by Margaret McEathron
Editor's Note: Deja Vu!
On second thought, Deja Vu isn't accurate because what we see today is a continuation of Margaret's experiences. In fact, the reading problem has never gone away. In most respects, 60 years later, the situation is much worse than in 1938. For example, "whole language" which is now in vogue is even less effective than the look-say programs that replaced phonics in the 1920's and 30's and has been acknowledged as the culprit in bringing California's scores to rock bottom. There has been an astronomical increase in the percentage of illiterate students graduating from high school; and there are increasing numbers of young people incarcerated who cannot read.
Margaret McEathron comments that she found no phonics materials available in the libraries, including University and Teachers' College libraries, and found nothing in talking with heads of Education Departments and teachers. The story below tells "How It Began" for Margaret.
Very few of the "old timers" are still around, but they were the angels of the 30's, 40's, and 50's who kept the candle burning for phonics. With no commercial phonics materials available, they developed their own approaches and regularly produced first graders who read independently, spelled accurately and wrote their own stories. Many teachers who knew phonics kept teaching using their own knowledge; but we are running out of these teachers, and most new teachers know little about phonics.
Ruth Youngren, a first grade teacher of poor children in Minnesota, yearly spent the first two weeks teaching the sounds of English and their corresponding letters. Then through the year, she taught 50 spelling words each morning to her first graders. These first graders were not only good spellers, they were excellent readers and creative writers.
Sister Monica Foltzer, author of the highly successful Professor Phonics Gives Sound Advice and A Sound Track to Reading (see our catalog), told the Reading Reform Foundation that she was so discouraged that she nearly stopped teaching after her first year (1927). She said the look-say materials didn't work, and there were no phonics materials available--even children's A, B, C blocks disappeared! Encouraged to not give up, she daily through trial and error developed her own approach and "bootlegged" her brand of phonics which later became Professor Phonics.
The Reading Reform Foundation, founded in 1961, had the privilege of working with many "old timers" who knew what worked and who developed their own phonics materials. Margaret McEathron's story is poignant; but it is not unique. Most of the "old timers" have passed on, but fortunately today we have the legacy of their dedicated, home-grown efforts.
Rudolf Flesch also recognized the reading problem and in 1956 wrote his classic book, Why Johnny Can't Read (see our catalog). This book struck a responsive note with parents, alerting them to the cause of their children's inability to read. The education establishment reacted to Flesch's book immediately. The International Reading Association was created, and every effort was made to discredit Flesch. Publishers added bits and pieces of phonics (called "phony phonics") to their look-say programs; and what did the educators now say? "But we do teach phonics." When most talk of phonics, they are talking about these "phony phonics" programs as opposed to the successful, research proven intensive phonics these "old timers" used.
Margaret's story: It all began because of a letter to me:
June 4, 1938
If you can just tell me what to do to get Skippy to read, Ill do it, Margaret. After his failing report card came in again today, Im desperate. Hes an A-1 boy, but not in reading.
After my former neighbors in the 54th St. District told me about how you pulled their children out of reading and spelling tail-spins last year, I was hoping we could move back down there before Fall. But now Paul got a good job here in Montecito and well have to stay. Please, Margaretyou know meIll stick to it, and do whatever you found that worksyou know I will. If you can just steer me into the first steps of what to do! Somewhere, right in the beginning, we must have failed. You know what good readers the 3 girls are. Im completely stumped.
This was the first of many similar letters that came later.
Dear Emma, I fumed, did she have any idea how difficult it is to set down on paper exact instructional How-To steps? Even tho in verbal direct teaching it was so natural. I learned at that time how much the attitude and response of the child himself counted. Did she appreciate how the individual need-to-know formed the childrens questions and actually drew out the obvious solutions that had worked so well with these children in our neighborhood? But, how could anyoneespecially a dyed-in-the-wool teacher, ignore the challenge?
So, I made a little notebook for Emmaof what I did to pull kids out of reading tailspins. Im grateful to her now that it never occurred to her to suggest that someone else couldnt do it exactly the same way and with the same result. I was a former neighbor and friend, raising a family in a middle-class neighborhood, just as she was. We had exchanged many recipes and ideas through the years. Now here she was, asking for one from me to her on how to make a good reader. And so I wrote out my recipe for her of what she must DOstep by step. While Im at it, I thought, might as well make it self-rising and light.
I made it very simple, very basic, just as I was teaching it, giving her the benefit of assuming she knew how to put it together. She did, and it worked! In one summer, Skippy became an independent reader.
This was the summer that a short-lived dance tune called: Ten Lessons From Madame La Zonga was in." It blared on every radio. So as I stapled the blank cover over the ten lessons I had written out for Emma, I gaily made a bold title across it: Ten Lessons From Madame La Phonics for Skippy.
And thats how it was that my friends began calling me Madame La Phonics.
No Writings on the Subject
Since I was drawn unexpectedly into the remedial reading work and I was already far too busyhow was it I did not refer my friend Emma to some published book by an authority on Phonics? The simple answer is: there werent any; at least none that I could findin 1938!
How I hoped, how I tried to find even one book to help me in that first year when I took on the responsibility of helping eight of my neighbors children! I searched every library, including University and Teachers College libraries, in the Los Angeles area. I talked with heads of Education Departments, talked with teachers. The only clue I got was in a Teachers Guide to a basal reading series by Nila Banton Smith, who was at USC at the time. It was one short paragraph at the end of a chapter2 or 3 lines suggesting that some children needed to be taught the sounds of the letters!
By now, I was inundated with cases and realized I was being compelled to dig into whatever resources I had. Failing children couldnt wait. So with prayer, tears, laughter and my fund of good solid midwestern teacher-training in the basicsbut particularly my faith in the inherent good sense of my neighbors and their childrenI evolved my method of pulling each one out of his reading troubles. All the time I was declaring to the anxious mothers, whose help and support both Johnny and I needed:Your child CAN learn to read!
I was as surprised as anyone that the failure to learn to read for all the very different children seemed to fall into a pattern. As the pattern kept emerging it became surprisingly simple to see the solution. And that solution evolved in repeatable similar steps for each one no matter their age or grade! As I worked with increasing numbers of cases I could almost guarantee the graph of the therapy and the time of the cure.
I insisted on two sessions a week, with mother, grandma or sister present, a definite and precise course of homework with drill cards, between each tutoring session(handmade at the time and rationed for that one lesson) and payment in advance: $15.00 for ten lessons. I soon found this last stipulation absolutely necessary in order that mamas bridge game didnt seem more important than the uninterrupted rhythm of the growth taking place in Johnnys buds of learning just coming into flower.
Fifteen dollars was a lot of money in those days! But by this time I was confident that 10 lessons of unadulterated, strong doses of phonics would produce the cure. By then mothers could take over, or the child was flying on his own.
The Greatest Compliment
The greatest compliment to a teacher is when the pupil no longer needs him, and he can teach himself! This was my slogan. The scary things I had evidently taken in, from news items and parents biased judgments, of how belligerent, lazy and dumb failing children were, simply didnt check out. And school opposition cited by some parentsI never yet have gotten any.
Perhaps I was lucky; I didnt deal with School Authorities in any way. And from teachers I got only gratitude for showing their failing pupils a way out. Most, even then in the early years, had never been trained in anything but the LOOK-SAY method. And the unfortunate home environment blamed by the schools as the problemI couldnt find much of that either. Yes, a few came from educationally handicapped environments, but at least three-fourths had average to superior home conditions for learning. No matter, once Johnny got some tools to work with, and could rely on, and was going ahead on his own, he caught up to his grade, and that was that. It was unbelievably rewarding! Remember, this was in the 1930s only a decade after the LOOK/SAY method had really been established.
In these years, the late thirties and before World War II, not many of my friends, or adults in general, credited the fact that some children were failing to learn to read to the schools. Must be sub-normal, they would shrug. Kids always had learned to read, at least if they were smart enough to go to school at alland that was that. Many friends, very polite, might take a moment from pressing clubwork to ask: Phonics? Whats that? Never heard of itteachers are always trying out new words you know. Margaret, why knock yourself outthe kids will come to it.
In fourth grade?6th grade?8th grade? and still not sure of 15 reading wordsthey would come to it? How?
At this time the media had not really caught up with the extent of the problem. So forgive themthe average family not involved directly really didnt know what was happening, nor what was at stake.
Letters are a Code
We were living in a typical suburban area of Los Angeles. Most of the parents were college educated. It was astounding to me I had to explain over and over: Letters of the alphabet are a CODEIn order to read, one learns what those black and white squiggles represent in sounds. We put them together to deduce the words from the code clues...
What about meaning? Of course! Thats what you read for: to get the meaning of the words in that message or page. Once the words can be correctly read, it is automatic to interpret the meaning, for all the children knew (at that time) the language by speech and sound.
Phonics? Thats not new, although the new term may be in the 1920s we used to know and teach this process as Word Analysis. Now it is known as the science of Phonics: sounds of letters that one sees by the eye.
Only a Few Saw the Danger
My friends still shrugged helplessly. Implying: Poor Margaretshes just knocking herself out for nothing. Its all so simple. You just send your children to a decent public school and they all come out with a good education and a diploma to prove it. (Remember, this was 1938.) Public outcry had not yet come to the media.
I had thought so, too. But that was before I found out from some of my Johnnies it just wouldnt and couldnt work out like that if he couldnt read. And some of them were not able until they could get information on the CODEthe only way he could open his mind to any sense about those squiggles on white paper.
Dear inarticulate Johnnyhe didnt know what could be wrong, but he reacted to a hidden guilt: Im just not smart. And in this first generation of failing readers, that was the worst part of failure to read. His parents, too often, were unaware that Johnnys potential was being wasted. Even though the mothers could not then understandas they do now. I had to be Johnnys spokesman. I have been ever since. Read: The Wasted Generation by Col. George Walton, Chilton Publishers & Ambassador Books, Canada.
But it was a lonely thing, those early days, that so few saw or sensed, even to small degrees, the facts of the problem. I used to walk the floor at night with a burden of foreboding I could not quite define nor fathom. Now, with over 20 million illiteratetho schooledJohnnies, I understand my intuited fears.
The No-No Word
Phonics was a No-No WordThen.
Having been out of the teaching field for over ten years, busy raising our own four children, I dont really know, or remember, when it was that the University Professors began to call the decoding process Phonics. But the shock that during the ten short years when I wasnt looking, this word had become in some pedantic circles, a no-no word!this I do remember!
Some With Genius I.Qs Were Failing
It was those eight first tutoring cases I describe in Chapter 3 that brought the pattern of the common problem to light. Three of these children tested out with genius I.Q.sthe rest were average to high-average. All were bewildered, confused, and convinced there must be something wrong with them! Even though they wouldnt say so in any adults range of hearing! For all of them, the look and guess systems gave them no sure clues that there was a sure science and certain sure rules they could work, themselves. The next try at a work, you know,it could be a wrong guessagain!
Many, too, like our eldest daughter, just scraped a passing grade in spelling. Even with drill, drill, and repeated writing effort, they were losing the Battle of Spelling.
The Ten Lessons Notebook
After my friends found out I had written out Ten Lessons, they all wanted copies. Happy beyond words that they wanted to help their children with reading I gladly duplicated Skippys notebook for Julie"for Dick," etc. Somehow as time and hordes of children ran through my life, the notebook got enlarged, clearer, better stated, and illustrated. Now teachers were coming to watch the teaching sessions, and finally I realized if I were going to be of any real service to all these mothers and all these teachers, I would have to have mimeographed copies ready for them to use. So one night my husband and I learned how to operate the mimeograph machine in his office and ran off 100 copies of 48 pages. An enormous and unreasonable amount, we thought, but my goodness, here I had been kindly loaned the use of this remarkable machine, free, might as well print enough! (I should have known!)
Help! Its a Book!
The next day my own four children were helping me gather the new 48 pages of crudely mimeographed lessons in preparation for the next teachers seminar I was now undertaking. They gathered the pages 1 by 1 as they walked around our large dining table and when the 48th page was gathered, I stapled the set into a red cover we bought at the 10 Cent Store for 10 cents. I saw the growing pile of red 8 1/2 x 11 books coming off our production linenow nearing 100 copies....
Then, it hit me: My God! Ive written a book!
It was inevitable that its title would be:
Your Child Can Learn To Read
Old Lady Fate was snickering up her sleeve where she keeps her tricks. For had I even suspected then that that pile of red notebooks would go on edition after edition, one in hard-cover, dual sale with Rudolph Fleschs book (Grosset and Dunlap), and would sell over a million copies in paperback (and still in 1986 is going stronger than ever), I would have been so scared, I doubt if I could have done it at all! As it was, doing it with only Johnny in mind, I could keep it simple; I doubt I thought even once of the scary Establishment. And for sure, it did not know of me.
Subtly, events in the school world of Johnny were going their inevitable way. Newspapers and magazines were becoming aware of the fact, long covered, that all was not well in the reading departments of our public schools.
* * * * * * *
(Ed. The above is a chapter from 50 YearsReading Helpers: You can Be One, Too!dedicated to Bettina Rubicam, former RRF President.) Copyright© 1986 by Reading Reform Foundation. All rights reserved.
A few copies of Your Child Can Learn To Read are still available, see our catalog.
Return to Reading Reform Foundation Home Page