Israel and USA share disdain for literacy in English

Bruce Deitrick Price is a novelist, artist, poet, and education reformer. His new novel is Frankie, inspired by advances in AI and robots. Frankie is a harmless robot that unintentionally turns the state of New Jersey upside down. Visit


Why would a country undermine phonics?

One of the most startling queries I ever received came from a teacher in Israel. Here is the entire communication:

I watched some of your youtube videos with thirst and feel the frustration that I feel when I tutor private elementary students, who come without any clue as to how to read English, as if for 5-6 years all they had done was filling workbooks and learning word lists. Older students keep telling me their teachers insist on guessing from texts and looking for clues when words are unknown, and they fear to use a dictionary as the time allotted in tests is short. Within the framework of my lessons I work to change this situation. I would appreciate it if you could recommend to me any good source book for teaching phonics from the very beginning. I appreciate your attention.

This is a shocking communication. The teacher, who seemed to me totally sincere, reveals that Israel national policy is anti-phonics. Predictably, their schools will get bad results; and the teacher indicates that such is the usual outcome. But why?

My first reaction was excitement: wow, I and this teacher can save Israel from its bad experts. Then I sobered up. Israel could not be so naïve as to accidentally choose the worst method. I had to look deeper, as in a police investigation when the prime suspect has a perfect alibi and you have to find the next most logical suspect.

After a few days of wrestling with this bizarre situation, I constructed the only theory that felt at all credible. The elders, the most powerful rabbis, would certainly not want Hebrew to be the second language in the land where Hebrew was invented. That’s understandable. And consider that most of the biggest, most successful companies around the world use English because it’s the world’s most popular language. You can safely predict that the great majority of fancy innovative websites will be in English. Millions of them. So kids will be endlessly bombarded by English. Students will be irresistibly enticed away from giving their full attention to Hebrew. If you were the elders, what would you do?

I don’t think the teacher had ever realized the heavy political complexities. When I tried to suggest them, the teacher was startled and, a few days later, disappeared from my in-box.

Meanwhile, let’s consider the extraordinary parallel between what Israel did with students and what the US did with students. In both cases, they did what would get inferior results. They endorsed a bogus method. That’s what the United States did in 1931 when phonics was exiled.

The teacher testified to the dismal results gained in Israel. Anyone familiar with American K-12 knows we have tens of millions of functional illiterates; and reaching high school without being able to read is a common phenomenon.

Both these rich and clever countries had embraced the same solution to the same problem they saw: too much literacy.

In Israel, the problem was too much English literacy. In America the problem was too much literacy in general. The same basic problem. And the authorities adopted the same basic methods to slow things down. For simplicity’s sake, let’s call this method by any of its aliases: whole word, sight-words, whole language, three queuing system, balanced literacy, and all the other jargon perpetrated in the public schools.

The teacher’s email mentions all the identifying marks of whole language, sight-words, etc. Students are required to memorize word lists. They are told to finds clues and to guess.

Emily Hanford, with her work on the Science of Reading, has opened up the debate. Everything that Rudolf Flesch explained in 1955 (Why Johnny Can’t Read) has turned out to be the truth that teachers need to hear. For example, English is a vast language. Memorizing it one word at a time is purest folly.

Even the smarter students can rarely master more than 1000 sight-words. The ordinary kids are completely stymied well below that mark. It’s a nightmare. You have to ask yourself what kind of people run our school system? Well, they’re very practical people pursuing the wrong goals. Essentially, they are focused on social engineering goals.

The quick way to become literate in English is to learn the alphabet and then the sounds represented by the letters. Typically, students learn to read in the first grade

The big question is why would anyone go away from the proven method? 

Apparently, this happens because the Education Establishment has social and psychological goals, or national goals. Arguably, the Israelis wanted to protect the primacy of Hebrew in that country. Arguably, the American educators wanted to protect their vision of creating a more socialist society as envisioned by John Dewey.

A common sense person knows there is nothing more important than reading. But ideologues always think they have more important goals.

ADDENDUM: it should be noted that Canada has pursued similar policies. A reform group in Italy, much to my surprise, contacted me for advice on fighting sight-words. South Africa, at one point, also used this bogus method.

Video produced by Bruce Deitrick Price


Bruce Deitrick Price is a novelist, artist, poet, and education reformer. His new novel is Frankie, inspired by advances in AI and robots. Frankie is a harmless robot that unintentionally turns the state of New Jersey upside down. Visit

Bruce Deitrick Price






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