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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on January 18, 2011
This is a wonderful book by a wonderful mind. Mary Johnson is the very model of what an intellectual and educator should be.

This book is set mostly in Canada, and during the long-ago years 1956-1970; and yet, of all the many excellent book about the reading wars, this might be the best. Only 170 pages long, it manages to be both intensely personal and high-scholarly. It shows you the kids, parents and schools struggling with look-say; the politicians ducking; the Education Establishment scheming for dollars and control.

My own conclusion about public education in the last 75 years is that it is a swamp of sophistries and lies, not to mention depravity. This book reinforces my conclusion. Mary Johnson, a music tutor and housewife in Winnipeg, begins to realize that kids don't know how to read. She slowly launches a challenge, presenting to the government her analysis and proposals. She is hugely counterattacked by the Canadian education professors, the publishing companies who made so many millions of dollars on Dick and Jane books, and by that lobbying group called the International Reading Association (IRA). Watching these people conspire in perfect harmony to make sure kids don't learn to read is creepy. You can just imagine the sneer these phonies used in dismissing a housewife in 1959. And yet she just kept fighting. She should be a feminist icon.

On balance, the bad boys won more often than not. But it's also fair to say that Mary Johnson and her allies throughout Canada and the United States (in particular, the RRF or Reading Reform Foundation) probably saved millions of children from complete illiteracy.

Which brings us to the title: "Programmed Illiteracy in our Schools." I found this book because I was looking for early references to "planned illiteracy" (I'm doing so because of an upcoming book called "Planned Illiteracy in Australia?".) In fact, authors in many countries have made more or less the same charge. Somebody there is that doesn't love a book!

And how did they intend to reduce literacy? Typically, when people try to explain the Reading Wars, they start off talking about the silliness of memorizing words as shapes or configurations. But Mary Johnson reminds me that there is an aspect more primal that needs to be focused on, and it's all laid out in this paragraph on page 77: "The publishers taught our teachers to regard Dick and Jane as a scientific, all-inclusive, delicately balanced teaching tool, not to be tinkered with by amateurs. It was frequently stressed that English was `not a phonetic language' and that children did not need to be told the separate letter sounds. `Surely we don't have anyone here who is old-fashioned enough to tell children the sounds of the letters!' teased one consultant [from a publishing company]."

The plot, simply stated, was to make the alphabet disappear. Think about the lunatic audacity of this scheme. Letters are everywhere around us; but the geniuses of look-say wanted to create a landscape where the ABC's would hardly be present except as graphic elements inside Sight-Words. To the degree these so-called experts can pull off this nonsense, kids become illiterate and dyslexic. The plot continues today. Public schools are at this moment forcing millions of five- and six-year old children to memorize their Dolch Words.

The remedy is to make sure that all three and four-year-olds learn the alphabet. Nothing is more important.

Mary Johnson is famous for devising the simplest reading test of all. Children are asked to read these two sentences: "Mother will not like me to play games in my big red hat" and " Mike fed some nuts and figs to his tame rat."

Sight-word readers have no trouble with the first sentence; but they usually can't read the second sentence without mistakes because these words haven't been memorized; and the kids are unable to figure them out, despite the massive propaganda saying they can. Second-graders produce variations like this: "Mide fed some nits and fudge to him take right."

The most vivid memory I have of Mary Johnson's cleverness is when she went to city parks and recruited kids to read for her. She tape-recorded their reading and then had the recordings played on local radio stations. And parents everywhere were stunned (and so relieved) to find that their child was not the only illiterate in town, that schools were creating great numbers of kids who also stumbled, hesitated and guessed wildly.

As much as I admire Rudolf Flesch and others, I have to say that Mary Johnson was perhaps more alone and needed greater courage and ingenuity for her fight against the huge army of quacks, hacks and flacks in control of public education. She was a Mama Grizzly before we heard the term.
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