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Chapter 9: It’s the Test Scores, Stupid! (Pt.2)

A Full Reward: Reformation Through Family-Run Christian Schools

Rev. Aaron Slack

Pastor, Author, Marketing Manager, Preschool Director

Chapter 9

It’s the Test Scores, Stupid! (Part 2)

Phonics vs. Everything Else

There are really only two different methods of teaching children to read: phonics and everything else. Reading instruction theory and practice, like everything else in education, has “evolved.” Never mind that children were taught to read English fluently in the same way for hundreds of years up until about 1925. Experts assure us that we now know how to teach reading so much better.

America has been cursed by progressive educators. We have a rarely-shaken blind faith in science, or what we perceive as science. We like to latch on to whatever is new, whatever the experts now say is truth. This so-called truth, of course, changes daily. If the science of reading instruction really was getting better, we should see a continual rise in America’s literacy rate over the decades. Surely the rising number of papers published in professional research journals means we are getting closer to the ideal method of reading instruction! This does not jibe with reality, to put it mildly.

As a graduate of Grace Community School’s apprenticeship program, I was taught the very simple techniques of basic phonics that can be used to teach any child to read. Our phonics program, largely based on A Beka’s materials, works, and it works very well. Using the right system—phonics—teaching reading is easy! While it is true that the English language is not completely phonetic, with the memorization (yes, learning by rote, just like the multiplication tables and states and capitals) of a relatively few number of sounds and phonics rules, the vast majority of words can be “sounded out” phonetically. It’s not rocket science, but neither is it something very many children will pick up by themselves without careful instruction. It’s not “natural,” so to speak. I knew that we were doing something others were not with our reading program, but I never cared enough to look too deeply into “alternative” methods.

It wasn’t until our many run-ins with government child care experts, and the government childcare classes I took, that I was exposed to early childhood doctrine regarding reading instruction. I became encouraged to do some research on my own to find out why reading instruction in the United States has become such a disaster, and find out what the competition is doing.

How do I know that there is a reading problem in America? To paraphrase a well-known slogan, it’s the test scores, stupid! Ever since phonics was taken out of America’s schools and replaced with whatever experts declared was the latest in reading science, test scores have plummeted. There have been public outcries, of course, and changes made to the curriculum, but nothing has helped. Here in the twenty-tens, post-“No Child Left Behind,” we are now supposed to believe that phonics has been “put back in” our schools, but that is not the case, as you will see.

I remember my father telling me stories about the “look-say” method of reading instruction he was taught in the sixties. Look-say or “sight word” reading, made famous by the Dick and Jane books, was considered the method of reading instruction for an entire generation.

This is nothing but mass memorization of words. Memorizing thousands upon thousands of words is very different from memorizing relatively very few letter sounds and phonics rules. I am told that the typical high school graduate has a vocabulary of forty-five thousand words. A Beka’s phonics program has one hundred thirty-one phonics rules. As a method of reading instruction, word memorization doesn’t work very well, but it does work. Many children, including my parents, did learn to read using look-say. In fact, it was apparently working too well. The problem was that look-say actually involved drill, direct instruction, and practice. You should recognize these from the list of ECE “no-no’s” earlier in this chapter. It was far too authoritarian for real progressives, and besides—it actually worked!

Look-say and Dick and Jane were gradually phased out with the rise of “whole language,” a far more insidious method of reading instruction. Actually, even according to its creators, it is not reading instruction. Instruction is bad, remember? Whole language is more of a philosophy or set of religious beliefs about how children learn to read and write than a methodology. Calling it a methodology would imply that it is something systematic, which it is not. Largely led by Frank Smith and Ken Goodman in the seventies, whole language took the progressive establishment by storm, even if it took some time to infiltrate America’s classrooms.

Whole language was remarkable because finally educators were freed from the tyranny of results and standardized tests. Children, supported by the all-important environment, should teach themselves to read! Reading, the educators say, is completely natural, just like learning to speak! No actual teaching is required. Babies don’t have to enroll in English classes to learn to talk, it comes naturally. God (scientists would say Evolution) has “hard-wired” the ability to learn speech into our brains. Whole language says the reading ability is there as well. Interestingly enough, while all cultures have a spoken language, not all have a written language. This fact is ignored by whole language educators.

Just as children learn to speak by hearing language, paying attention to what is around them, and trial and error, a similar process takes place with reading according to whole language. Children learn to read by being exposed to print and reading. Classrooms are to be covered with text; this is called the literacy or print-rich environment. For example, a printed sign saying “clock” is placed next to the clock on the wall. With enough exposure to this label, eventually the child will be able to read “clock.”

The whole language environment is filled with print materials, blank papers, writing materials, and absolutely no drill times or actual instruction. We tell kids that they can be whatever they want to be; get them to want to be readers, and they will become readers. This is why whole language and its successors have such an emphasis on “love of reading.” If children “love reading,” they will become skilled readers. Taking the place of reading instruction is something called “shared reading.” An adult reads a book, preferably one with lots of attractive pictures, multiple times. Then the children take turns “reading” the book (actually trying to retell it from memory). With enough repetition, the children can read the book!

Reality is that exposure to print does not teach children to read, any more than exposure to differential equations teaches people calculus. For lack of a better word, learning to read is unnatural. Except for the brightest children who will learn to read no matter what, children need direct instruction, preferably in phonics. Nothing helps children learn to read more than teaching them how to sound out words. If they are to become good readers, they need to know phonics.

I find the preference for “enthusiasm for learning” over against phonics rules and instruction very similar to contemporary Christianity’s substitution of an emotional love of God for commandment-keeping. The common theme of today’s Christianity is that all a Christian needs to do is to love God. According to whole language, all a person needs to do is love reading, and the rest will take care of itself. Both substitute an emotional external for the concrete essential.

After whole language was adopted by the public schools, something happened. Reading scores went down, not up. While lawmakers and the public seemed to care about this, whole language experts did not. In fact, their proposed solution was to get rid of the standardized tests!

The educational elite led an all-out assault on standardized testing which continues to this day. Their claim: standardized reading tests are useless because they do not actually measure reading. Reading, in fact, has been redefined in a very Orwellian fashion. Reading, or literacy, is the act of creating knowledge from print and pictures. Not getting knowledge, creating knowledge. For example, the child who flips through a picture book (a book mommy and daddy have read dozens of times before) and tells some of the story from memory or guesses a word here and there from the pictures is reading, by this definition. Voilà! All children can read, it comes naturally! This is constructivism at its most explicit. Reading as it is taught in the early stages of phonics, however, is not reading. Even though a child who knows the phonics sounds and basic phonics rules can sound out new words he or she has never seen before, it is not reading according to whole language because the child is “only” saying the sounds of a word out of context. Language must be whole or it is worthless.

Whole language teachers instruct children who are unsure of what a particular word is to guess the word based on context. Above all, you must never tell the child to “sound it out.” Words are only meaningful when placed in a sentence and connected to other text. Meaning takes center stage, meaning created by the child. This is even taken to the extreme in which a child may misread a word in a story and not receive correction, so long as it makes sense to the child. Reading is a guessing game, after all. Accuracy is highly overrated.

Experts say “conventional literacy”, what you and I know as plain “reading,” is not possible for young children, especially not through phonics. Even if it were possible to teach children to read through direct phonics instruction, the amount of time sitting still listening and paying attention to the teacher would be developmentally inappropriate for preschoolers. Again, instruction is bad. There is no talk of letters representing sounds, because whole language followers say that letters do not stand for sounds! At best, you might mention offhandedly to a student that the words “Sam” and “sat” both begin with an s, and leave it up to the child to draw her own conclusion.

According to emergent literacy/whole language, the key is for the child to see himself as a reader. If he believes it, it will come to pass. According to whole language, the most important activity a parent can do with a child to foster reading ability is to read aloud. This is like saying that watching Monday Night Football will turn you into an all-star quarterback provided you have sufficient faith in your self. Besides reading aloud and shared reading, the next most important thing is taking trips to the library. Because, you know, if you surround the child with books, he’ll naturally be able to read them. It just sort of seeps in, I suppose, or at least that is what the experts want you to believe.

Please do not misunderstand me. Some of my fondest childhood memories were of my mother reading aloud to me and of library trips. As a homeschooled child in a small town, I walked to the library and back almost every afternoon, carrying a backpack full of books. But it wasn’t the library that taught me to read—it was direct reading instruction. You cannot substitute a love of reading for the actual ability. Think of how terrible for me it would have been had I had wanted to read desperately but could not! I can only call giving a child the desire to read without the proper skills to do so cruelty.

Whole language experts assure us that experiential learning is the only way kids will ever learn to read. Thus, books on reading and classroom curricula are full of activities for children to do in which they supposedly pick up the skills needed for fluent reading. You will hear people say thing like, “Learning is a journey, not a destination.” It doesn’t matter so much what the kids learn. What matters is that they have good experiences along the way.

Faced with a public that still cares about standardized testing, language scientists changed terms again to avoid the bad reputation of whole language. Now you will usually hear the terms “emergent literacy” or “early literacy.” These, however, are basically just a rehashing of whole language, as is another phrase, “balanced literacy instruction.” Emergent or early literacy is essentially the same as whole language, with perhaps even more of an emphasis on how it naturally “emerges” over time. Again, it is evolution. Be especially aware of what is called balanced instruction. The term implies that there has been some sort of synthesis between the best of phonics and whole language. This is deceptive; there can be no peace between these antithetical approaches.

When reading about emergent literacy and the like, it is tempting to chalk up the hatred for phonics and real teaching as sad but honest mistakes made by deluded intellectuals. I would like to believe this, but the evidence says otherwise.

Literate Citizens: The Enemies of Tyranny

Early America was an amazing place, for many reasons. Not least among these reasons was the amazingly high literacy rate. Pick up some of the literature of the era, and remember that works like Paine’s Common Sense and Franklin’s Autobiography (works that are a far cry from Twilight, for example) were written for the general population.

A population that could read, and read very well, combined with a Christian worldview and a healthy distrust for civil government made a potent combination. Colonial America was the embodiment of the goals of the Reformation. We want to create again a literate civilization where everyone can read, not just the elite. It is no coincidence that early America, the most literate nation in history, stood up to the tyranny of England. Unquestionably, the literacy of the general population contributed to that generation’s decision “to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

A literate populace is extremely difficult to control by civil government. This is why a two-pronged method of control of the media and deliberate dumbing down of the citizens is in place in twenty-first century America. The public school’s abysmal performance is no accident. It is deliberate, as is the media’s anti-Christian slant.

Who stands against this? Homeschoolers and graduates of Christian schools like Grace Community School. Let’s face it: the average person lacks the capacity to read well, as well as the desire to read anything important. In my experience, homeschoolers do not fit into this category. We are the readers. Led by men like R. J. Rushdoony and Ellsworth McIntyre, this is where we shall find the leaders of the battle against tyranny. A highly literate, educated (not necessarily schooled), and above all Christian element is our nation’s best hope. Godly change will come from the bottom up, not top down. An extreme emphasis on politics, particularly national politics, is misguided. If our nation is to be Christian again, change will start from the bottom. For this reason, Grace Community School is first and foremost a preschool. Our enemies know the need to get children while they are very young. We should as well.

As horribly offensive as Grace Community School’s reading instruction program is to the educational elite, this is nothing compared to how they see our Bible program. Some may find it surprising that, in this day and age of freedom of expression, a private Christian preschool would find severe opposition to its religious teaching. Aren’t we all supposed to be tolerant of each other’s beliefs? Tolerance is considered our civilization’s chief virtue. Tolerance, we are told, is the foundation of freedom. What is meant by tolerance, of course, is chiefly tolerance for sin. The Bible teaches us that tolerance for sin is inimical to true freedom. Man’s grand “tolerance” is phony.

The truth is that those who most loudly demand tolerance are the most intolerant towards those who disagree with them—modern society demands tolerance for all except the intolerant, and Christianity is regarded as the most intolerant of all belief systems. To the humanist, the Christian religion is the most horrific thing in existence because of its very nature. Christianity is a religion based on the fiat decrees of the Creator, and this he cannot stand.

Our educational system has taught us that beliefs are things which should be open for debate (except for this apriorism, of course). “Critical thinking,” a major emphasis in school curricula, is largely code for “disparaging religious faith.” Nothing enrages the humanist more than a person who is absolutely sure of his or her beliefs, particularly when those beliefs are based on the Bible. When the Christian says, “I believe because the Bible says so,” people go wild. Of course, the beliefs of humanists are mere opinion, but you aren’t allowed to say that. We are taught that beliefs are to be based upon evidence, logic, and science. Even otherwise solid Christians have fallen into this trap—witness attempts to prove the doctrine of Six Day Creation using science, or to claim that the Trinity makes sense according to human logic.

Thus we see Christians give in to the demands of the humanists. People say that they believe Christianity because of evidences, because their objections to the Bible have all been answered to their own satisfaction. You can fill whole shelves with books that have been written to answer objections to Scripture. We are told that we must be “always ready” to logically prove the doctrines of God’s Word. These efforts, in effect, elevate the human mind, reason, and logic to the position of judge over God. The tacit assumption to all this is that if evidence was to become available disproving all or a portion of the Bible, we would cease to believe what had been disproved.

What orthodox Christians and I believe is in contrast to this. We believe the Bible, period, no matter what seeming contradictions we find, no matter what scientific evidence challenges its authority, no matter how hard it is to understand. (As an aside, anyone who claims that it is possible to understand everything in the Bible this side of heaven is fooling himself.) Only this defiant, strict adherence to the Word of God is truly at odds with humanism, atheism, evolution, and all the other things that make up the postmodern zeitgeist. If you are willing to compromise at any point and defer to reason or intellect even in theory, you believe peace can be made with the enemies of God and the battle is lost. The particular flavor of humanism we have been saddled with is statism. Our civilization does not worship humans as individuals so much, but mostly together collectively in civil government. The state demands that we acknowledge its sovereignty in all areas. In return for this bowing of the knee, the state allows us some measure of religious freedom. Indeed, most religions can coexist side by side with statism, provided that they cede superiority to the state, something all too many Christians are eager to do. Tragically, my experience is that Christians have no issues with allowing the state its sovereignty. Indeed, most people are too blind to even see a reason to object.

This is where Grace Community School, like faithful orthodox Christians throughout the ages, has run into problems. As I have detailed, we have more than attempted to comply with lawful requests by governmental agencies, civil authorities such as local fire and health departments, and the state in general. Scripture has commanded us to live in peace with all men as much as is possible. “And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain” (Matt. 5:41). We have traveled many miles.

Grace Community School has had much criticism of our Bible program from government inspectors. The government and educational elite hate anything to do with real education. This includes phonics, flashcards, the teaching of reading at a young age, traditional math, cursive writing, and much more. Theology was once considered the foundation of all learning. It is not surprising that those who hate real learning hate the foundation of that learning.

Experts attempt to cloud the issue by referring to things like Developmentally Appropriate Practice, saying the child is not capable of grasping the concepts entailed in Bible lessons. They would have us believe that they are all in favor of religious freedom, but for the sake of the young children we should not teach these difficult concepts—the kids just aren’t intellectually ready for it! In fact, their cognitive development might be impaired by all this Bible stuff. As sincere as they sound, these aren’t the real reasons they oppose Bible education.

The intelligentsia in general will have nothing to do with Christianity. Inspectors and those in charge of childcare agencies have been educated in godless humanist theories ad infinitum. They have been taught and believe that the only sin is declaring anything to be a sin. Man (and thus the child) is God. A person who believes these lies has far more than just his intellect warped. Our Greek-influenced education likes to tell us that we can separate a person’s intellectual beliefs from personal morality, but such is not the case. When inspectors come into our facilities, they know that we believe fornication is a sin. They know we are against abortion and homosexuality, and for the establishment of God’s law as the law of the land. Grace Community School’s entire existence is anathema to them. Not surprisingly, we have had inspectors tell us that they would never score us well on inspections until we did away with our Bible program.

Materialism permeates the intellectual community. Next to faith in man, the intelligentsia’s greatest faith is in man’s primary tool (so we are told) for discovering truth: the scientific method. If empirical evidence cannot be found for something, it must be abandoned. Humanism declares that the child, as God, must be taught to hold his intellect foremost in every matter. Many intellectuals are very forthright about their views on religious education (failing to see or at least acknowledge that their beliefs are also religious). Most people in the general population agree that parents have the right to raise their children as they see fit at least to some degree, including private religious teaching. These intellectuals do not. They insist that parents should not be allowed to teach their children religious beliefs, or put them in schools that do so, for the child’s own safety. A child’s right to a secular education trumps any parental right concerning religious instruction. Many like Richard Dawkins go so far as to say that religious instruction is child abuse. A. C. Grayling has assured us, “There is no greater social evil than religion.” These ivory tower scholars claim that religion warps and stunts a child’s mind, keeping him or her from being free to accept the wonders that Pat Robertson’s “revealed science” has shown humanity. The true Christian places everything, even the scientific method, in its proper place: in subjection to God and His Word.

The humanist dream is that someday all educational programs, even those provided by private organizations using private funds, must pass a state-administered test to make sure they are purely empirical and “religion-free.” In the meantime, “safety concerns” are used to justify state intrusion into schools. Grace Community Schools faces an ever-present pressure to take a state license—for the sake of quality and the good of the children, of course. I have noticed that every time a religious daycare has some accident or abuse scandal, the media pounces all over the story. (In Southwest Florida, they might even show some stock footage of a Grace Community School building, no matter where the event is alleged to have taken place!) The news fails to mention the horrible things that happen in licensed centers, of course.

The public largely assumes that a licensed facility is safer than a religious-exempt facility. A study of safety violations found online casts grave doubt on this assumption. In fact, on a per-student basis, Grace Community School facilities are far safer and have fewer abuse allegations than licensed, government-certified daycares. This will never be reported by the media. Why should it be? Unlike our Christian friends, the media understands that we are in a war, and they know who they want to win it.


The childhood educational paradigm has been changed so thoroughly and so skillfully that now the average graduate of the public school cannot even say what a school is supposed to be, let alone explain a philosophy of Christian education. God has seen fit to strike us blind. “God hath given them the spirit of slumber, eyes that they should not see, and ears that they should not hear” (Rom. 11:8). We cannot discern truth from error.

God’s Word must be the determiner of what is good and what is bad, whether it be schools or anything else. To use any other standard is to commit the same sin Adam and Eve did in the Garden. Just as salvation will result in a changed life of demonstrable commandment keeping, a good school will have demonstrable effects on its students. A man who does evil cannot legitimately claim to be good. A school that does not produce students with good reading test scores cannot legitimately claim to teach reading!

A school controlled by the government, teaching the exact opposite of what God commands, denying the relevance and indeed even the existence of God, can never be good. We must ask ourselves: does the school serve God’s goals, or man’s?

[1]           Debby Cryer, Thelma Harms, and Cathy Riley, All About the ITERS-R: A detailed guide in words and pictures to be used with the ITERS-R (Pact House Publishing, 2004), p. xv.