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"Bridge to Literacy," No Child, or Adult, Left Behind, by John Corcoran
By David W. Kirkpatrick (January 10, 2008)
Senior Education Fellow
U.S. Freedom Foundation www.freedomfoundation.us

With increasing universal public education it might be assumed that there would be a corresponding increase in the literacy rate among the general public.  Wrong.

The U.S. Army defines illiteracy as the inability to read at a fourth-grade level.  In World War II one of 200 recruits was illiterate.  By the Korean War, illiteracy had increased 40 times, to one in five. By the Vietnam War, it was  one in four.    By 2005, one of every three students was functionally illiterate, a ratio unchanged in 15 years.

If increasing public schooling results in more illiteracy, why? A suggested answer is that, beginning in 1929 and 1930 colleges of education began promoting teaching literacy using the look-say method of sight repetition of whole words, rather than using phonics.

One who shares this view is John Corcoran who in 1994 published "The Teacher Who Couldn't Read," his own story as a public school teacher for 17 years, and success as a businessman, although he could neither read nor write beyond a minimal 2nd grade level until he was 48 years old.  Even then, in 1986, it took thirteen months of one-on-one instruction to raise his reading ability to a sixth-grade level, and seven years before he felt he was really literate.

Clearly he did not lack intelligence or ambition. One reason for his problem was the failure of public school personnel to recognize his difficulty in distinguishing sounds.  Another, he concludes, is the emphasis on the look-say method.  He argues that "Decades of carefully conducted research has proven beyond any reasonable doubt that teaching children..." to read is best done using  phonics. "Yet, the institutions of higher learning persist in following a whole-language approach that would have students memorize words, with little or no understanding of the connection between the letters of the English alphabet and the sounds they represent."

Now devoted to promoting literacy, Corcoran has a new book, "The Bridge to Literacy."  In it, he has no doubt about the major cause for the growing illiteracy.  The debate over the relative role of families versus the schools misses the main point..  Corcoran says that, while each has some share of the responsibility, such a view is too limited.  He maintains that "The lion's share of the responsibility, however, belongs to the institutions of higher learning: colleges and universities that must get on board with pre-service preparation of teachers using proven strategies and methodologies that can teach the vast majority of learners..."

This is particularly acute in the primary grades.  According to Corcoran, if students "don't know how to read by fifth grade, the odds will be against them ever learning how to readľat least in school.:" Even adopting phonics is not enough.  The schools must still learn to recognize why students having difficulty learning to read.  Like Corcoran, they may have specific learning disabilities.  He maintains that as many as 30 percent of students "will have challenges learning how to read unless they are taught directly and systematically..."

Thirty percent of the nation's fifty million public school students is 15 million with learning problems.  If fifth grade is a critical stage, for most of the current 15 million it's already late. Still, efforts must not be totally abandoned since, despite our modern technology, "The printed word is the greatest source of information."

But, all is not lost.  It is estimated that 95% of children can be taught to read.  Corcoran supports the No Child Left Behind Act.  He says that where it has been faithfully implemented, it has resulted in improved reading skills

As an example, he cites Reading First as the nation's most successful early reading initiative ever. In NCLB's first five years, 2002-7, over 5,600 schools in 1,600 districts nationwide have participated in Reading First, serving approximately 1.8 million students and more than 100,000 teachers have received professional development.

The intention of Corcoran's book is "to gather all the tribes within literacy."  Unavoidably it "is written for those who can read it, but it is dedicated to those who cannot."

For further information, beyond this worthwhile book, Corcoran has established a foundation, the website for which is www.johncorcoranfoundation.com .

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"...the only way to stop a child from reading and liking it in a literate environment is to teach it the way we teach it." -- John Taylor Gatto, former Teacher of the Year for New York City and New York State, p. 86, The Exhausted School, Oxford, NY: the Odysseus Group, 1993

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Copyright 2008 David W. Kirkpatrick
108 Highland Court,
Douglassville, Pennsylvania 19518-9240
Phone: (610) 689-0633

E-mail (tchrwrtr@aol.com)

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