Why Johnny’s Grandkids STILL Can’t Read

Hint: It has nothing to do with them “being dumb.” Because they are not, yet many kids who struggle with reading have self-labeled themselves as exactly that.


That was the year author Andrew Rudlof Flesch published his bestselling book titled Why Johnny Can’t Read.

That was smack dab in the middle of the “baby boom” when ducktails and bobby socks reigned supreme. Flesch researched how reading was taught in American schools, and what he found sent shock-waves through the educational system. Students were taught to look at whole words ….and guess. 

He said, instead, students should be taught their ABCs. Then sound combinations, and so on and so forth. Felsch cited proof from Europe that this explicit method works, and he thought surly everyone would be ecstatic to help kids read!

Only,  they weren’t. Felsch faced backlash because many in the education space clung the the idea of teaching using whole words. Educators at the time were quick to tell him that reading failure did not have anything to do with instruction, but rather everything to do with “poor eyesight” or “a broken home.”

Sound familiar? It should. This is one famous incident in the 150+ year old “reading wars” that still go on to this day.

No doubt poor eyesight or a broken home can impact reading. Those are areas outside of a teacher’s control. However, if there is a chance reading instruction, something that is within the school’s control, could also be one (of many) contributing factors, don’t we owe it to Johnny to look into it? 

We have.

In fact, we’ve looked into it over and over and over again.

“Reading scientists think that their job is done when the data have been gathered, analyzed, reported, replicated, extended, meta-analyzed, summarized in reports like the National Reading Panel’s, and communicated to a broader audience in accessible terms. At each step, however, the research is shadowed by educational experts mitigating whatever impact it might have had. These lobbyists target the parties that determine what happens in classrooms: teachers, administrators, politicians, and publishers.
“People cannot be faulted for having been wrong. People should be faulted, however, for having made definitive claims based on weak evidence, for sticking with them long after they had been contradicted beyond reasonable doubt, and for continuing to market their stories to a trusting but scientifically naive audience. These ideas are now deeply embedded in an educational culture from which they cannot easily be resectioned.”

(Mark Seidenberg, Language at the Speed of Sight, 2017)

We adults can argue all day over who is right or who is wrong. We can step on toes. We can pull up this author or that. But the thing is, it’s the kids who suffer. It’s the Johnnys of the 1950s. And the Jennifers of the 1970s. And the Jacksons of the 2010s. 

It’s my kids. And maybe yours too.

Yes, there are many factors that go into reading failure, but you know what? If a child in poverty gets explicit reading instruction, it won’t hurt him. If a child who needs glasses gets explicit reading instruction, it won’t hurt her. But if a child with undiagnosed dyslexia does NOT get explicit reading instruction …..it can do irreversible damage. 

Let’s change the world for Johnny’s great-grandkids. It doesn’t have to be this way.


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