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Look and Say / Whole Language

– Look and Say / Whole Word Memorisation
– Whole Language Movement/Philosophy / ”A psycholinguistic guessing game” (Kenneth Goodman) / Literacies and Languages for All / Holistic Approach / Real Books (UK) / Discovery Approach / Emergent Literacy / Language Experience / Apprenticeship Approach (Liz Waterland) / Sociocultural Model of Reading /Acquisition of reading in authentic contexts through a progressive and invisible pedagogy” (Goouch & Lambirth p110. italics added) / ”A hydra-headed beast” (Turner. 1990 p2)

Look and Say / Whole Word Memorisation:

The very first whole word memorisation programme, the Quadrille programme, was invented in France by Abbe Bertaud in 1744. 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 memorisation programme, which he used with deaf-mutes.

By 1826, whole word books were being promoted on both sides of the Atlantic, with Abbe de l’Epee’s programme 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 memorisation method with all mention of the deaf-mute connection erased (Rodgers. Born Yesterday).

In 1886, psychologist James McKeen Cattell carried out the first eye-movement experiments on skilled readers. Despite his rudimentary experimental equipment, he discovered that skilled readers read short words as fast as isolated letters. Cattell also discovered the word superiority effect; a letter is identified more accurately and rapidly in the context of a word than in isolation or in the context of a random letter string. These results led him to believe that single words must be processed by the brain as whole word shapes, eschewing sound.

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 look-say method using flashcards. The look-say method metamorphosised into the whole-sentence memorisation method.

Cattell’s experiments were repeated by modern eye-movement researchers. They reproduced Cattell’s results but interpreted them very differently: ”(T)he word-superiority effect demonstrates that skilled readers process all of the letters when identifying a word.” 
(italics added. Ashby/Rayner p58)

”McClelland and Johnson (1977) demonstrated that pseudowords also show a Word Superiority Effect. For example, pseudowords such as ‘mave’ and ‘rint’ are not words in the English language and should not have a familiar word shape, but they do have the phonetic regularity that makes them easily pronounceable. Therefore, the reason for the Word Superiority Effect isn’t the recognition of word shapes, but rather the existence of regular letter combinations.” 
(Kevin Larson. Eye 2004)

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

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

Already established as the main method to teach reading throughout England by the 1920s, whole word / look and say used reading scheme books (basal readers. USA) with repetitive text. Children were expected to memorise the words as whole shapes through look-and-say flashcards 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 a continuous 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 the 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.
(R. Flesch p55). These strategies (1-6 are forms of guessing) are identical to those advocated by some educational academics today.

The ‘look and say’ reading schemes were very dull and repetitive, introducing new words at a very slow rate in order to aid the memorisation of whole words and sentences, 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 British educationalist William Murray and first published in 1964. The Ladybird Key Word books were used in 80% of England’s schools until the 1970s.

During the look-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 storybooks.”

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 remember words by sight ”from repeated shared reading of the same texts.” It turned out to be much more challenging 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)

According to Diane McGuinness, an in-depth examination of writing systems, both ancient and modern, reveals that most people can only retain about 2,000 logographs in their visual memory (D. McGuinness GRB p214). Victor Mair, Professor of Chinese Language and Literature, concurs with McGuinness. He says, ”There is a natural upper limit to the number of unique forms 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.” (quoted in Daniels. The World’s Writing Systems p200)

Definition of writing: ”A system of more or less permanent marks used to represent an utterance in such a way that it can be recovered more or less exactly without the intervention of the utterer.”
(Daniels. The World’s Writing Systems p21)

Contrary to the myth that they are logographic or ideographic writing systems (conveying meaning without regard to sound), apart from around 1850 Kanji whole word symbols, Japanese writing consists of sequences of different consonant-vowel pairs (diphones). 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. Sound Reading System intro.)

See- Diane McGuinness’s book ‘Why Children Can’t Read’ p47-52 and Share’s ‘Anglocentricities’ paper p588. http://tinyurl.com/zba3jvv

”Writing systems are solutions to the problem of representing spoken language in visuo-graphic form. It’s what they all do, despite their superficial differences. Writing systems that represent words as visual patterns independent of their pronunciations do not exist. Such systems are inadequate for representing large numbers of words: Too hard to learn or use” 
(Mark Seidenberg. Blog)

”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 the 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)

There was a revival of interest in phonics amongst some teachers as a result of the publication of Rudolf Flesch’s polemic 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:

The Whole Language Movement (‘Real Books’ in the UK) was founded by the late Prof. Ken Goodman, who famously asserted “My science is different” (quoted by Hanford. At a Loss for Words. 2019), and Frank Smith, an ex-journalist who, by his own admission, never taught anyone to read. It appeared circa 1970 as a reaction to the dreary look-say reading schemes. Phonics was completely sidelined. “Matching letters with sounds is a flat-earth view of the world” Goodman declared in his 1986 book What’s Whole in Whole Language.

”(I)n 1991 three Whole Language professors wrote a book, Whole Language: What’s the Difference? in which they defined what they meant 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 but even more so to phonics. Children were given ‘authentic texts’ (highly illustrated commercial storybooks) to read for themselves from the beginning. No reading instruction was given as it was decided that children would learn to read as easily as they learned to talk and walk, simply by having unfettered access to plenty of lovely storybooks with a helpful adult on hand, ‘the guide on the side’.

There is no scientific evidence to support the whole language approach. The research cited by its advocates consists almost entirely of collections of anecdotes or ‘kid watching’ (Charlotte Allen)

Professor Steven Pinker, a leading cognitive scientist, who wrote the foreword to Diane McGuinness’s book Why Children Can’t Read, pointed out that, ”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)

Reading scores hit the floor in LEAs that took on the whole language fad 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 years, whilst approximately 50% of pupils arriving at east London comprehensives had a reading age below 9 years. (Turner p10)

”So to the other achievements of the ‘real books’ movement may be added that of creating dyslexia” 
(Martin Turner p19)

American Professor Martin Kozloff wrote, ”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

In their guidance document on Dyslexia, Literacy and Psychological Assessment, the British Psychological Society dismissed 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)

Primary schools in England don’t use the pure whole language approach nowadays but, despite the official introduction of synthetic phonics in 2006 as a result of the Rose review, a whole language mutation, the NLS medley of word reading strategies (1998->2006), continues in many classrooms outside the daily, discrete synthetic phonics lesson, according to NFER’s 2013 independent survey of 583 literacy coordinators.


‘Reading by Apprenticeship?’ Paper by Roger Beard and Jane Oakhill: a comprehensive critique of Liz Waterland’s 1985 ‘Read With Me’ which promoted whole language & ‘real’ books

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

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

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?

The ideographic myth.

Chinese written language – morphosyllabic.

Internet meme: Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy…
Also, see Seidenberg’s book ‘Language at the Speed of Sight’ p94->6