Government research has turned up woeful standards of literacy, huge sums of money have flooded into the system producing marginal effects, parents tear their hair out at the lack of progress their kids make in school and millions are spent on remedial adult literacy in a desperate attempt to solve the problem. It's been mayhem. Literacy education has been a disaster for several decades.
Phonics versus whole-word and whole-language' teaching
We now know why. Unambigiously, it was badly taught. The drift into lazy, 'whole-word' and 'whole-language' teaching ruined literacy education and has led to a legacy that is costing hundreds of millions to re-teach adults in the workforce.
This was a classic case of faddish, non-empirical theory ignoring the science. We know lots about how children learn to read and write, yet this was blissfully ignored by institutions and government departments, keen to implement non-scientific, unsubstantiated, progressive ideas.
It was classic 'groupthink' as teachers were taught in a relatively small number of institutions, led by a small number of advisors, in a top-down system that prescribed , as it turns out, the wrong method. These methods also allowed 'lazy' teaching - 'phonics' needs skills and programmes of clear instruction, whereas 'whole word' and 'whole-language' teaching put more effort on the child. It was a disaster of unimaginable proportions and has caused untold damage in schools, as literacy is a basic skill that is a good predictor of success in other areas of education.
Thankfully, it's being reversed, but all too slowly. The whole sorry tale is told with frightening clarity in this Scientific American article.
(Thanks to Seb Schmoller for this URL.)