Now that it’s summer, I have a suggestion for how parents can grant their wee kiddies the magic of reading by Labor Day: Pick up Siegfried Engelmann’s Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons. My wife and I used it a while ago with our then-4-year-old daughter, and after a mere 20 cozy minutes a night, a little girl who on Memorial Day could recognize on paper only the words no and stop and the names of herself and her family members could, by the time the leaves turned, read simple books.
My wife and I are not unusually diligent teachers. The book worked by, quite simply, showing our daughter, bit by bit, how to sound out the words. That’s it. And yet in the education world, Engelmann’s technique is considered controversial.
Engelmann’s book, which he co-wrote with Phyllis Haddox and Elaine Bruner, was first published in the early 1980s, but it was based on work from the late 1960s. That’s when Engelmann was involved in the government-sponsored Project Follow Through, whose summary report compared nine methods for how to teach reading and tracked results on 75,000 children from kindergarten through third grade. The results, though some critics over the years have rejected them on methodological grounds, were clear: The approach that proved most effective was based on phonics—teaching children how to sound words out, letter by letter, rather than encouraging students to recognize words as single chunks, also called the whole-word system. Specifically, the most successful approach supplemented basic phonics with a tightly scripted format emphasizing repetition and student participation, often dubbed “direct instruction.” As I have previously explained for NPR, the results were especially impressive among poor children, including black ones.