There are several different Whole Word* methods of teaching literacy, but all are based on the idea that literacy should be taught by teaching whole words – usually called Sight Words. The assumption on which these methods are based is that English is such a mess that the only way to read most words is to learn them by sight.
*I’ll refer to all of these Whole Word methods, including Balanced literacy and the Eclectic method as ‘Whole Word’.
But Whole Word methods are based on several false assumptions. English is not unpredictable; while it’s not as well organised as it originally was, there’s still a significant degree of predictability – see the Sight Words article for more information.
Another false assumption on which Whole Word is based is that literacy is a natural skill.
LITERACY IS NOT A NATURAL SKILL
Speaking is a natural skill, but ‘speech written down’ – literacy – is NOT a natural skill.
There is no part of the brain that specifically deals with reading and writing skills. So in order to become literate, students have to re-use a part of the brain that deals with another skill.
WHY IS THE WHOLE WORD METHOD A BAD IDEA?
There are several reasons why teaching literacy using the Whole Word method is a bad idea. I’ll only touch on a few here. The Whole Word method:
- is not consistent with the way written English was designed to work;
- is based on the assumption that since we speak in whole words, we should teach literacy as whole words – Sight Words;
- teaches students to use the wrong parts of their brain to read; and
- it doesn’t work, because it results in thousands of people not making the connection between the sounds of English and the letters that represent those sounds.
WHOLE WORD IS NOT CONSISTENT WITH THE WAY ENGLISH WORKS
Written English was designed to work a certain way.
To write a word, you said the word aloud, then starting on the left, you wrote the letter for the first sound in the spoken word, then the next sound in the spoken word, etc.
To read the word, you said the sound for the first letter on the left, then the sound for the next letter, etc. Then you blended the sounds back into the word, and once you said it aloud – you recognised what the word was. When you got good at sounding out and blending, you were able to sound out and blend so quickly and easily so you could read whole sentences and paragraphs aloud smoothly When you got really good at reading, you could read silently!
WHOLE WORD ASSUMES WE SPEAK IN WHOLE WORDS
Whole Word assumes that we say whole words, so it is assumed that written English works that way, too.
But the thing is, we don’t speak in whole words! It’s true that some words are only made up of one sound: a, I, and oh! are examples of that.
But most words are made up of several sounds, and our mouths can only say one sound at a time, so we say don’t say whole words at a time – instead, we say a series of sounds to make each of these multi-sound words.
Written English was designed to work the same way that we spoke – for each sound a letter was written.
Written English is an alphabetic language. That means it was designed so that there was one sign (letter) for each of the (approximately) 44 sounds we speak.
This means that children only had to be aware of the individual sounds they spoke (Phonemic Awareness), and be taught the letter for each sound. Then they could read and write!
That’s how it used to be. And in an ideal world, that’s how it would still be. Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world. But the underlying principle is easy to teach and learn.
To learn the phonics way, students have to learn about 300 items (alphabet, capital letters, punctuation signs, learning some rules/patterns, how to write old words, and how to write foreign words). Then they are ready to begin reading.
To learn the Whole Word way, students have to learn every single word by sight.
But English was designed to be an alphabetic written language. To learn each word individually defeats the whole purpose of having an alphabet.
WHOLE WORD TRAINS STUDENTS TO USE THE WRONG PART OF THE BRAIN
A dyslexic student has trouble with reading. Whole Word trains students to have trouble with reading, because it teaches students to read whole words according to the shape and length of the word. That causes student’s brains to use the part of the brain that processes pictures – because that’s the part of the brain that deals with shape and size.
But reading and writing are skills to do with verbal skills, so the part of the brain that deals with sounds needs to be used. Although letters are shapes, so they could be dealt with by the picture part of the brain, the shapes of the letters is a very minor part of reading.
The major part of the skill of reading is in:
- recognising the letter;
- linking the letter to the sound it represents;
- sounding out and blending the word;
- applying any relevant rule, and analysing the word to work out if it’s an old or foreign word;
- saying the word; and
- letting the brain recall its meaning.
As you can see, there is a lot going on when we read. To be able to access these skills easily and become skilled at coordinating their use, the analytical parts of the brain need to be used when reading is taught – so the student becomes skilled in each application.
Full Phonics training helps students develop these skills; Whole Word does not. Written words are representations of spoken words, not pictures of words.
WHOLE WORD RESULTS IN THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE BEING UNABLE TO READ
Now that the Whole Word method has been used for several generations of students, we can see the results clearly.
My summary of the results is:
Between 40 and 50% of native English-speakers have trouble with reading.
If you want to learn more details, click here to go to my Article – Research.