Reading education

From Academic Kids

There are basically two different common methods of teaching reading. One usually refers to whole language approach ("look say"), the other usually refers to phonetics approach. The tension between these two approaches is often referred to as "the great debate".



The "look say" method also known as the whole word, sight method, or configurational reading is a 'spatial-holistic' method to learn a language. It is the same method used to acquire literacy in languages such as Chinese, based on ideograms. Its application to learning a primarily phonetic language like English has questionable value and has been associated with artificially inducing dyslexia.

Students when learning English using this method memorize the appearance of words, or learn to recognize words by looking at the first and last letter from rigidly selected vocabularies in progressive texts (such as The Cat in the Hat). Often this method is taught by slides or cards with a picture next to a word, teaching children to associate the whole word with its meaning. Often preliminary results show children taught with this method have higher reading level then children learning a phonetic method, because they learn to automatically recognise a small selection of words. However later tests demonstrate that literacy development becomes stunted when hit with longer and more complex words later in school life. It is known that "look say" students do not naturally learn to spell or write unless explicitly taught because they have not learnt to pronounce words phonetically, instead are encouraged to guess them. However, they can learn the 5,000 most common words in roughly three years which is sufficient for basic literacy. The classic implementation of this approach was the McGill reading curriculum used to teach most baby boomers to read in the U.S.

The method was invented by Rev. Thomas H. Gallaudet, the director of the American Asylum at Hartford in the 1830's. It was designed for the education of the Deaf and Dumb by juxtaposing a word, with a picture. In 1830, Gallaudet provided a description of his method to the American Annals of Education which included teaching children to recognize a total of 50 sight words written on cards and by 1837 the method was adopted by the Boston Primary School Committee. Horace Mann the then Secretary of the Board of Education of Massachusetts, USA favored the method and it soon became the dominant method state wide. By 1844 the defects of the new method became apparent to Boston schoolmasters, that they issued an attack against it urging a return to an intensive, systematic phonics. Again Dr. Samuel T. Orton, a neuropathologist in Iowa in 1929 sought the cause of children's reading problems and concluded that their problems were being caused by the new sight method of teaching reading. (His results were published in the February 1929 issue of the Journal of Educational Psychology, The Sight Reading Method of Teaching Reading as a Source of Reading Disability.)

It is worth noting that the 'look say' method has been thoroughly debunked in the last twenty years. Simply put phonemic awareness is the awareness of the discrete sounds of letters. For example: when someone says "cat" the three sounds the letters make are not heard in speech because of coarticulation (all the sounds leave your mouth so close together it sounds like one syllable) however in reading one must know that "cat" is actually c/a/t with three different sounds. Phonemic awareness is an artefact of learning to read. It's not necessary for speech, but it is so important, scholars can identify which students most at risk for reading failure based on phonemic awareness. See "Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print" by Marilyn Jager Adams for a fuller explanation.


A "phonetic" method teaches sounds to be associated with letters and combinations of letters. Students memorize these associations. They learn to sound out and then blend sound combinations to produce words. This method requires direct teaching of "sounding out" methods, and memorization of pronunciation rules. The most perfect phonetic system is Orton phonography, originally developed to teach brain-damaged adults to read. Orton described 73 "phonograms", or letter combinations, and 23 rules for spelling and pronunciation. By following these rules one can correctly pronounce and spell all but 123 of the 13,000 most common English words.

Advocates of "look say" teaching argue that it is the method used by literate adults to read all familiar words. Also the method is said to be easy to teach, and pleasant for students. Critics charge that a "look say" student can only speak and spell words that they have been taught, therefore, the critic says, they are permanently crippled when compared to phonetically-taught students. Also, it is established that this method requires an expensive set of textbooks for each student. It is therefore very popular with textbook companies. Critics have charged that for this reason, book companies may have found methods to bias experts and institutions to favor this method.

Advocates of phonetics cite the large reading and spelling vocabulary that phonetic students can theoretically obtain. However, critics of phonetic methods talk of students that fail at each one of the method's many mandatory skills. Almost all students learn letter-sounds. Many students find it difficult to "blend" the letter sounds to produce sensible speech. Some students also fail to apply rules to select letter sounds. Also, critics charge that in phonetic programs, students can learn to pronounce a sentence without ever learning to understand it. The same, of course, holds true for "look say".

Practical application

In practice, the most successful is learning the alphabet phonetically first then reinforced with "look-see" methods coupled with reading programs that combine both elements. For example, the extremely popular book, Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons, by Siegfried Engelman, et al. (ISBN 0-671-63198-5), teaches pronunciation and simple phonetics, then supplements it with progressive texts and practice in directed reading. The end result of a mixed method is a casually phonetic student, a much better first-time pronouncer and speller, who still also has look-say acquisition, quick fluency and comprehension. Using an eclectic method, students can select their preferred learning style. This lets all students make progress, yet permits a motivated student to use and recognize the best traits of each method.

Speed reading continues where basic education stops, and teaches the student to read multiple words at once, even whole pages at once. Usually after some practice reading speed can be increased fivefold. At this speed, it is necessary to stop any "talk to myself" action in your brain, because this would slow you down. There are various speed-reading techniques. Hopify ( is a GPL tool to practice speed-reading.

Readability indicates the ease of understanding or comprehension due to the style of writing. Reading recovery is a method for helping students learn to read.

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