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33: How To Help A Non-Reader To Read

Starting point: the USA has 50,000,000 functional illiterates.
Typically, these people wouldn’t find this article or be able to read it.
Ahh, but what if a strong reader were to guide a weak reader (of any age)
through this article. TOGETHER they could start a process
of discovery and recovery...

 (illiteracy, dyslexia, etc.)

use this article to help a non-reader
find the best path to improvement

---------  PREFACE  ---------

People who can’t read well are usually reluctant to talk about it. The goal of this article is to start a journey of discovery: to determine what the problem is and how it can be helped.

The first thing needed is candor. The second is hope. In millions of cases, the reading problem is neither deep nor permanent. Some improvement is almost always possible; major improvement is often possible. Let the journey begin.

Here’s something that must be mentioned: is reading the main problem? Or are there other problems such as faulty eyesight or hearing, poor memory, emotional problems, or inability to concentrate? If other problems exist, the best thing is to visit a doctor, therapist, or learning center; and take tests that will determine the exact problems and suggest how to fix them.




From this point, let’s assume that you can do everything that most other people can do except read. Perhaps you assume that you were somehow born without much of this skill. In fact, that rarely happens.

What has happened in TENS OF MILLIONS of cases is that many schools used reading instruction that does not work as claimed. (This instruction is variously called
Whole Word, Look-Say, Sight Words, Memory Method, Whole Language, Dolch Words, and Balanced Literacy.) Having such instruction is bad luck, sort of like getting the measles, but it’s not your fault. Repeat: it’s not your fault. And you can be cured!

The situation is much like going in a barber shop to get a haircut. Oddly, the barber neglects to cut your hair but he does splash on some obnoxious cologne. So you went in with one problem but come out with two problems: you still need a haircut but now your hair smells funny. In sum, Whole Word instruction neglects to teach you to read; it then adds a new set of problems that are loosely called dyslexia--a fancy Greek word that means “reading problem.” In practice, you don’t process print in a normal way. But why? Not because there is anything wrong with you, but because you were NEVER taught to process print in a normal way, but in an abnormal way. You may be 100% normal in every way except that you were unlucky enough to attend a bad school.


So the first question is, were you taught to read by Whole Word? Here are SIX quick tests that can indicate the answer:

1) MEMORIES OF LEARNING TO READ AT AGES 6, 7, 8 AND 9: Did your teacher tell you to use “picture clues?” Did your teacher tell you to “guess" or "guess from context?" Did your teacher tell you to memorize “sight words?” Did your teacher tell you, when you had a problem, to “skip ahead?” Did you teacher specifically tell you, “Don’t sound out letters or words”?

If you answer “
yes” to these questions, you were definitely in a Whole Word classroom. In which case, it’s almost impossible to have a successful outcome. On the other hand, your reading problem may be shallow and easily corrected.

2) HOW DO YOU DEAL WITH STRANGE WORDS? Is it difficult to read made-up words such as: rop, bef, fap, sig, lep, wid, hur, pid, kag, dem?

Is it difficult to read big words you haven’t seen before such as:
dynasty, pecunious, jabberwocky, carnation, nitrogen, loblolly, pandemonium, criterion?

If you answer “
yes,” you were probably a victim of Whole Word. If you had learned phonics, you would be able to sound out these words.


Again, a “
yes” answer indicates you were taught to read by Whole Word.

[Note: sometimes a child can “read” a school text, but can not fluently read a different book of apparently EQUAL difficulty. This is a sure indication of Whole Word. The child has memorized the first book.]



 If you answer “yes,” you were probably in a Whole Word classroom.

(Here’s why this happens: when you memorize words as a SHAPE, you don’t think in terms of left and right, or top and bottom. Words become like faces, houses, or diagrams--you see the WHOLE picture, and memorize it any way you can, which could mean focusing on the middle or the right side. So then it happens quite naturally: you reverse words.) 



5) DO YOU MAKE CERTAIN KINDS OF MISTAKES? The following quote is from first-hand observations by Dr. Samuel Blumenfeld in various schools:  "[Average students] seem to read with an adequate speed, but they make many errors along the way. They would drop words, read words that weren't there, sometimes rearrange the words in a sentence. They were never aware of their errors and never stopped to correct themselves, unless someone was there to point out errors. If not, they would read on, even when their error altered the meaning of the sentence." All of these errors are distinctively the result of Whole Word, and would almost never appear if someone actually knew how to read.



6) ARE YOU ABLE TO READ IN SOME SENSE BUT YOU FIND IT EXHAUSTING? DO YOU AVOID READING IF AT ALL POSSIBLE? Some students get all the way to college but they can’t read well, hate to read, and use all kinds of tactics to conceal their problem. Typically, this is a bright person with a good memory who has memorized 5,000 or so of the most common words. Still, every article or book presents strange new words. Such “readers” actually experience higher blood pressure as they struggle to make sense of a language they can’t truly read. All of these behaviors are often the result of Whole Word.



Note that these mini-diagnostics take only a few minutes; but so much is revealed. That’s because Whole Word disrupts the learning-to-read process in characteristic, predictable ways.



Bottom line: the solution to all these problems is to forget the bad lessons of the past, to start over, and learn to read properly. All of which you can do.

The best parallel seems to be with a hunt-and-peck, two-finger typist. If such typists want to be good typists, they need to put aside their old habits and learn to type as if for the first time.





Rudolf Flesch, in his “Why Johnny Still Can’t Read” (1980), tells one of the most surprising stories you can imagine. A woman attended an Ivy League college and majored in Romance Languages. Oddly enough, she could read German, French, Spanish and Russian novels with pleasure; but reading a novel in English, her native language, was hard work and made her anxious and tired. However, with her excellent memory and hard work, she managed to graduate from this elite school and do well. Years later, because her son was having trouble in second grade, she happened to read Flesch’s “Why Johnny Can’t Read” (1955). She writes: “It was news of the most startling and illuminating sort that phonics could work in English.” She started sounding out words, and taught herself to read English phonetically. Here’s the punch line: “I had finally learned, at the age of 36, to read my native language!...I now read ten times as much as I used to. And enjoy every minute of it.”

The aspect of this story that fascinates me is that this woman was extremely smart, and had highly educated parents, and knew so much about so many languages, but she became a victim of Whole Word AND COULD NOT SEE HER WAY OUT OF THE WHOLE WORD PRISON. Her teachers had wrapped her in a cocoon, and she didn’t even know it. If this highly intelligent woman couldn’t escape, how can all the millions of less academically gifted people who know only one language? I’ve been thinking about this woman’s story for 20 years; this article represents an attempt at helping people in a similar situation. Half the battle, I’m convinced, is simply understanding that escape is possible.

A century ago we had literacy rates around 98%. A non-reader or an extremely poor reader was actually a rare thing in the world, until our Education Establishment went to work.

British educators Mona McNee and Alice Coleman state in their book The Great Reading Disaster: "All children, apart from the blind, profoundly deaf and brain damaged, can learn to read within two years, while still in infant school. Reading schemes should not go on forever and after two years children should be capable of choosing their own books.”

Mona McNee further reports that she personally taught “nearly 360 dyslexics to read, after their teachers had given them up as intractably illiterate. In every case she got them reading and many became highly fluent.” All of these so-called dyslexics were victims of Whole Word. These people were not somewhat impaired; they were extremely impaired. Officially, they could not be helped. In fact, they were saved, that’s the thing to keep in mind.




It may be helpful to understand clearly why Whole Word doesn’t work and how it creates problems that can last for a lifetime.

1) Whole Word instruction hides the fact that English reads from left to right, and that each word MUST be read left to right. Here’s a made-up word:
sensonomic. This has to be attacked sen-first, so-second, nom-third, and ic-fourth. No other way is reading; all other ways lead to dyslexia; indeed, they ARE dyslexia. All so obvious to people who can read. But some victims of Whole Word never learn the absolute basics--that’s why the scam is so vicious. It abuses six-year-olds who can’t defend themselves.

2) Whole Word forces you to memorize words as shapes or graphic designs. You are actually told to ignore a vast array of phonetic clues that are right there in front of you--that is the problem. So your brain becomes divided and conflicted. (Compare trying to sing a song and read a book at the same time.)
When you see a word, you don’t know whether to recall its shape from memory OR to sound it out as you should. This confusion wastes energy and makes you anxious. You can’t read with efficiency or pleasure. (Furthermore, English words can appear in lower case, upper case, handwriting, or exotic typefaces, all of which compound the confusion many times over.) The cure is to forget any “sight words” or “Dolch words” you ever learned, and to start reading English phonetically.


NOTE: Whole Word actually requires memorizing many forms of each word.
Consider these words strictly as graphic shapes and you will see they are often very different.




Every school, every teacher, every classroom, every student is different, so there are millions of different outcomes. In general, the older you are, the more time you may need to learn to read properly. Another factor is how completely you were cut off from phonics.

Here’s the basic plan of action. In learning a phonetic/alphabetic language such as English, you must learn to see LETTERS, SOUNDS, AND SYLLABLES. You may never have been taught these basic skills, so now is the time to start. Learn the alphabet (the ABC’s), maybe learn the main consonant sounds, the long and short vowel sounds (but don’t get mired in details), and start reading all the words in your immediate environment. Get going. Read all the letters you see. Sound out every word you see.

(Here’s a little tip about letters. The names you say when you recite the alphabet--A, B, C, D, E, etc.--are actually what might be called nicknames, as when we call William “Bill” or we call Elizabeth “Liz.” A’s real name, we might say, is an
ay- or ah- sound. Similarly, B’s real name is a buh- sound, that is, the explosive sound at the start of such words as Bob, beach, bird, book, and bed. Keep saying these words until you hear the sound at the start, then you’ve got the essence of phonetic language.)  

Once you grasp how it works--printed words are SPOKEN SOUNDS REPRESENTED ON PAPER--you’ll be reading in no time. Your speaking vocabulary is much larger than you might think--probably 30,000 words and names at a minimum if you’re 10 or older. You ALREADY know how to say all these words; and you will soon be able to read all those words in print. Reading is like riding a bicycle--the more you do it, the more comfortable you feel. Read. Read. Read. Liberate yourself from illiteracy.




This article is intended to prime the pump, to make a non-reader see the nature of the problem, and to take action. You might need to start over as if you are a child, the way every child needs to start--someone reads a story to you, pointing at each syllable as it is read. You might want to enlist a friend as a tutor, or hire a reading tutor, or join a class or community group, or go to a reading clinic, or attend a learning or tutoring center. (Some of the well-known names are Sylvan, Kaplan and Learning RX; there will be many others in any area. Each has its own theories and treatments.)

A note about the politics of reading: I find that some of these businesses are a little vague about stating root causes. I suspect they don’t want to offend the Education Establishment by coming right and saying that schools are often the cause of the problem. This article, however, is based on an opposite premise:
the first thing we want to know is root cause. How was a person taught? If the answer is Whole Word, then most of the mystery disappears. All the experts I’ve come to trust insist that with Whole Word you naturally get dreadful results.

On the other hand, if it turned out a person had learned to read phonetically (no Sight Words at all) but was still a bad reader, then we would have a real mystery. Perhaps there’s some subtle eye problem--in which case a doctor might help. Perhaps the person was forced to read difficult or boring books and lost interest---in which case the trick may be to focus entirely on easy, fun books that deal with only the subject you find most interesting.      




So far as I know, the approach outlined in this article has not been tried. My basic thought was that any action is better than no action. Testing new ideas, talking to people about the problem, learning what may have happened in the past--these have to be good first steps. Not to mention, this approach is free and can be pursued privately at home.

Keep in mind that, for many illiterates, embarrassment is a powerful deterrent to doing anything at all. For a person with reading problems, there can seem to be few useful options. Clinics and learning centers might be expensive, and how can you know if they can help?

Meanwhile, I’ve been inspired by stories of people who were tutored late in life and finally regained lost ground. I know reading tutors who rescue children damaged by the public schools. Some problems might take a lot of time to fix; but Whole Word is, finally, just a set of bad habits. Like slouching or gross table manners. We can change.

Meanwhile, public schools go on using the bad techniques, crushing any hope of academic success for millions of youngsters, filling up the welfare rolls and jails with functional illiterates. Whole Word is especially devastating to young males--they can lose all sense of themselves as capable, competent individuals. (If they can’t compete in school, they may compete at dangerous, illegal activities.)

Meanwhile, the mainstream media look the other way, usually supporting the Education Establishment no matter what it wants to do. This is short-sighted, as I’ve pointed out in an article called "How Newspapers Are Committing Suicide" (Google it with quotes.) Basically, newspapers are conspiring in the destruction of their customer base!

Meanwhile, I recently talked to a parent in Norfolk, Va., whose child sees
the and says it. The child is nine years old but basically trapped at age five by idiotic pedagogy. (Understand, the and it are some of the short words on a Dolch list.  They look almost alike, don’t they? So what’s the big deal?, the child might well ask.)

Here we are, almost 55 years after Flesch explained everything you need to know; but we’re still wallowing in the same mistakes. Enough is enough, wouldn’t you say? Please mention this article to any person or organization who might be able to put it to use.

For more about how our educators got so lost literacy-wise, please see "30: The War Against Reading." The Annex suggests some good phonics programs.





This article (still in beta, one might say) requires what might be called diagnostics on-the-fly. Here are two others. Send in your suggestions.

1) The Daily Paper
I talked to a professor involved in remedial reading at the college level. She described several sophisticated tests to determine reading ability and comprehension. I asked, “Why don’t you just hand them the daily paper and ask them to read three paragraphs. You’d know almost everything.”

The point is, either someone can read the daily paper or they cannot (that is, they stumble over fairly easy words, make weird substitutions, and in general struggle at what should be a simple task). This test takes a minute and costs nothing. It does require that a good reader have a second copy of the paper and be listening closely.  

2) Long Words
Here’s another simple test: longer words that most students would have in their speaking vocabularies; but it’s unlikely they would have memorized them as Whole Words. Tell the students: “Please read these and state the meaning if you can. Go as fast as you can.” Glance at your watch...So the test seems to be about vocabulary; but it’s really a one-minute reading test.


Real readers might stumble or pause here and there; but most will be able to  read accurately down this list. Whole Word readers will make many mistakes, and throw out weird guesses that are not even close.



It might be helpful to teach phonics to adults or children. (One interesting theme found in books by both Flesch and Blumenfeld is the idea of school-proofing your children. In short, teach them to read before the public schools can mess them up!)

The key thing here is to find a program that uses synthetic phonics and no other kind (no analytic phonics, for example). Personally, I don’t trust complexity and pedantry (partly because I still don’t know any phonics rules) so I’d suggest looking for the simplest and cheapest program. Most observers agree: once humans grasp the phonetic concept, their brains take over.

I would like to be able to recommend the best programs available. Send your suggestions. Saxon (for reading, math, etc.) is a name that often pops up first. Mona McNee in her book “The Great Reading Disaster” concludes that her own Step by Step is the best; I trust McNee completely but must mention that this program has a British flavor.

Samuel Blumenfeld, our foremost authority on reading, created a program called Alpha-Phonics, which can be obtained on Blumenfeld is the author of “The New Illiterates” and many other important books about education.

Don Potter, a big crusader in this area, says that Blend Phonics is the shortest and simplest. (It was created by Hazel Loring in 1980.) A pdf can be downloaded free on

Wanda Sanseri gave a wonderful overview of all things phonic to the Oregon State  Senate in 2001 (click here). This teacher's experiences are particularly delicious from my point of view because, according to her own testimony, she was in the classroom teaching children to read but she had never heard of phonics. How is that remotely possible? A question that may well lead you to dive into: 30: The War Against Reading.

Here’s a simple way to grasp the essential lie that caused the so-called Reading Wars: consider the differences between 1 and ONE:

Numbers such as 1, 2, 3, 4, etc. are non-phonetic symbols. They are graphic designs. They are used around the world; and each language pronounces 1 differently: uno, une, ein, una, etc. People around the world have no choice but to memorize how to draw and how to pronounce this symbol. In short, it’s a perfect example of a “whole word,” i.e., something you have to commit to memory. Whole Word, the reading philosophy, foolishly pretends that all English words are just like 1. That’s the lie.

In truth, all English words are alphabetic/phonetic objects. For example: ONE. This thing makes no sense to Russians or French people. ONE makes sense only to English-speaking people. It’s a combo of an o-sound and an n-sound, so you end up saying something like ONE. This word, in short, contains lots of phonetic content, which is there to help you remember what this word is and how to say it.

Whole Word dictated that all phonetic content has to be kept secret from children. Quite insane. From that point onward, fluent reading basically becomes impossible for most children.


When dealing with children, keep in mind the gimmick that Whole Word schools use: phony books with carefully limited vocabularies. Children see the same 500 or 1000 words; students with good memories can seem to be reading. They are not reading. Show them a cereal box or newspaper, and they won’t be able to read it. Besides, most children do not have excellent memories. Memorizing 1000 word-shapes, even if they always appear the same way, is a daunting task.

Meanwhile, all around them in every direction, English appears in all its rich and multitudinous forms, unreadable and unknowable. Do you think such children don’t feel lonely and isolated from their own culture? Do you think they don’t feel anger, anxiety and loss of self-esteem? When it comes to generating bad side-effects, Whole Word is a monstrous success.

Marva Collins, a famous educator, said: "Our children and parents surrender themselves to those who are identified as protectors, but who actually destroy them. Children come to school to get what they lack, and they are told, instead, all the things they cannot do."

In “The Great Reading Disaster,” McNee and Coleman state: “All the undermining sense of failure and the various anti-social reactions that dyslexia provokes, have been manufactured by Progressivism’s wrong-headed teaching techniques.”

In "The New illiterates" (1973), Dr. Samuel Blumenfeld said, “Some children give up even before the fourth-grade level. These children become known as ‘dyslexic’--a fancy medical term coined especially to describe the perfectly normal, intelligent youngster who can’t learn to read by the whole-word method.”

Keep these quotes in mind as you read the next section...

The International Dyslexia Association appears to claim that dyslexia is entirely a brain/genetic problem. The IDA does not even mention reading instruction as a possible cause. Many experts strongly disagree with the IDA. Rudolf Flesch and Samuel Blumenfeld concluded that the vast majority of reading/dyslexia problems are not brain/genetic problems--they in fact result from faulty instruction in reading. Diane Mcguinness (author of “Why Your Child Can’t Read”) concluded that dyslexia has no biological basis at all.

A second organization, the International Reading Association (IRA), pushed Whole Word for more than 40 years and caused untold damage (50,000,000 functional illiterates). Now, it seems to me, the International Dyslexia Association is providing protective cover for the IRA by pretending that the problem is different from what it is, and must be treated in a way that won’t help.

The truth, in so far as I can deduce it from all the conflicting reports, is a diamond with five facets: 1) Real dyslexia is extremely rare, almost non-existent. 2) A certain percentage of children may have a potentiality for dyslexia (this would be sort of like having a latent gene for a disease); but this potentiality is activated ONLY if the child is taught to read using faulty techniques, i.e. Whole Word. 3) So dyslexia--there or not there? real or not real? genetic or not genetic?---is actually a moot point in a sensible school. 4) Some experts like to say Whole Word activates the disorder, while other experts say it mimics the disorder. In either terminology, if you are taught properly, you can’t and won’t have dyslexia. 5) Dyslexia and functional illiteracy are the plagues that should never have been. They were caused by bad educators pushing bad theory. 

It’s worth noting that Maria Montessori, the innovative Italian educator, declared that she could teach all children to read and write by the age of six or seven. British schools traditionally assumed that children would learn to read by Christmas of their first year. Marva Collins states that all her pupils learn to read in the first year...Whole Word, even if things proceed on schedule, hopes that children might learn to read by about high school!



Here’s a parallel. A young person is kept in a house until the age of 20, never rides a bicycle, never even sees one. Then the person is put on a bike, and told to “learn to ride by riding.” You’ll probably observe these behaviors: falls, crashes, screams, bruises, blood, crying. What? This person can’t ride a bike?? So the experts designate all the observed problems as BDS--Bicycle Difficulty Syndrome. The government spends millions of dollars trying to determine why the victim suffers from BDS. Genetic? Environmental toxins? Gosh, it’s all soooo deep and mysterious. This sad person suffers from BDS. Or Dysbicycleia. And nobody knows why!!! Websites and associations spring up to grimace and groan over the plight of BDS victims. Maybe their mothers were drug addicts. Maybe the moon passed through Jupiter. Maybe it’s cosmic rays.

I submit this is an exact parallel to the so-called dyslexia that millions of Americans are said to suffer from. The schools don’t teach the children to read. And then everybody stands around wringing their hands. Woe is us. Woe is us. What mysterious ailment do the children suffer from??

The only mystery is why so-called  educators decided to use a teaching strategy that doesn’t work. (In this regard, also see "21: A Tribute to Rudolf Flesch" and "30: The War Against Reading.")

At this point, the solution is to start over, teach the victims how to read.

In the case of BDS, the solution is similar. Put that person on a bike with training wheels and get them out on the streets until they have regained all the lost ground.


The fundamental scam in Whole Word is confusing how we recognize or identify such things as faces, art, cars and buildings, with how we read words in an alphabetic/phonetic language. Explaining the differences between these cognitive activities is a fascinating challenge. I've made a number of graphic videos for YouTube. If you've got patience for just one, let me recommend "How Dolch Words Cause illiteracy and Dyslexia."

Related articles about reading:
37: Whole Word versus Phonics
42: Reading Resources (has list of phonics programs) 
50: Books For Boys 

©Bruce Deitrick Price 2008-2011