The other reading problem
According to the Australian’s Janet Albrechtsen teachers have been inflicting ‘whole language’ teaching on kids for more than 30 years and the consequences have been disastrous. If this was the whole story you’d expect to find that Australians who started their schooling in the late 70s and early 80s would have higher rates of illiteracy than those who started before the trend took off. It’s not so.
What this graph shows is the proportion of people at each age group with very poor prose literacy skills (the survey was done 1996). Those in the 20 to 24 years group would have started school during the late 70s and early 80s. And as you can see, they are less likely to have very poor skills than any of the older groups (see here for more information). Australia’s biggest problem group is older people.
Maybe they didn’t teach phonics back in the good old days. Or maybe kids back then had other problems that kept them from learning to read. Older Australians are certainly less educated than young Australians. On average they spent far less time in school. But whatever the reason, Australia has many older people who struggle with things like medicine labels, newspaper articles, and recipes.
There’s a standard conservative story-template that opens with the discovery of a social problem (crime, AIDS, family breakdown, poor literacy etc) and traces its causes to a breakdown in social order that started in the 1960s and 70s. The villains are radical lefties and liberals who have good intentions but naïve ideas about human nature. The victims are today’s children. The story calls for a conservative hero who rescues society from the deluded elites and brings back order through discipline. More cops on the beat, stiffer sentences for offenders, sex education which teaches kids to say no, and plenty of class room drills in letter sounds and multiplication tables.
Some stories fit the template naturally while others have to be pushed and twisted. Albrechtsen may be right about phonics and whole language – I’m not an education expert and I don’t know the research. But I do know that illiteracy isn’t just a problem for young people and that this story does not naturally fit the template.