How It Began

by Margaret McEathron

Editor's Note: Deja Vu!

On second thought, Deja Vu isn't accurate because what we see today is a continuation of Margaret's experiences. In fact, the reading problem has never gone away. In most respects, 60 years later, the situation is much worse than in 1938. For example, "whole language" which is now in vogue is even less effective than the look-say programs that replaced phonics in the 1920's and 30's and has been acknowledged as the culprit in bringing California's scores to rock bottom. There has been an astronomical increase in the percentage of illiterate students graduating from high school; and there are increasing numbers of young people incarcerated who cannot read.

Margaret McEathron comments that she found no phonics materials available in the libraries, including University and Teachers' College libraries, and found nothing in talking with heads of Education Departments and teachers. The story below tells "How It Began" for Margaret.

Very few of the "old timers" are still around, but they were the angels of the 30's, 40's, and 50's who kept the candle burning for phonics. With no commercial phonics materials available, they developed their own approaches and regularly produced first graders who read independently, spelled accurately and wrote their own stories. Many teachers who knew phonics kept teaching using their own knowledge; but we are running out of these teachers, and most new teachers know little about phonics.

Ruth Youngren, a first grade teacher of poor children in Minnesota, yearly spent the first two weeks teaching the sounds of English and their corresponding letters. Then through the year, she taught 50 spelling words each morning to her first graders. These first graders were not only good spellers, they were excellent readers and creative writers.

Sister Monica Foltzer, author of the highly successful Professor Phonics Gives Sound Advice and A Sound Track to Reading (see our catalog), told the Reading Reform Foundation that she was so discouraged that she nearly stopped teaching after her first year (1927). She said the look-say materials didn't work, and there were no phonics materials available--even children's A, B, C blocks disappeared! Encouraged to not give up, she daily through trial and error developed her own approach and "bootlegged" her brand of phonics which later became Professor Phonics.

The Reading Reform Foundation, founded in 1961, had the privilege of working with many "old timers" who knew what worked and who developed their own phonics materials. Margaret McEathron's story is poignant; but it is not unique. Most of the "old timers" have passed on, but fortunately today we have the legacy of their dedicated, home-grown efforts.

Rudolf Flesch also recognized the reading problem and in 1956 wrote his classic book, Why Johnny Can't Read (see our catalog). This book struck a responsive note with parents, alerting them to the cause of their children's inability to read. The education establishment reacted to Flesch's book immediately. The International Reading Association was created, and every effort was made to discredit Flesch. Publishers added bits and pieces of phonics (called "phony phonics") to their look-say programs; and what did the educators now say? "But we do teach phonics." When most talk of phonics, they are talking about these "phony phonics" programs as opposed to the successful, research proven intensive phonics these "old timers" used.

Margaret's story: It all began because of a letter to me:

June 4, 1938

Dear Margaret,

If you can just tell me what to do to get Skippy to read, I’ll do it, Margaret. After his failing report card came in again today, I’m desperate. He’s an A-1 boy, but not in reading.

After my former neighbors in the 54th St. District told me about how you pulled their children out of reading and spelling tail-spins last year, I was hoping we could move back down there before Fall. But now Paul got a good job here in Montecito and we’ll have to stay. Please, Margaret—you know me—I’ll stick to it, and do whatever you found that works—you know I will. If you can just steer me into the first steps of what to do! Somewhere, right in the beginning, we must have failed. You know what good readers the 3 girls are. I’m completely stumped.

Love, Emma

This was the first of many similar letters that came later.

Dear Emma, I fumed, did she have any idea how difficult it is to set down on paper exact instructional How-To steps? Even tho in verbal direct teaching it was so natural. I learned at that time how much the attitude and response of the child himself counted. Did she appreciate how the individual need-to-know formed the children’s questions and actually drew out the obvious solutions that had worked so well with these children in our neighborhood? But, how could anyone—especially a dyed-in-the-wool teacher, ignore the challenge?

So, I made a little notebook for Emma—of “what I did” to pull kids out of reading tailspins. I’m grateful to her now that it never occurred to her to suggest that someone else couldn’t do it exactly the same way and with the same result. I was a former neighbor and friend, raising a family in a middle-class neighborhood, just as she was. We had exchanged many recipes and ideas through the years. Now here she was, asking for one from me to her on how to make a good reader. And so I wrote out my “recipe” for her of what she must DO—step by step. While I’m at it, I thought, might as well make it self-rising and light.

I made it very simple, very basic, just as I was teaching it, giving her the benefit of assuming she knew how to “put it together.” She did, and it worked! In one summer, Skippy became an independent reader.

This was the summer that a short-lived dance tune called: “Ten Lessons From Madame La Zonga” was “in." It blared on every radio. So as I stapled the blank cover over the ten “lessons” I had written out for Emma, I gaily made a bold title across it: Ten Lessons From Madame La Phonics for Skippy.

And that’s how it was that my friends began calling me Madame La Phonics.

No Writings on the Subject

 Since I was drawn unexpectedly into the remedial reading work and I was already far too busy—how was it I did not refer my friend Emma to some published book by an authority on Phonics? The simple answer is: there weren’t any; at least none that I could find—in 1938!

How I hoped, how I tried to find even one book to help me in that first year when I took on the responsibility of helping eight of my neighbors’ children! I searched every library, including University and Teacher’s College libraries, in the Los Angeles area. I talked with heads of Education Departments, talked with teachers.  The only clue I got was in a Teacher’s Guide to a basal reading series by Nila Banton Smith, who was at USC at the time. It was one short paragraph at the end of a chapter—2 or 3 lines suggesting that “some” children needed to be taught the sounds of the letters!

By now, I was inundated with “cases” and realized I was being compelled to dig into whatever resources I had. Failing children couldn’t wait. So with prayer, tears, laughter and my fund of good solid midwestern teacher-training in the basics—but particularly my faith in the inherent good sense of my neighbors and their children—I evolved my method of pulling each one out of his reading troubles. All the time I was declaring to the anxious mothers, whose help and support both Johnny and I needed:“Your child CAN learn to read!”

The Pattern

I was as surprised as anyone that the failure to learn to read for all the very different children seemed to fall into a pattern. As the pattern kept emerging it became surprisingly simple to see the solution. And that solution evolved in repeatable similar steps for each one no matter their age or grade! As I worked with increasing numbers of cases I could almost guarantee the graph of the therapy and the time of the “cure.”

I insisted on two sessions a week, with mother, grandma or sister present, a definite and precise course of homework with drill cards, between each tutoring session—(handmade at the time and rationed for that one lesson) and payment in advance: $15.00 for ten lessons. I soon found this last stipulation absolutely necessary in order that mama’s bridge game didn’t seem more important than the uninterrupted rhythm of the growth taking place in Johnny’s buds of learning just coming into flower.

Fifteen dollars was a lot of money in those days! But by this time I was confident that 10 lessons of unadulterated, strong doses of phonics would produce the “cure.” By then mothers could take over, or the child was flying “on his own.”

The Greatest Compliment

The greatest compliment to a teacher is when the pupil no longer needs him, and he can teach himself! This was my slogan. The scary things I had evidently taken in, from news items and parents’ biased judgments, of how belligerent, lazy and “dumb” failing children were, simply didn’t check out. And school “opposition” cited by some parents—I never yet have gotten any.

Perhaps I was lucky; I didn’t deal with School Authorities in any way. And from teachers I got only gratitude for showing their failing pupils a way out. Most, even then in the early years, had never been trained in anything but the LOOK-SAY method. And the “unfortunate home environment” blamed by the schools as “the problem”—I couldn’t find much of that either. Yes, a few came from educationally handicapped environments, but at least three-fourths had average to superior home conditions for learning. No matter, once Johnny got some tools to work with, and could rely on, and was going ahead on his own, he caught up to his grade, and that was that. It was unbelievably rewarding! Remember, this was in the 1930s only a decade after the LOOK/SAY method had really been established.

In these years, the late thirties and before World War II, not many of my friends, or adults in general, credited the fact that some children were failing to learn to read to the schools. “Must be sub-normal,” they would shrug. Kids always had learned to read, at least if they were smart enough to go to school at all—and that was that. Many friends, very polite, might take a moment from pressing clubwork to ask: “Phonics? What’s that? Never heard of it—teachers are always trying out new words you know. Margaret, why knock yourself out—the kids will come to it.”

In fourth grade?—6th grade?—8th grade? and still not sure of 15 reading words—they would come to it? How?

At this time the media had not really caught up with the extent of the problem. So forgive them—the average family not involved directly really didn’t know what was happening, nor what was at stake.

Letters are a Code

We were living in a typical suburban area of Los Angeles. Most of the parents were college educated. It was astounding to me I had to explain over and over: “Letters of the alphabet are a CODE—In order to read, one learns what those black and white squiggles represent in sounds. We put them together to deduce the words from the code clues...

What about meaning? Of course!  That’s what you read for: to get the meaning of the words in that message or page. Once the words can be correctly read, it is automatic to interpret the meaning, for all the children knew (at that time) the language by speech and sound.

Phonics? That’s not new, although the new term may be in the 1920s we used to know and teach this process as “Word Analysis.” Now it is known as the science of Phonics: “sounds of letters that one sees by the eye.”

Only a Few Saw the Danger

My friends still shrugged helplessly.  Implying: “Poor Margaret—she’s just knocking herself out for nothing. It’s all so simple. You just send your children to a decent public school and they all come out with a good education and a diploma to prove it.” (Remember, this was 1938.) Public outcry had not yet come to the media.

I had thought so, too. But that was before I found out from some of my Johnnies it just wouldn’t and couldn’t work out like that if he couldn’t read.  And some of them were not able until they could get information on the CODE—the only way he could open his mind to any sense about those squiggles on white paper.

Dear inarticulate Johnny—he didn’t know what could be wrong, but he reacted to a hidden guilt: ‘I’m just not smart.’ And in this first generation of failing readers, that was the worst part of failure to read. His parents, too often, were unaware that Johnny’s potential was being wasted. Even though the mothers could not then understand—as they do now. I had to be Johnny’s spokesman. I have been ever since. Read: The Wasted Generation by Col. George Walton, Chilton Publishers & Ambassador Books, Canada.

But it was a lonely thing, those early days, that so few saw or sensed, even to small degrees, the facts of the problem. I used to walk the floor at night with a burden of foreboding I could not quite define nor fathom. Now, with over 20 million illiterate—tho’ schooled—Johnnies, I understand my intuited fears.

The No-No Word

Phonics was a No-No Word—Then.

Having been out of the teaching field for over ten years, busy raising our own four children, I don’t really know, or remember, when it was that the University Professors began to call the decoding process Phonics. But the shock that during the ten short years when I wasn’t looking, this word had become in some pedantic circles, a no-no word!—this I do remember!

Some With Genius I.Q’s Were Failing

It was those eight first tutoring cases I describe in Chapter 3 that brought the pattern of the common problem to light. Three of these children tested out with genius I.Q.’s—the rest were average to high-average. All were bewildered, confused, and convinced there must be ‘something wrong with them!’ Even though they wouldn’t say so in any adult’s range of hearing! For all of them, the look and guess systems gave them no sure clues that there was a sure science and certain sure rules they could work, themselves. The next try at a work, you know,—it could be a “wrong guess”—again!

Many, too, like our eldest daughter, just scraped a passing grade in spelling. Even with drill, drill, and repeated writing effort, they were losing the Battle of Spelling.

The Ten Lessons Notebook

After my friends found out I had written out Ten Lessons, they all wanted copies. Happy beyond words that they wanted to help their children with reading I gladly duplicated Skippy’s notebook “for Julie”—"for Dick," etc.  Somehow as time and hordes of children ran through my life, the notebook got enlarged, clearer, better stated, and illustrated. Now teachers were coming to watch the teaching sessions, and finally I realized if I were going to be of any real service to all these mothers and all these teachers, I would have to have mimeographed copies ready for them to use. So one night my husband and I learned how to operate the mimeograph machine in his office and ran off 100 copies of 48 pages. An enormous and unreasonable amount, we thought, but my goodness, here I had been kindly loaned the use of this remarkable machine, free, might as well print enough! (I should have known!)

Help! It’s a Book!

The next day my own four children were helping me gather the new 48 pages of crudely mimeographed lessons in preparation for the next teachers’ seminar I was now undertaking. They gathered the pages 1 by 1 as they walked around our large dining table and when the 48th page was gathered, I stapled the set into a red cover we bought at the 10 Cent Store for 10 cents. I saw the growing pile of red 8 1/2 x 11 books coming off our production line—now nearing 100 copies....

Then, it hit me: My God! I’ve written a book!

It was inevitable that its title would be:

Your Child Can Learn To Read

Old Lady Fate was snickering up her sleeve where she keeps her tricks. For had I even suspected then that that pile of red notebooks would go on edition after edition, one in hard-cover, dual sale with Rudolph Flesch’s book (Grosset and Dunlap), and would sell over a million copies in paperback (and still in 1986 is going stronger than ever), I would have been so scared, I doubt if I could have done it at all! As it was, doing it with only Johnny in mind, I could keep it simple; I doubt I thought even once of the scary Establishment. And for sure, it did not know of me.

Subtly, events in the school world of Johnny were going their inevitable way.  Newspapers and magazines were becoming aware of the fact, long covered, that all was not well in the reading departments of our public schools.

* * * * * * *

(Ed. The above is a chapter from “50 Years—Reading Helpers: You can Be One, Too!—dedicated to Bettina Rubicam, former RRF President.) Copyright© 1986 by Reading Reform Foundation. All rights reserved.

A few copies of Your Child Can Learn To Read are still available, see our catalog.

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