Illiteracy and Violence:
Confusion About Cause and Effect

By Marian Hinds

In response to the latest Educational Testing Service report, “Becoming Literate About Literacy," wrong assumptions are made regarding literacy—and illiteracy—thus, wrong questions are asked and failing solutions are offered.

Because those reporting do not understand what causes illiteracy and the cause-effect relationship between reading failure and delinquency, they report that poverty, homelessness, etc. cause illiteracy rather than reporting the reverse—the true picture that illiteracy causes poverty, drug usage, crime, etc. Schools with high expectations do teach children to read in spite of problems resulting from poverty, homelessness, drug addiction, etc.

Regarding violence and crime, Michael Brunner, a leading U.S. Department of Justice official, details the link between academic failure and delinquency. In Retarding America: The Imprisonment Of Potential, Brunner documents that “this link is welded to reading failure," and proposes that “research-based reading instruction can be used to reduce recidivism and increase employment opportunity for incarcerated juvenile offenders."

A study by Dennis Hogenson, Reading Failure and Juvenile Delinquency, is remarkable both in what it did find and what it didn’t find: “...the present study was unsuccessful in attempting to correlate aggression with age, family size, or number of parents present in the home, rural versus urban environment, socio-economic status, minority group membership, religious preference, etc. Only reading failure was found to correlate with aggression in both populations of  delinquent boys.

“It is possible that reading failure is the single most significant factor in those forms of delinquency which can be described as anti-socially aggressive. I am speaking of assault, arson, sadistic acts directed against peers and siblings, major vandalism, etc," said Hogenson.

We have known for a long time that there is a correlation between delinquency and academic  failure/ inability to read. Carl Kline, M.D., child and adolescent psychiatrist internationally known for his expertise in children’s learning disabilities, states, “every poor reader who does not receive appropriate help will develop significant emotional problems." He says that when 35% of the population in North America is affected by a disability, it is an epidemic; and he notes that it “seems likely that teenagers who can’t read or spell and who consequently hate school are easy targets for drug dealers."

Too often the public is led to believe that the problems keeping children from learning to read  are not the schools’ fault—that instead parents have not given enough support, the parents are divorced, there is too much TV, et al.

Professor Siegfried Engelmann, University of Oregon, in his book, War Against The Schools Academic Child Abuse, has declared war upon educational practices that literally constitute child abuse. As the publisher notes, “Professor Engelmann vividly explains how irresponsible practices have contributed to the paralysis of our school systems and injury to countless school children for decades. In an age demanding intellectual proficiency, the cost to those children and our nation—is incalculable."

The continuing decline of the SAT scores (and the recent renorming of these tests) is an obvious reflection of declining academic achievement in the U.S. Common sense tells us that tests will not reflect what has not been taught. Common sense has also told us what Brunner documents: “Sufficient evidence from experimental research indicates that sustained frustration not only can cause aggressive antisocial behavior, but that in a school setting, reading failure meets all the requirements for bringing about and maintaining the frustration level that frequently leads to  delinquency."

Appropriately, in his Preface of Retarding America, Professor Patrick Groff, San Diego State  University, provides a succinct statement regarding the two predominant approaches used to  teach reading in the U.S. today and what the experimental research shows regarding them.

Groff says that whole language (WL), the predominant approach used in the U.S. and other English-speaking countries, “rejects the direct, systematic and intensive teaching of prearranged sequences of reading skills; specifically, teaching children to apply phonics information to the  recognition of written words. WL is based upon two erroneous assumptions: first, that students best learn to read in precisely the same way they learned to speak (that is to say, they simply ‘pick it up’); and secondly, that readers, rather than authors, ought to decide what information is contained in a piece of written material (that is to say, reading the word ‘donkey’ when it is   written  h-o- r-s-e is close enough). Neither of these tenets is supported by the experimental   research on reading development."

Groff notes also that with WL, teachers become “facilitators” of the learning process, thus giving students the “responsibility for teaching themselves to read,” and encouraging them “to add,   omit, or substitute words at will ... since reading is no more than a ‘psycholinguistic guessing  game. ‘"

Keith E. Stanovich, highly regarded professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Toronto, Canada, writes, “Future historians  will find it difficult to explain how the political goal of restructuring educational resources got tied up with the issue of whether teachers should say, ‘S makes the /s/ sound.’” Professor Stanovich also suggests that, “The whole language   movement is currently burdened with, shall we say, entangling alliances—in particular, an alliance with an extreme view on the role of direct instruction of decoding skills that is seriously out of step with current evidence."

Stanovich reinforces this questioning of the whole language movement when he writes, “...In holding to an irrationally extreme view on the role of phonics in reading education--failing to  acknowledge that some children do not discover the alphabetic principle on their own and need systematic direct instruction in the alphabetic principle, phonological analysis, and alphabetic  coding—whole language proponents threaten all of their legitimate accomplishments.  Eventually...the weight of empirical evidence will fall on their heads. That direct instruction in  alphabetic coding facilities early reading acquisition is one of the most well established conclusions in all of behavioral science. Conversely, the idea that learning to read is just like learning to speak is accepted by no responsible  linguist, psychologist, or cognitive scientist in the research community."

Groff observes, “Thus Brunner’s study brings up serious questions about the job our teacher  training institutions are doing. If the very foundation of all education--reading instruction--is  in trouble, what can be said about the rest of teacher preparation? And if teacher education is based upon only vogue, impractical fantasies and fads, what does this indicate about education as a whole..." I suggest that similar questions should be asked regarding the national education legislation (Goals 2000) and Washington State’s current restructuring called for in ESHB 1209. Are the “essential learnings” and the “performance-based assessment” program based on documented empirical evidence?

A Cincinnati newspaper headline says it best: “Poor black students disproving myths." The article states, “Washburn’s students scored higher than any others in the Cincinnati Public  School system ... They rank near the top among city schools in writing ability..." The principal noted that “Some of the students come to school without breakfast, and lack adequate clothing" and that “97 percent of them receive some type of public assistance." Washburn is located in a high drug area in the “low-income West End” of Cincinnati.

Literally hundreds of studies and years of experimental research specifically support teaching  children to accurately and fluently recognize words through an alphabetic approach and verify that home environment, such as poverty and drugs, is not the issue in learning to read. Yet this latest report, “Becoming Literate About Literacy," from the Educational Testing Service and hundreds of others confuse the issue. Poor children, children of divorced and/or drug addicted  parents, so-called “at risk” children—children “suffering” from any of these problems—can and will learn if properly taught.

 Marian Hinds is the President of  the Reading Reform Foundation in Tacoma.  The Foundation  promotes intensive phonics as the most effective teaching method for reading. Marian teaches   reading in a private elementary school in the Hilltop area of Tacoma. For more information on the Reading Reform Foundation, call
(253) 88-3436; or visit our Web Site:  or e-mail:

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