– Look and Say / Whole Word Memorisation
– Whole Language Movement/Philosophy / ”A psycholinguistic guessing game” (Kenneth Goodman) / Literature-based Approach / Holistic Approach / Real Books (UK) / Discovery Approach / Emergent Literacy / Language Experience / Apprenticeship Approach (Liz Waterland) / ‘Literacies and Languages for All’ (National Council for Teachers of English. USA) / 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)
Whole Word Memorisation / Look and Say:
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, the 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-day 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 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 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 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 a 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 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)
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 whole word units 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.” (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 ‘picture’ 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.”
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 became the dominant approach in the 1980s and lasted until the introduction of the National Literacy Strategy (NLS) in 1998, which brought in a so-called ‘balance’ of word reading strategies’ – an inefficient mixture of whole word memorisation and whole language guessing with a dash of analytic phonics.
The Whole Language Movement (‘Real Books’ in the UK), founded by the late Prof. Ken Goodman (famous for saying “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), 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.
Whole Language is a ‘philosophy’ rather than a method to teach reading; only so-called ‘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 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 whole word memorising method but even more so to phonics. Children were given ‘authentic texts’ (highly illustrated commercial storybooks) to read from the very start. No decoding instruction was given as it was decided that children could learn to read as easily as they learnt 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
The general public pays for this academic freedom too; if professionals aren’t capable of accurately decoding GPC by GPC all-through-the-word, accidents will happen. For example, the New York Times (NYT 3/6/99) reported how pharmacists are increasingly giving out incorrect prescriptions. In one incident, chlorpromazine, a drug that 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 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, a whole language mutation, the NLS medley of word reading strategies (1998->2006), continues in most classrooms outside the daily, discrete synthetic phonics lesson, according to NFER’s 2013 independent survey of 583 literacy coordinators.
Teacher Training and Phonics:
In his article, The Education White Paper: a CPS Postnatum (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”.
Burkard 2010: 46 ITT reading lists for 46 initial teacher training (ITT) courses
So hands up, who hates phonics? Some very influential people…
In 2012, the then Coalition Government made it clear that proficiency in teaching reading using high quality phonics (SSP) was the expectation for all those training to teach. This expectation was 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 trainers must provide trainees with extensive information on the use of high quality phonics (SSP) for teaching reading. Unfortunately, many teacher trainers remain ideologically wedded to the NLS ‘balance’ of word reading strategies (see: Ideology and Reading) and are very reluctant to train students to teach phonics as the sole approach for decoding words. They continue to provide trainees with a subversive subtext to ensure that the SSP course content is diminished and 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)
”A straw poll among 25 NQTs last year suggested that they had, on average, received 2 hours (in total) of phonics training from their ITT institutions.”
(The Reading Ape. Twitter 2020)
”We have a heck of a lot of newly qualified, EY teachers arriving in school with zero knowledge of how to teach reading and writing.”
(John Walker. Twitter 2021)
In January 2020, a Primary Initial Teacher Education (ITE) provider account tweeted the following view on the use of phonics for decoding:
”It has limited utility in a language that is as phonetically irregular as English, hence sometimes it works but not often enough to be a preferred method”.
”The greatest cognitive dissonance has to be the fact that education faculties simultaneously champion social justice and promote reading instruction approaches that promote literacy failure”
(Prof. Pamela Snow. Twitter)
All student teachers would benefit from reading this open letter from Australian Prof. Pamela Snow:
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 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”
(K. Stanovich p415)
An easy way to see the anti-phonics bias present in many universities’ teacher education departments is to look at their Primary English reading lists. There is often a very visible in-balance in the books listed, with those providing misinformation on teaching early reading (not based on the most up-to-date evidence and suggesting alternative strategies to synthetic phonics for decoding) greatly outnumbering those written by unequivocal phonics advocates such as Prof. D. McGuinness or Prof. M. Seidenberg (both are cognitive neuroscientists who have studied the scientific research on teaching reading). Indeed, such books may be completely absent. For example, a university ITE department which listed a couple of phonics** textbooks as ‘required reading’ had an additional and extensive ‘recommended reading’ book list which consisted 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.
Caution: use of the word (synthetic) phonics in an academic book’s title** can be very misleading. It does not necessarily mean that the author/s supports teaching trainees to use SSP as the sole approach for word decoding.
** For example, the 2nd edition of this book Teaching Systematic Synthetic Phonics and Early English was published in 2017. The main author is a teacher-trainer and head of a university’s ‘Primary and Childhood Education’ department. Recently (2020) he was joint author of a Policy Brief on Phonics & Reading, where he wrote that ”no single method of teaching children to read is superior to another…there is no clear evidence that synthetic phonics is the most effective approach for supporting reading development”
Student teachers and NQTs see https://www.dyslexics.org.uk/resources-and-further-reading-reference-books/ for RECOMMENDED books, chapters and papers on teaching early reading and spelling.
”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”
(Prof. R. Johnston. www.publicservice.co.uk issue 20. p82).
Ofsted’s new ITE inspection criteria (2019) states that primary ITT providers will be rated inadequate for quality of education and training if they teach trainees to use anything other than systematic synthetic phonics for teaching early reading (decoding):
”For primary phase, training will ensure that trainees learn to teach early reading using systematic synthetic phonics as outlined in the ITT core content framework and that trainees are not taught to use competing approaches to early reading that are not supported by the most up-to-date evidence”. Ofsted added that students may be made “critically aware” of other reading methods”. It is possible that this concession will be used as a loophole to subversively maintain the status quo.
2020. England: UCET (Universities Council for the Education of Teachers) provided a less than positive response to Ofsted’s new ITE inspection criteria and indicated that they supported primary trainees being taught to use a range of word reading strategies in the classroom.
”We should also remember that phonics is one strategy and SSP is the preferred method for it but teachers use a range of methods (including phonics) to teach early reading and we need to equip all trainees to support children effectively in learning to read”
July 2021. England. A review recommended that all teacher training providers should be re-accredited in order to continue recruiting from September 2022: Recommendations in the initial teacher training (ITT) review
”The report points out that Ofsted, the education regulator in England, has inspected teacher training courses and, “found that too often, curriculums were underpinned by outdated or discredited theories of education and not well enough informed by the most pertinent research.” (Greg Ashman. Blog ‘England’s Chartered College of Teaching finds its “why”). The report also says (p12) that ”(A)ll trainees who teach early reading must be taught about systematic synthetic phonics (SSP). Because learning to read is so foundational and indispensable for future success, it is essential that every teacher who works in the primary phase is fully equipped to teach reading using SSP, regardless of the specific age group they initially hope to teach. It is also important that trainees are familiarised with the evidence for the effectiveness of SSP and that time is not used teaching them alternative approaches. Learning to teach reading using SSP cannot be left to chance in the design of primary ITT programmes.”
2020 USA: https://quillette.com/2020/08/12/look-whos-talking-about-educational-equity/
”The record of ed schools on the pedagogy of reading instruction is nothing less than a national catastrophe. Despite more than half a century’s worth of scientific evidence showing that systematic instruction in phonics is, for most beginning readers, the royal road to literacy, the latest report from the National Organization for Teacher Quality found that only one-third of graduate ed school programs surveyed give aspiring teachers adequate instruction in the science of reading pedagogy”
2020. Australia NSW. “It is a crying shame that parts of the education community are so blinded by ideology that they cannot bring themselves to accept the evidence in favour of phonics that is sitting in front of them…VCs need to clear out the academics who reject evidence-based best practice. A faculty of medicine would not allow anti-vaxxers to teach medical students. Faculties of education should not allow phonics sceptics to teach primary teaching students.” (bold added. Sarah Mitchell. NSW Minister for Education. SMH)
The very peculiar case of Goodman, Smith and Clay (or why the whole language approach just won’t die)
‘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.
2007. Read it and weep. Charlotte Allen.
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