.
226 reviews
September 25, 2022
-Can't say it's culturally relevant in 2022, nor would this process work for dyslexic readers

BUT, this is how I hope my son will be taught to read and what I imagine is the process that will work for the most people
Profile Image for Rohan Dharamshi.
11 reviews12 followers
January 28, 2023
If you are looking to get convinced about why phonetics is the way to read and spell English words, this might be the right book. Over 80% of the book consists of arguments the author makes in favor of phonetics. The exercises start at the very end with limited instructions.
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