The Epidemic of Reading Disabilities

By Carl L. Kline, M.D. with Carolyn Lacey Kline

Carl L. Kline, M.D. (Vancouver, B.C., Canada), a child and adolescent psychiatrist, is internationally known for his expertise in children’s learning disabilities, including dyslexia. With his wife, Carolyn Lacey Kline, who is a  Language Disabilities consultant, he has treated over 4,000 children with learning disabilities. Dr. Kline states that “every poor reader who does not receive appropriate help will develop significant emotional problems.”

When 35% of the population is affected by a disability, it is an epidemic. When that disability is the leading cause of emotional problems in children and adolescents in North America, we are talking about a serious public health problem. Consider also that this epidemic is a major etiological factor in school-dropouts and in juvenile delinquency. Furthermore, although a definitive study has not yet been done, it seems likely that teenagers who can’t read or spell and who consequently hate school are easy targets for drug dealers.

Remember the panic in the streets each summer before Salk discovered a polio vaccine? Mothers dreaded the hot months of July and August. Daily they read the latest newspaper count of children struck down by what was then a disease of mysterious ways. Dr. Salk’s discovery annihilated the risk of polio in all who are inoculated against it, and simultaneously abolished the anxiety and fear that made summers a family nightmare.

We already have the vaccine to attack reading disability, but we can’t get the educators to use it. Samuel Orton, Rudolf Flesch, Jeanne Chall, Patrick Groff and numerous other researchers have urged the educators to prevent this massive problem by inoculating primary students with a steady injection of synthetic, explicit phonics. (This is not what the schools mean by phonics—a word increasingly in bad taste among educators. Synthetic, explicit phonics is intensive, structured training in letter-sound associations and blending drills with beginning reading/spelling/writing limited to phonetically regular words of increasing complexity. It is not occasional, hit-or-miss, unexplained letter-sounds unrelated to reading and written work.)

The research supporting early, intensive phonics as opposed to whole word-whole language instruction has been researched and validated. The findings have been widely published. One can only wonder: Do our educators have a reading disability? If teachers were taught how to teach children to read and spell phonetically and were provided with appropriate, inexpensive materials, the learning disability epidemic would be over. Parents no longer would have to worry about whether their children would learn to read. And they would not have to suffer the devastating experience of seeing their children fall apart emotionally under the impact of being perceived as stupid.

When typhoid fever occurred endemically, doctors discovered that it often was carried by food handlers, usually women in those days. These women were labeled “Typhoid Marys.” Doctors would go into the kitchens of restaurants, hospitals, and boarding houses, locate the typhoid carrier, and remove her from the kitchen. Perhaps we will have to go into the educational faculties and schools, locate the “Typhoid Marys,” and get them out of the classrooms.

Those who question what the educators are doing and who dare to suggest that they are a major cause of this epidemic of reading disability typically are met with anger. However, iconoclasts who threaten an entrenched establishment never are welcomed by those in power. For example, Dr. Ignaz Semmelweiss in 1850 demonstrated that the appalling death rate from childbirth fever in hospital maternity wards was caused by the attending doctors. They came directly from autopsy rooms to the delivery rooms, carrying the virulent infection on their unscrubbed hands and bloody aprons. Doctors were furious. They refused to listen to the evidence. They attacked Dr. Semmelweiss with verbal abuse, and finally they drove him from his university teaching position. Yet, twenty years after his death, the simple antiseptic techniques he advocated were adopted, and childbirth fever was abolished.

If the faculties of education would study the impressive evidence demonstrating that teaching to read by explicit phonics prevents reading failure, the children would not have to wait twenty more years. It’s time for educators to stop behaving like those nineteenth century doctors whose bacteria-infected hands and clothing killed young mothers in childbirth. Today’s educators also are destroying the innocent. They are killing the hopes, and the potential, and the mental health of the children who are victims of the reading disability epidemic. How long must these children wait?

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