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“Why Johnny can’t read” — today more than half of Americans cannot read at a sixth-grade level

… A frightening but real scenario

When I was a child, a book was released that became an immediate best-seller and tried to change the way children were taught to read. It was entitled “Why Johnny can’t read” and it was written by Rudolf Fiesch. Ironically, Fiesch was a native of Austria and fled the country to avoid the antisemitism of the Nazis.

Fiesch became an American citizen and an expert in reading. He became a proponent of what was called “plain English” in America.

That book was released in 1955, and Fiesch would be shocked at the reading levels of American students today. In fact, most Americans cannot read at a sixth grade level — but not for the reasons that he analyzed in the 50s.


Fiesch was critical of the reading practice of the 1950s which required us as students to memorize whole words. He was critical of the Dick and Jane stories that we used in elementary schools. He called this the “look-see” method. Instead, he said that method was difficult as young students advanced in school. His work inspired the start of the use of phonics in teaching reading.

This has improved the reading process, but it is not the complete answer.

Why Johnny and Janie cannot read in 2020

The shocking part of the reading issue is that young people are not encouraged to read by parents and even by some in the educational process. I see it every day. Young people are constantly looking at their phones — but not reading a book.

And then parents complain when they do not do well on the SAT or ACT or in college. Yet they do not encourage the students to read.

As one writer noted recently,

According to at least one study of literacy in the US — 50% of Americans cannot read and understand a book written at what our public schools consider “eighth grade level.”

It seems possible that most US adults cannot fully understand the two sentences quoted at the very top of this morning’s article.

I can’t claim to understand America’s lack of literacy. The nation’s failure ... is an incredibly complex issue, dependent as it is upon changes in family structure, changes in our public education system, changes in the type of college graduates we are producing, changes in information technology and delivery, changes in the distribution of wealth, changes in the nation’s leadership, and dozens of other factors.

Bill Hudson, “Why Johnny Can’t Read? Part Two,” Pagosa Daily

Post editorial, November 27, 2020

People sometimes complain when they see foreign-born or educated doctors in hospitals instead of native-born Americans. Why is this the case?

The quality of foreign schools. They push students harder that those in the U.S. For instance, how many high schools have mandatory reading lists for their students? Not enough.

If students are not encouraged to read, they will spend their time on their phones and fail in school and often in life.

Other reasons for problems

Some critics today argue that phonics has not worked either. However, one who does so argued that the following are reasons that Americans — both children and adults — cannot read at a high school grade level.

A retired teacher named Russ Walsh argued that phonics may not be perfect, but that about 80 percent of students learned to read well. However, he argued that the major problems in reading focused on these:

Income Inequity - We can draw a direct line from family income to success or lack of success in reading. There are major differences in the resources available to middle and high income children in regards to reading materials and language exposure when compared to children living in poverty. Growing income inequity in this country continues to put many of our children at risk for failure.

Racism and Segregation - Legal segregation ended with Brown vs. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas in 1954. De-facto segregation, however, has been steadily on the increase because of racism and discriminatory real estate practices fomented by businesses and by the government, aided and abetted by a still racist society. This de-facto segregation guarantees that educational resources are unevenly and inequitably distributed in the country, since so much of the educational tax base is rooted in property taxes.

Brain-based Reading Disorders - For reasons we do not fully understand, some children have difficulty processing the sounds in words. The term dyslexic is often used to describe these children. The number of dyslexics in the population has been difficult to pin down, with estimates varying from about 5 to about 20 percent of the population depending on the definition of the term. The smooth and fluent processing of written words (decoding) is a key component to skilled reading. This is the factor that Hanford and Flesch were addressing. Their mistake is to be overly myopic about this one factor as a cause for all reading difficulty.

Environmental Factors - These factors are closely related to income inequity. Successful learners of reading have access to lots of books in the home. Successful learners of reading have lots of outside the home experiences (background knowledge) to draw on for learning. Successful learners of reading come to school with a rich vocabulary. Successful learners of reading have been read to at home. 

This is not a "blame the parents" game. Parents of all socio-economic groups want their children to succeed in learning to read, but many factors conspire against them in providing a rich literate home environment. One of the underexamined factors here is a lack of home-school cultural match and how that impacts children.

Quality of Instruction - Teachers struggle to meet students needs for a variety of reasons. One key reason is a lack of sufficient understanding of the reading process. Undergraduate teaching programs struggle to provide enough instruction in reading instruction, both theoretical and practical. Contributing to the problem is an over-reliance by school districts and administrators on reading programs. Programmatic teaching consistently fails to meet many students needs and also stunts the growth of the professional in the classroom. Finally, teachers struggle to differentiate learning for the most vulnerable readers, because they fail to understand the learning strengths of children with different experiential backgrounds from their own.

What is lacking is not the right reading program, but an orientation toward responsive teaching. Responsive teaching meets the child where they are and flexibly provides the instruction that is needed. For this to be effective, of course, a deep understanding of reading processes is necessary. As a profession, an orientation toward responsive, rather than reactive, teaching can make all the difference for children. Obeisance to one size fits all teaching, or to any single methodology, will lead to continued failure to meet the needs of all students and continued failure to break the cycle of children who fail to thrive in reading.

Ross Walsh, "Ross on Reading" Blog

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