The methods used to teach reading

1a. Whole Word / Look and Say book-by-book method / La methode globale (France)
1b. Whole Language / 'A psycholinguistic guessing game'/ Real Books / Literature-based Approach / Holistic Approach / Discovery Method / Emergent Literacy / Language Experience / Apprenticeship Approach / ''A hydra-headed beast'' (Turner.1990 p2) / Acquisition of reading in authentic contexts through a progressive and invisible pedagogy (Goouch/Lambirth p110); the Emperor's New Clothes, indeed!

The very first whole word programme was invented in France by Abbe Bertaud in 1744; the Quadrille programme. Derivatives of this programme spread through continental Europe - endorsed by the King of Prussia, used by Basedow and Gedike in Germany, and Jacatot in Belgium. Back in France, Abbe de l'Epee (circa 1760) was inspired by the Quadrille programme to produce his own whole word programme, which he used with deaf-mutes. By 1826 whole word books were being promoted both sides of the Atlantic, Abbe de l'Epee's method being used by Thomas Gallaudet, with deaf-mutes in America. Gallaudet also produced a beginners' reading book (1836) for hearing children 'The Mother's Primer'. This taught reading by the whole word method with all mention of the deaf-mute connection erased (Rodgers. Born Yesterday)

In 1886 the psychologist James McKeen Cattell found through experimentation that short words could be named as fast as isolated letters. As a result he concluded, wrongly as it turns out, that words must be processed by the brain as whole shapes with no sound involvement. Cattell also discovered the 'word superiority effect' i.e. that a letter is identified more accurately and rapidly in the context of a real word than in the context of a nonword or a random letter string, and this has proved correct. Cattell's discoveries reinforced the opinions and beliefs of a procession of self-appointed education 'experts' working in the new teacher-training colleges. They ordered teachers to use the whole-word, look-say method using flash-cards. The look-say method metamorphosised into the whole-sentence 'meaning' method using reading schemes (basal readers.USA), written using high frequency words.

Already established as the main method to teach reading throughout England by the 1920s, whole word / look and say used reading scheme books with repetitive text. Children were expected to memorise the high frequency words as whole shapes through look-and-say flash cards and the constant repetition of those words in a particular scheme's books. Some ''intelligent guessing'' (The Practical Infant Teacher.1930) was also recommended.

One of the continuing stream of education 'experts', Dr. Russell of California University, produced a book in 1949 that included the following strategies, in order of importance, to aid recognition of new words:
1. The general pattern, or configuration, of the word.
2. Special characteristics of the appearance of the word.
3. Similarity to known words.
4. Recognition of familiar parts in longer words.
5. The use of picture clues.
6. The use of context clues.
7. Phonetic and structural analysis of the word.
(Flesch p55)
These strategies (1-6 are forms of guessing) are almost identical to those advocated by some reading 'experts' today.

The look and say reading schemes were very dull and repetitive, introducing new words at a very slow rate in order to aid memorisation, but they proved lucrative for the newly emerging educational publishers. Dick and Jane were the main characters in a hugely popular look-say scheme used to teach children to read from the 1930s through to the 1970s in the United States. The Ladybird Peter and Jane Key Word reading scheme was written by a British educationalist William Murray and first published in 1964. The Ladybird Key Word books were used in 80% of schools until the 1970s.

During the look and say era, Dr.Joyce Morris undertook research on 'Reading in the Primary School' (1959), collecting and analysing data from seven-year-olds at a large number of Kent's primary schools. She found that reading standards in Kent at that time, ''were above the national average. Nevertheless, 19.2 percent of the 3,022 survey seven-year-olds could be classed as ‘non-readers', and a further 26.4 percent had some mastery of reading mechanics but not sufficient for them to be independent readers of simple information and story books'' (Morris 2002)

Nearly 40 years later, researchers Masterson, Dixon and Stuart carried out an experiment to see how easy it was for five-year-old beginning readers to store new, whole words in memory from repeated shared reading of the same whole word texts. It turned out to be much harder than they expected: They were 'shocked' to discover that 36 repetitions were not enough to guarantee that children would remember a word. ''When we tested children’s ability to read words they’d experienced more than 20 times in their school reading, on average they could read only one word correctly''(italics added. Stuart.p26/27 in Lewis/Ellis. Phonics)

An in-depth examination of writing systems, ancient and modern, reveals, amongst other things, that the average visual-memory limit for whole word units is approximately 2,000 (D.McGuinness GRB p214), but a good English dictionary contains from 250,000 to 500,000 words.''A writing system based on whole-words will never work as for each learner it would be like trying to remember the contents of a telephone directory'' (McGuinness ERI p17) Victor Mair, Professor of Chinese Language and Literature, comes to the same conclusion as McGuinness; ''there is a natural upper limit to the number of unique forms [sound-symbol units] that can be tolerated in a functioning script. For most individuals, this amount seems to lie in the range of approximately 2,000-2,500'' (The World's Writing Systems p200)

Contrary to the myth that they are logographic / ideographic writing systems (the symbols conveying meaning without regard to sound), apart from around 1850 Kanji 'picture' symbols, Japanese writing consists of sequences of different consonant-vowel pairs (diphones), whilst Chinese writing is based on monosyllabic-morphemic units fused with category symbols (DeFrancis). The misconception that Chinese is a logographic writing system occurs because nearly half of the words are only one syllable long -a whole word and a syllable unit of sound at the same time. ''The Chinese language has around 1,200 syllables; English has about 60,000. This is why Chinese is written as a syllabary and English is not'' (D.McGuinness SRS intro) See- Diane McGuinness's book 'Why Children Can't Read' p47-52 and Share p588.http://ps.edu.haifa.ac.il/images/lectures/senior/David-Share/Files/articles-in-refereed-journals/Share_Anglocentricities_2008.pdf

''The fact is that NO writing system ever exceeded 2000 symbols. This is because that is the absolute limit (lifetime learning limit) of a human's ability to remember which abstract symbol (or sequence of symbols) stands for which word. Think about how hard even this would be! It takes Japanese children from first form to the end of secondary school to memorize 1850 Kanji symbols and which word they go with. The bulk of their writing system is written with sound symbols, not word symbols. The beauty of using sounds (syllables, diphones, phonemes) is that this drastically reduces the memory load'' (D. McGuinness)

The whole word method leads some children to believe that they must memorize each word as a random string of letters. This makes learning to read exactly like trying to memorise the telephone directory. ''Like printed letter strings, telephone numbers contain a small set of symbols … Unless all numbers are dialled correctly and in the right order the connection will fail … Unfortunately, there are no systematic or predictable relationships between these strings and their corresponding entries; so each of the many thousands of such associations must be painstakingly committed to memory. There may exist a few rare individuals who are capable of memorizing entire telephone directories, but for the average child about to learn to read, the absurdity of this task should be obvious'' (Share. Cognition 55/2.1995. quoted in Goswami)

There was a revival of interest in phonics amongst a few teachers as a result of the publication of Rudolf Flesch's book Why Johnny Can't Read (1955), but look-say continued as the central method despite the evidence that it failed to teach a significant percentage of children how to read. Whole language became the dominant approach in the 1980s and lasted until the introduction of the National Literacy Strategy (NLS) in 1998, which brought in mixed methods.

The whole language movement (called 'real books' in the UK), founded by Kenneth Goodman and Frank Smith (an ex-journalist who, by his own admission, has never taught anyone to read), appeared (circa 1970) as a reaction to the dreary look-say schemes. "Matching letters with sounds is a flat-earth view of the world," Goodman declared in his 1986 book, What's Whole in Whole Language (Allen)

Whole language is a 'philosophy' rather than a method to teach reading; only real books / authentic texts are provided and children's near guesses at words are accepted if they preserve meaning, e.g. 'pony' rather than 'horse' -see the whole language definition of reading below. Children are expected to 'discover' the alphabet code for themselves and reading will 'emerge'.

''(I)n 1991 three Whole Language professors wrote a book, Whole Language: What’s the Difference?, in which they defined what they mean by reading. They wrote: From a whole language perspective, reading (and language use in general) is a process of generating hypotheses in a meaning-making transaction in a sociohistorical context. As a transactional process reading is not a matter of “getting the meaning” from text, as if that meaning were in the text waiting to be decoded by the reader. Rather, reading is a matter of readers using the cues print provide and the knowledge they bring with them to construct a unique interpretation.…This view of reading implies that there is no single “correct” meaning for a given text, only plausible meanings'' (Blumenfeld. Why Johnny STILL can't read. 11/02/11)

Whole language purists were hostile to the look-say method and even more so to phonics. Children were given 'authentic texts' i.e. real books, to read from the very start. No direct reading instruction was given as it was decided that children could and would learn to read as easily as they learnt to talk and walk, simply by having access to plenty of lovely picture books with helpful adults on hand; the 'guide on the side'. There is no scientific evidence to support the whole language method. The research cited by the whole language advocates consists almost entirely of collections of anecdotes or 'kidwatching' (Allen)

Reading scores hit the floor in LEAs that took on the whole language fashion with unquestioning enthusiasm; in his 1990 paper, 'Sponsored Reading Failure', the late Martin Turner wrote that about 25% of pupils arriving at south London comprehensive schools regularly had a reading age below 9 years,10% below 8, whilst approx. 50% of the intake of east London (an area of high deprivation) comprehensives had a reading age below 9 years (Turner p10) Turner commented, ''So to the other achievements of the 'real books' movement may be added that of creating dyslexia'' (Turner p19) The statistics didn't improve very much with the addition of a small amount of (analytic) phonics in the NLS mixture; in December 2010 the BBC reported that, 'One in 11 boys in England - one in seven in some areas - starts secondary school with, at best, the reading skills of an average seven-year-old' http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-12000886

Modern day researchers, using advanced technology to examine readers' eye movements, have found that skilled readers do not process words as whole shapes without regard to sound, and, ''Although we may not be aware of it, we do not skip over words, read print selectively, or recognize words by sampling a few letters of the print, as whole language theorists proposed in the 1970s. Reading is accomplished with letter-by-letter processing of the word (Rayner, Foorman, Perfetti, Pesetsky, & Seidenberg, 2001, 2002). Fluent readers do perceive each and every letter of print. Thus, we can distinguish casual from causal, grill from girl, and primeval from prime evil.'' http://www.readingrockets.org/article/28755/

Modern eye-movement research. Part 1. The Eyes Have It.

Part 2. The Eyes to the Write (in English orthography).

American Professor, Martin Kozloff, says, ''In fact, the revolutionary whole language conception of reading as a "psycholinguistic guessing game" is a bizarre fantasy--a fantasy that managed to catch on (and make many thousands of children illiterate) because students in schools of education naively trusted their "literacy" professors--who were more interested in getting tenure, making a reputation, and selling themselves as innovators and self-inflating champions of social justice than they were at making sure new teachers (1) are guided by scientific research (which does not support whole language) and (2) know exactly how to teach reading effectively.  In some fields (medicine, law, engineering) this combination of self-aggrandizement, immorality, and ineptitude is called malpractice, fraud, and criminal negligence.  In education, it is called "philosophical differences" and "academic freedom."  Apparently, school children and new teachers are supposed to pay for the academic freedom of education professors'' (http://people.uncw.edu/kozloffm/wlquotes.html) The general public pay for this academic freedom too; if professionals aren't capable of accurately decoding GPC by GPC 'all through the word', accidents will happen. The New York Times (NYT 3/6/99) reported how pharmacists are increasingly giving out incorrect prescriptions. In one incident, chlorpromazine, a drug which lowers blood sugar, was wrongly substituted for chlorpropamide, an anti-psychotic, with fatal results.

In their guidance document on, 'Dyslexia, literacy and psychological assessment', the British Psychological Society dismiss whole language: ''The whole language model of reading conceives word reading as a ‘psycho-linguistic guessing game’. It is argued that, driven by a search for meaning, the fluent reader makes educated guesses on the basis of the text already read. A crucial assumption is that most words can be ‘read’ as wholes, visually. The evidence against such an account of reading behaviour is by now incontrovertible. Accurate and fluent word decoding is a pre-requisite for efficient reading for interest and information'' (BPS 2005 .p26)

Although a pure whole language approach is rarely used in UK primary schools nowadays, a mutation, the mixed method / balanced approach, which dates from the National Literacy Strategy's introduction in 1998, continues in most classrooms and is used extensively for remedial intervention - see Your Options

Back in 2002, Ofsted (the government's education inspection dept.) reported that student primary school teachers at Cambridge University, one of the country's top teacher training courses, still did not know how to teach reading at the end of a four-year degree course. In particular the teaching of phonics "left much to be desired" and was hardly touched on. (RRF50 p12)

Dr.Morag Stuart, contributor to the Rose Report 2006, gave evidence to the Education and Skills committee's inquiry on Teaching Children to Read (15/11/04). She told the committee, ‘'I work at the Institute of Education and I go in there every day. However, I work in the School of Psychology and Human Development and I teach on Master’s courses for already qualified teachers and the continuing professional development programme. I moved to the Institute of Education because I recognised that I now knew an awful lot about reading and my knowledge was useful to teachers. However, I have never been invited to give so much as a single lecture on the initial teacher training course which runs in my own institution. That is the extent of my failure to make a difference.'’(Ev 25)

In his article, 'The Education White Paper: a CPS Postnatum' (Nov. 2010), Tom Burkard wrote that, ''(T)eacher training was first identified as the major obstacle to the implementation of effective practices in the 1996 report, Reading Fever. In an unpublished CPS report that was sent to Nick Gibb just prior to the general election, we suggested that new arrangements were needed to train teachers to use synthetic phonics effectively. We included a survey of reading lists for 46 initial teacher training (ITT) courses, which revealed an overwhelming hostility to this method, and indeed a profound disagreement with the coalition’s overall vision of educational reform''.

In 2012 the Coalition Government made it clear that proficiency in synthetic phonics was the expectation for all teachers and those training to teach. This expectation is now reflected in the Teachers’ Standards. In order to meet the standard, trainee teachers should, by the end of their training:
• know and understand the recommendations of the Rose Review 2006; and the Simple View of Reading
and be able to apply this understanding to their teaching of reading and writing.
• know and understand the alphabetic code
• know and understand the Criteria for assuring high quality phonic work (DfE, 2011) and be able to recognise how they are met in a range of phonic programmes
• be able to apply their knowledge and understanding of the Criteria to the teaching and assessment of phonics using a school’s phonic programme
• be able to identify, and provide targeted support for, children making progress both beyond and below the expected level

As can be seen above, university teacher training departments must now provide trainees with information on systematic synthetic phonics (SSP). Deplorably, many teacher trainers remain ideologically wedded to the NLS mixture of methods and are extremely reluctant to train students to teach early reading using synthetic phonics. They are providing trainees with a subversive subtext and false balance (see below) to ensure that the mandatory SSP course content is undermined. An ITE lecturer described approvingly how this was being done: ''Due to the very nature of what it means to be a professional there can be no doubt that for some there will be subversion at work the creation of guerrilla campaigns against the imposition of SSP...For example, an organised, strategic resistance may be through the philosophy promoted within a faculty'' (Hewitt p88)

Prof. Morag Stuart: Government imposition of synthetic phonics is “damaging able readers” really?

''My uni was very anti the Rose report, and one of our assignments was to do a presentation about how poor the data were, and why the whole lot of it should be taken with a pinch of salt.'' (Mumsnet Primary Education forum 2011)

David Bunker is an English teacher who graduated with a PGCE from The University of Bristol in 2011. He recently wrote a blog post with the title Things I wish they’d told me. One of the things he wished they'd told him on his PGCE course was that ''Teaching Phonics isn’t evil''. He went to to say, ''Despite being an English teacher, I consider my knowledge of phonics teaching to be incredibly poor. We didn’t actually learn about it at Uni, we were just made aware that teaching reading through phonics completely undermines the nature of ‘meaning’. We read a lot about this as well – a lot of Literature supporting the same point. Yes, we knew a lot about why Synthetic Phonics was wrong, without really being told what it was or how it is used in Primary Schools''

A senior ITE lecturer wrote a paper where she asserted that, ''A lecturer with integrity and a good understanding of how children read will ensure that students, who are learning to teach reading, understand that the sole use of SSP is not an effective way to teach reading, but that for many children a variety of approaches is required'' (Hewitt. p88) She failed to provide even one piece of scientific evidence to support this view. In the same paper she stated that reading researcher Prof.Stanovich and whole language founder Frank Smith both ''endorse the belief that children learn to read through a whole word approach to reading'' (Hewitt p82). In actual fact, Stanovich says that he and his colleague Richard West were at first very taken with Frank Smith’s theories about context effects and expected their own research to confirm them. However, their experiments led them to very different conclusions.
see - Extracts taken from 'Romance and Reality' by Prof. Keith Stanovich.

“That direct instruction in alphabetic coding facilitates early reading acquisition is one of the most well established conclusions in all of behavioral science” (Stanovich p415)

 An easy way to see the anti-synthetic phonics bias present in many universities' teacher education departments is to look at their Primary English reading lists. There is often a very visible inbalance of texts, with those promoting anti-synthetic phonics views and misinformation greatly outnumbering those which provide evidence-based knowledge and understanding about teaching synthetic phonics. For example, a university which lists a couple of synthetic phonics texts as 'required reading' has an additional and extensive 'recommended reading' book list which consists entirely of texts written or edited by academics who are known to be anti-synthetic phonics, in the case of Goouch and Lambirth virulently so.

Student teachers, see Resources and X's throughout the website for RECOMMENDED books, papers and articles on teaching reading.

Emeritus professor of education and whole language proponent, Henrietta Dombey, described the 2006 Rose Report as 'amateurish' and said that it, ''takes the profession along a dangerous path, not supported by sound research evidence, into some dangerous territory'' (Wyse/Styles. Editorial). She and the other academics trying to subvert synthetic phonics have yet to produce any 'sound (scientific) research evidence' to support the type and timing of reading instruction they prefer: ''Those who have an opposing view [of synthetic phonics] have yet to produce any data showing that their favoured approach produces greater long-term benefits'' (R.Johnston. www.publicservice.co.uk issue 20. p82). 'Unfortunately, education has become the preserve of ideologues who consider that their own wisdom should prevail over empirical evidence' (Turner/Burkard)

Professor Steven Pinker, a leading cognitive scientist who wrote the foreword to Diane McGuinness's book, Why Children Can't Read, says, ''In the dominant technique, called 'whole language', the insight that language is a naturally developing human instinct has been garbled into the evolutionarily improbable claim that reading is a naturally developing human instinct. Old-fashioned practice at connecting letters to sounds is replaced by immersion in a text-rich social environment and the children don't learn to read'' (Pinker p342). In other words, although speech and language are 'hard wired' into our brains, reading, which is a relatively recent cultural phenomenon, cannot possibly be fixed in this way. “We were never born to read.”(Wolf p3)

What's happening in universities re. synthetic phonics training -includes example reading lists.

Is Reading about 'Getting Meaning from Print'?

David Hargreaves 1996 TTA lecture: 'Teaching as a research-based profession: possibilities and prospects'.
p7: According to Caroline Cox, there are four principal grounds on which teachers justify their practices. They are: 'tradition (how it has always been done); prejudice (how I like it done); dogma (this is the 'right' way to do it) and ideology (as required by the current orthodoxy)

Stanovich, P. J., & Stanovich, K. E. (2003).
Using research and reason in education: How teachers can use scientifically based research to make curricular and instructional decisions

Burkard 2010: 46 ITT reading lists.

Hewitt: Subverting or reconceptualising professionalism? The curious case of the imposition of synthetic phonics.

Turner&Burkard 1996 Reading Fever: why phonics must come first - includes ITT reading lists.

What are the problems with whole language and why doesn't it work?

Ready to Read? Covers UK teacher training, the NLS and lots more.

Why Reading Teachers Are Not Trained to Use a Research-Based Pedagogy (USA)

What education schools aren't teaching about reading (USA)

Part 1: Whole Language! What was that all about?

A whole language catalogue of the grotesque

Whole language and Kenneth Goodman's 'psycholinguistic guessing game'

A personal essay:Thank you Whole Language

If learning to read is a 'linguistic task', what's wrong with Whole Language?

Joyce Morris: PhonicsPhobia: fascinating personal history of teaching reading 1940s ->1970s. UK.

Stanovich on context clues

The ideographic myth.

Chinese written language - morphosyllabic.

Learning words as whole: an experiment

Internet meme: Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy...

Raeding Wrods With Jubmled Lettres: there is a cost

Burkard's 'Schools of Bricklaying' :-)

Whole language takes on golf :-)

Whole language at the Fork in the Road :-)

Next page >