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Really Now, Why Can't Our Johnnies Read?

The latest National Assessment of Educational Progress report found that among 17-year-old U.S. high school students, only 4 out of 10 could be considered to be adept readers. Those who read at this level can understand complex reading material, summarize it, and apply the ideas. This level of reading ability at the present time is needed in order to do college work, but by the year 2000 it is thought that the average job will require college-level reading ability.

Unfortunately, there is nothing new about students who read at levels considered to be too low for the national welfare. In 1955, Rudolph Flesch wrote his popular book Why Johnny Can't Read. Flesch suggested that the reasons our students could not read well were that phonics was neglected in the schools and that there was an over-emphasis on whole-word approaches to reading instruction. While it seems that Eisenson has borrowed Flesch's book title, surprisingly, he does not even refer to or acknowledge Flesch's book.

What then is contained in this relatively short book, and what are the credentials of the author? Eisenson is professor emeritus of hearing and speech science at Stanford University, and is a past president of the American Speech and Hearing Association. He has written a number of books on reading and language disorders.

What the book provides is a brief exploration of the causes of illiteracy, an examination of serious reading problems such as dyslexia, and suggestions about what reading instructors can do to reach students who have difficulty learning. There are two rather unusual aspects to this book. At the very end of the book is a chapter by Elise Estrin, "Higher Levels of Learning in Reading," which capably summarizes many of the latest findings about reading instruction. The other unusual feature is a case history located in an appendix describing the efforts of a dyslexic youth who managed to get a doctoral degree in mathematics from an Ivy League college despite having severe reading problems.

Is the text worth reading? For those who are unfamiliar with the reading field, the book provides an interesting introduction to the history and nautre of written language and the way written codes map the phonemes of spoken language. One also learns about the role of the brain in reading and the various arguments surrounding the causes of dyslexia. In addition, the author provides an overview of some of the approaches used in reading instruction and discusses approaches to use with students who are at risk of failing reading--although some techniques with proven effectiveness (such as repeated reading and reciprocal teaching) are not mentioned. The strongest section of the book deals with articulatory problems and reading, an area where Eisenson's expertise in speech and hearing gives him an advantage.

Despite minor shortcomings the book is easy to read and worth reading, especially if you want a fast overview of a very complicated and politicized field.

Reviewed by S. JAY SAMUELS, Professor of Educational Psychology, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Council for Exceptional Children
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Samuels, S. Jay
Publication:Exceptional Children
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1991
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