One of the most important books in America’s intellectual history, Why Johnny Can't Read, by Rudolf Flesch, was published 60 years ago in 1955. This book sold 8 million copies, was the talk of the country, and explained why children need phonics to become successful readers.
There are many fascinating aspects to this story. Flesch fled from Austria just before the Germans invaded his country; at that time he was pursuing a law degree. In the United States, he went to Columbia University and earned a doctorate in English. Safe to say, he was exceptionally smart. In addition, he was obsessed with lucid language. He flourished, as Wikipedia notes, “as a writing teacher, plain-English consultant and author. He published many books on the subject of clear, effective communication: How to Test Readability (1951), How to Write Better (1951), The Art of Plain Talk (1946), The Art of Readable Writing (1949), The ABC of Style: A Guide to Plain English (1964), and Rudolf Flesch on Business Communications: How to Say What You Mean in Plain English (1972),” and others.
So we arrive at a sad, unexpected irony. This master communicator believed that he had settled the reading matter forever. Phonics was essential. Whole Word (also known by such names as Look-say, sight-words, Dolch words, Whole Language, etc.) was an obvious fraud and as well dangerous to children. Flesch assumed that any dunce would understand this. He was wrong.