The Nonsense Of Whole Word Reading

The early advocates of whole word reading methodology (which has changed identities using various other names) sold their education-destroying concepts via absolute nonsense.

Consider one of the first arguments against phonics: memorization is rote and tedious.

Factually, for a person to learn to read using phonics they must master the 54 sounds that the 26 letters and certain letter combinations make. Then they must remember the various exceptions to these sounds.

Compare that to a person, keeping in mind that most people start learning to read at a very young age before their mind is fully developed, having to memorize thousands upon thousands of words and how they sound by where each of the letters, both upper and lower case, are located in the word.

One of the major problems (among many other issues) with whole word reading is that there are many words spelled very similar to each other. And yet others are spelled quite differently that sound exactly the same. What that does to a child learning to read by looking at a string of letters is cause confusion.

Witness this fact.

Assume that little Johnny looks at the letters t h r o u g h and is told that the word sounds the way the instructor tells him. Ok, good. Johnny knows that t h r o u g h sounds like through. The instructor also informs him that through means “in at one end out out of the other.”

Johnny, now possessing the knowledge of how through sounds and what it means, a little later comes across the word thorough. To Johnny that word looks like through so he, in most cases, automatically assumes that the word is one and the same. Then he sees the word thought. And the word though. Same result.

To top it off, Johnny then learns that t h r e w sounds exactly the same as through but has a different definition. Add some more confusion to poor Johnny.

Proponents of whole word (look-say, sight word, sight read, etc.) will laugh this off as simplistic, that it does not occur and if it does the student must have a learning disability.

But they are wrong. In fact, it is quite the opposite.

Back in 1927, neurologist Dr. Samuel Orton, under a Rockefeller Foundation grant, concluded that children who had been diagnosed with ‘congenital word blindness’ (now called dyslexia) were actually severely harmed by the methods that had been used to teach them to read (sight-reading).

However, that is not the point of this mind-numbing whole word example of “teaching.”

The accusation that phonics is rote memorization and has too many exceptions to the rules and thus should not be used falls totally flat on its face when one considers that there are over 500,000 words in the English language and these experts expect a person to “memorize” (which is what whole word is) half a million words!

How can anyone memorize that many different letter combinations and their equivalent sound? Aside from the obvious fact that whole wordies are demanding that poor Johnny memorize all of them (or at least tens of thousands) when their argument against phonics was that it was not good because it demanded memorization of 54 letter and letter combination sounds and a handful of exceptions.

Systematic and explicit phonics is THE most effective method to teach reading. And it is far easier to learn the sounds and exceptions than to attempt learning the sounds made by letter combinations made in over half a million words.

End note: student Johnny is used as a tribute to Rudolf Flesch for his early fight supporting phonics in his best-selling book Why Johnny Can’t Read, originally published in 1955. Anyone who has not read it should do themselves a favor and get a copy. It can be ordered here: Amazon.

Illiteracy in America IS an Epidemic

In a country that has offered and supported free education to the entirety of its population it is seriously criminal that such a huge number of citizens are functionally illiterate.

Reports state that as many as 50 million adult Americans fit that category, costing businesses and taxpayers over two hundred billion dollars annually in remedial education and losses due to crime, unemployment, welfare, and more. Further, over 60% of all prison inmates and 85% of all juvenile offenders have problems with reading, writing and basic math.

In 1997, the United States Congress requested the Director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, in consultation with the Secretary of Education, to convene a committee to assess the effectiveness of the various approaches utilized to teach reading skills and to, basically, discover why the country was so illiterate.

The National Reading Panel (NRP), following over two years of exhaustive research, concluded, in The Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read, that there are five key factors that must be present for effective reading instruction.

The first two elements are “phonemic awareness” (the ability to notice, think about and work with the individual sounds in spoken words) and “systematic phonics instruction” (teaching the relationships between the letters of written language and the individual sounds of spoken language).

These two factors had, basically, been taught since at least 1500 BC when the Egyptians and Phoenicians developed their alphabets and was the method exclusively used in America for scores of years but seemed to have all but vanished from most reading curricula during the 20th century, replaced by sight-word teaching, known also under a variety of different names (i.e., sight reading, look-say, whole-word, etc.).

As early as 1927, neurologist Dr. Samuel Orton, under a Rockefeller Foundation grant, concluded that children who had been diagnosed with ‘congenital word blindness’ (now called dyslexia) were actually severely harmed by the teaching methods (sight-reading) employed. His findings were reported in a scientific paper entitled “The ‘Sight Reading’ Method of Teaching Reading as a Source of Reading Disability.”

That methodology, and the results that it produces, are nothing less than child abuse, which is a criminal offense.

Three decades later, in 1955, author and Doctor of English Rudolf Flesch isolated the decline of literacy in America with the replacement of phonics instruction by sight-word when he published his best-selling book, Why Johnny Can’t Read.

So, if it wasn’t broken, why “fix” it?

For a partial answer, one must understand the beginnings of the movement. The below quote is from John Dewey, an educator and psychologist who became one of the main forces behind the change, circa 1898:

“It is almost an unquestioned assumption, of educational theory and practice both, that the first three years of a child’s school-life shall be mainly taken up with learning to read and write his own language…It does not follow, however, that because this course was once wise it is so any longer…The plea for the predominance of learning to read in early school life because of the great importance attaching to literature seems to me a perversion.”

Literature, a perversion? Is not the ability to read literature the way to obtain knowledge?

Even in today’s high-tech environment, the vast majority of content on the web is the written word.

Another strong proponent of eliminating phonics was Edward Lee Thorndike, a psychologist who laid the foundation for educational psychology. In 1906, he had this to say about the mission of a teacher:

“The aim of the teacher is to produce desirable and prevent undesirable changes in human beings by producing and preventing certain responses.”

Produce and prevent changes and responses? That sounds more like his own work in animal behavior than in teaching the youth of America.

Perhaps the definition of ‘teach,’ per Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language, is more extensively accurate:

“To instruct; to inform; to communicate to another the knowledge of that of which he was before ignorant.”

Teaching has nothing at all to do with behavior modification and everything to do with literature. (Literature, as defined back then was: “comprehends a knowledge of ancient languages, denominated classical, history, grammar, rhetoric, logic, geography, as well as of the sciences.”)

If one looks at American literacy prior to the theories of people such as Dewey and Thorndike becoming paramount in society it becomes abundantly clear that phonics was not broken and should not have been “fixed,” especially with a method that does not, and cannot, produce positive results with all people.

And, in fact, that which was used to replace phonics not only broke, but devastated, a fully functioning and workable education system.

The following link easily proves the point: 1895 8th Grade Final Exam. It is the 1895 8th grade final exam from Salina, Kansas.

Since 2005, Bright Sky Learning employees have had many people, including those who hold a Ph.D. or Ed.D., attempt to pass the test with better than a 50% score. Even allowing credit for answers unique to that period’s lifestyle (such as the question dealing with a bushel of hay), no one has yet accomplished this task.

Another point of proof is Webster’s Elementary Spelling Book (commonly called the Blue-Backed Speller and also published under different titles, such as The American Spelling Book), first published in 1783, and used by luminaries such as Benjamin Franklin, who home-schooled his daughter using the book. It includes words required to be known by students at the time and is especially significant considering the fact that most people only attended school until about the 8th grade level.

There is also this simple fact: there was no such thing thing as “remedial reading” before 1925. Prior to that phonics was in use. After that date public schools were universally “teaching” reading using the whole word method. And, what is used for remediation: phonics!

All the propaganda in the world cannot cover up the fact that what Dr. Seuss said so succinctly in 1981 was correct, “I think killing phonics was one of the greatest causes of illiteracy in the country.”

He is in excellent company.

To all those who fight the good fight, to use phonics instruction to teach or remediate reading skills, keep up the fight.

The “reading wars” are not over and will not be over until our country is 100% back to pure phonics reading instruction, providing access to all information and knowledge that is available to every citizen of the United States.

© 2001-2017 Sue Young & Scott D. Welch. All Rights Reserved. Smart Way Reading-Made in the U.S.A. (727) 734-8483