In spite of what we’ve been told, expert readers do not ‘read whole words’; instead, they notice each letter and convert it to its spoken sound silently. But they do this so quickly and efficiently that it looks as though they’re ‘sight reading’.
By ‘sight reading’ I mean students reading by recalling words they’ve memorised. Sight reading takes a huge amount of brain energy, as well as soaking up the bulk of our very small working memory capacity. This means that people who really are sight reading usually have very low comprehension of what they read – because they’re too busy concentrating on recalling the word, to be able to work on its meaning – let alone relating that word to the rest of the sentence.
SOUNDING OUT AND BLENDING
Sounding out and blending the separate sounds into a word is quite a tedious process when someone is first learning to read, but with practice, students learn to sound out quickly and smoothly.
At that stage, they’re sounding out and blending at the same time. Then, it’s easier for them to recognise the words they’re reading because they hear themselves say the word as a normal word – instead of as individual sounds.
Then the student’s brain starts to connect the sound of the word to its written version. And this strong connection causes a rapid increase in the student’s reading fluency.
It also increases reading comprehension because the brain is using less energy to process the sound/letter combinations, and less working memory to connect the word to the rest of the sentence.
SIGHT READING/WHOLE WORD READING IS A SHORT CUT
But when a student is taught to sight read, his or her brain is trained to take a short-cut. And we all know where most short-cuts end up! This particular literacy short-cut bypasses the part of the brain that makes the connection between a sound and its letter.
When students first learn to read, this Whole Word short-cut gets them reading earlier, but it cripples their reading ability in the long-term because it trains them to use a reading strategy that doesn’t work once they’ve used up their memory capacity for learning individual words.
IT CAN TAKE YEARS TO BECOME APPARENT STUDENTS CAN’T REALLY READ
In some students, it can take years before the Whole Word reading strategy starts to fail. These students often have excellent visual memories, or they just work very hard to memories the Sight Words.
For these students, everything in the garden seems rosy, until third or fourth grade, when the house of cards comes tumbling down.
By this stage, the sight reading way of reading has become so deeply ingrained that a specialist tutor might be needed to help them break the habit.
STUDENTS WHO FAIL AT THE START ARE OFTEN BETTER OFF
Other students just never seem to grasp the idea of reading at all (at least the way it is currently taught). They’re totally confused by the whole process and learn to read very few words.
Although it might not seem like it, this inability to learn to read the Whole Word way can be a major plus – because once these students grasp the way written English really words, they take off at great speed and usually have no major problems.
The reason they have trouble in the first place was that the way they were taught to read wasn’t consistent with the way written English works. It just didn’t make sense, so their brains switched off.
FULL PHONICS COURSES MAKE SENSE
But the full phonics courses (the phonics courses that teach all the necessary information) do make sense, so these students don’t have trouble learning it.
A full phonics course is consistent with reality, because this is the way that written English works. So it makes sense. The fact that it makes sense means that it’s easy to understand and easy to remember, and easy to apply.
And, most importantly, following a full phonics teaching method results in successful reading – because you’re just sounding out what’s on the page, using a few rules.
WHOLE WORD READING REQUIRES A LOT OF BRAIN POWER
But if you’re trying to read the Whole Word way, you have to use a lot of brain power, because you have to recall each word as you come to it by retrieving it from memory according to its shape or other characteristics – or use a Whole Word word attack strategy, such as:
- breaking the word into bits that you know as a word, and saying the bits;
- sounding out the first letter and finding a word in memory that is about the right length and makes sense in the context; or
- skipping the word and coming back to it when you have read more words in the sentence – because then you might have a better idea of the context.
DOES READING THIS WAY MAKE SENSE?
As you read this description of the Whole Word reading method, can you feel your brain cramping or becoming confused? Or does your brain feel as though it’s flipping from one dimension to another? This is how your child or student feels.
He or she needs to learn the truth – how written English really works. Not a theory that someone THINKS might work. (For more information, go to the Articles page and click on Research to see how many people can’t read because of the Whole Word method.)
FULL PHONICS RULES
You may be thinking that the Whole Word method looks as difficult as learning the full phonics rules, etc. But think about that. What makes more sense? Reading according to the Whole Word strategies listed above, or reading to the full phonics rules/patterns? These rules include:
- th is the way we show the sound at the beginning of: thing, thirsty and thrip;
- ee can be used to write sound ee (in feet, teen and seem), but usually these letters are split apart and put on each side of a consonant (Pete, Steve and Zeke);
- the way we write foreign words in English, such as: ph is the way we write sound f in foreign words – elephant and photo; and
- the rules of position:
- s is the way we write sound /s/at the beginning of: sip, sap, sop – but we often use letter s to write sound /z/ at the end of words his, bins and shells to indicate plurals.
Although these rules don’t help with every word, they help with well over 90% of words, so new readers who know the sound/letter combinations and the rules can become independent readers very rapidly, because they only need to ask for help when they can’t make sense of a word.