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Interview with Mona McNee, Advocate for Reading by Writing

For many years, Mona McNee has been an indomitable voice for sanity in all matters pertaining to reading. Now close to 90, she is as passionate as ever. The Parliament of Great Britain should declare Mona McNee a national hero.

Mona McNee has been a phonics advocate for more than 40 years.


Q: Mona, when did you first become a participant in the Reading Wars?

A: In 1970 after I watched my (Down's) son learn nothing during 24 months with “specially qualified teachers“ at an ESN school (educationally subnormal). Technically unqualified, I taught him myself; 18 months later he could read — for life.

Q: You have been a phonics crusader for many decades. What has kept you going?

A: The appalling fact that millions of children are being crippled by hard-working, well-meaning but MISTRAINED teachers.

Q: The problems started in the U.S. with look-say in 1932. Was there a comparable development in your country?

A: It seems to be global in the English-speaking world. At some point early on, there must have been some decision to say: “God bless the poor and their relations. And keep them in their proper stations.” We have had 1 in 4 failing to read for half a century. Now almost 1 in 3. That’s criminal.

Q: So what went wrong?

A: The flaw then and now is look-say. Phonics was absent. The source of the mess was the gurus, John Dewey, Fred Schonell, Henrietta Dombey, etc. And received wisdom generally. Dewey preached: “High literacy is an obstacle to socialism.”

Q: What approach to reading do you recommend?

A: I teach reading based on letters and how they interact consistently. There is a massive emphasis on WRITING.

Q: Looking back at 40 years of literacy work, can you point to the number one problem in schools generally?

A: “Education” was lifted into the rarified air of universities, so whole books had to be written about something which had been very simple. Now the first letters taught are s, a, t, n, i, p because that’s the order of frequency. But this does not matter! The first letters should be c-a-t-d-o-g so that pupils get the anti-clockwise movement in 5 of them, and this prevents b/d confusion. It’s common sense.

Q: Can you explain why the so-called experts continue to be wrong?

A: Three things: 1) The 1931 Hadow Report was devastating to the UK: ‘The curriculum is to be thought of in terms of activity and experience rather than of knowledge to be acquired and facts to be stored.” This Dewey-think became the foundation of teacher training. 2) The notion that teachers need to be specially qualified. Now, “specially qualified" teachers have a supply of clients who have failed, and who are charged inflated hourly rates for 1-on-1 teaching. (3) The British Dyslexia Association has, for 40 years, confined its campaign to INTERvention, and not tried PREvention.

Q: Yes, one of the big phenomena of the last 75 years is the surge in dyslexia cases. Supposedly children are born with this.

A: But it is a latent potential, which is brought to harmful life by the wrong teaching in schools. If all children were taught phonics based on letters and writing, as in my program, dyslexia would seem to vanish.

Q: Robin Eubanks, in her new book “Credentialed to Destroy” points out that so-called dyslexia mainly serves as a cover-up for bogus reading instruction. Do you agree?

A: Yes, and now the special training to teach dyslexics has absurd flaws. There is the idea that each child has to have a different program because ‘All children are different.’ But we only have a few differences compared to a massive number of similarities. There is even a statement that “there is not, and cannot be” one program that suits all, but there is, for example, my “Step by Step.”

Q: Fred Schonell's theories would appear to be foolish. (He said children must memorize the outlines of words.) But he was given a knighthood in 1962. How do you explain his career?

A: When I did my teacher training in 1948, you practically bowed to the ground when Schonell's name was mentioned. It is the same with today's top-level professors, etc. Politicians like Michael Gove do not try to understand something that should be very simple. They all say to me, “The matter is closed.” Yes, it is, if you are aiming for illiteracy.

Q: The British government is constantly conducting studies of why schools are doing badly. Then they come back with even worse ideas than they had before. Is that a correct assessment?

A: Once Hadow was in place, the ONLY aim of the Establishment has been to remain in power. The Department of Education is full of ideologues who dream up projects needing more funds, staff, influence.

Q: The latest method in UK seems particularly awkward. Instead of learning the 26 letters, children have to learn 44 sounds. Is that a correct description?

A: Children have to learn both 26 letters and 44 sounds. The difference comes in the way they are taught, whether the scheme is based on 44 sounds with little or no writing, few or no rules. Or whether there is a writing road to reading, with rules of spelling, so that pupils UNDERSTAND how letters interact consistently. This is the crucial difference.

Q: If you were the secretary of education in the UK, what are changes you would immediately make?

A: Cut the Department of Education by half at least, and close down the local authorities in their present form. I would make available via the net (as now, my simple phonics scheme, and get it used in schools and prisons. I would tackle the system where teaching failures is profitable, and there is an empire of vested interests in illiteracy.

Q: The United States has been led through a series of pointless changes (from look-say to whole word to whole language to balanced literacy). But the common denominator was always that children in the first grade have to memorize sight-words.

A: As I said, there are change-agents in the background working away throughout the English-speaking world. “Change agent" would seem to be code for socialist.

Q: Over the last few decades, were there any people who spoke the truth as you understood it?

A: John Clare, education editor of the Daily Telegraph, from 1990 when I published Step by Step, until he retired in 2006. Sir Chris Woodhead, former Chief Inspector, was another hero. Alan Oakley who created the website (for free). In the US, I always admired Samuel Blumenfeld, Donna Garner, Bob Sweet, and Patrick Groff.

Q: Who are the people responsible for most of the problems?

A: The big names worldwide who promote look-say. The controllers behind the scenes who sack succeeders.

Q: What are their motives?

A: It is mostly career and money. People who were my friends when we fought look-say have now created “phonics” schemes that follow the government path. If they challenge government, they will suffer. Never mind how many millions are damaged. Never mind all the illiterates who end up in prison. Never mind the clear proof of what works.

Q: If you could give a speech to the parents of your country, what is the main thing you would want them to understand?

A: If they have infants, ”Teach them yourself. Enjoy!” Try to organize pressure on politicians to take responsibility for the present state of affairs. Students should challenge their professors. The educators should connect the dots and feel ashamed! When the Blob sacks an individual for doing something successful, we need mass protest, newspapers, teacher unions, taxpayer groups, parents, everyone involved, so that government cannot sack them all.

Q: You have published books and a phonics program. Tell us the names.

A: Only one proper book: “The Great Reading Disaster: Reclaiming our educational birthright,” written by me and expanded and re-written in 2007 by Prof. Alice Coleman and me. After that, I realized that a phonics program could be based on 44 sounds and fail; that it had to be based on 26 letters with rules and we must forget about look-say. I published “Why Billy can't read,” revised 2014, an account of the events that led to my present understanding. I did not start out to do all this. It seemed to happen to me.


Mona McNee’s phonics program is available free on her website:

She can be contacted at

The short video at the top of this article is called “Reading is Easy.” Seven experts are featured. Mona McNee is the last one.

QED: no more sight-words. Tell everyone.


---------Related material;

ON THE IMPORTANCE OF WRITING TO READING: "Any attempt to educate American children that neglects the direct development of fluent handwriting is doomed to fail. The little dribble of handwriting done with the typical phonics programs is FAR below optimal. The handwriting and phonics should be taught together from the chalkboard or overhead.”—Don Potter, phonics expert



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