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37: Whole Word versus Phonics
This page presents a printable comparison chart of reading pedagogies.

(Whole Word is also called Sight Words, Dolch Words,
Whole Language, Balanced Literacy, Look-Say,
Memory Method and other names.)

Whole Word versus Phonics

Which method is best?
What do the promoters of each method claim?
Surprisingly enough, there is no contest.
Whole Word, according to its own defenders, can’t do the job.
 

WHOLE WORD
PHONICS
Whole Word, it is claimed, can teach children to read 500 sight-words in first grade. 

Even if this pace can be achieved, these students know only 6000 words by the end of high school, and are only semi-literate. Judged by its own claims, Whole Word doesn’t work.
Phonics, it is claimed, can teach almost all children to read by the end of first grade.

The reading may be slow and halting at first, but in a few years the child is able to read ordinary books for amusement or education.

 
 
Progress Is Slow
Progress Is Rapid
In fact, few students can memorize even 300 words per year. This difficulty is confirmed all over the Internet by lists of Sight Words that have THIRD GRADE students learning simple one-syllable words such as: bring, clean, cut, done, draw, drink, eight, fall, far, full, got, grow, hold, hot, hurt, if, keep.

Imagine nine-year-olds who can’t read such words. Their education is at a standstill. All school books must be dumbed down.
Phonics, phonetics, alphabetic--all point to the same thing: letters represent sounds. Learn which letters represent which sounds, and you can read the vast English vocabulary (nearly 1,000,000 words).

Phonics, phonetics, alphabetic--all are mnemonic devices that make learning to read easier.

Children in third or fourth grade read real books such as Hardy Boys, Landmark Books, and Grimms' Fairy Tales.
Impossible Demands on Memory
Workable Demands on Memory

Whole Word requires you to memorize words as SHAPES, one by one, as you would remember faces, houses or logos. It’s hard work. The work never ends.

Only the smartest Chinese can memorize 20,000 of their ideograms, but Whole Word promoters expect you to memorize 50,000 or 100,000 English words. In short, Whole Word expects ordinary people to accomplish a feat that's possible only with a photographic memory.

Phonics requires you to remember the ABC’s and the sounds associated with each letter, then the combinations, then the exceptions. If this is done rigorously, students memorize several hundred things. A nuisance, to be sure. But defenders claim that children like memorizing these items because each one gives a greater mastery.
 
In any event, the nuisance ends in five months. (Marva Collins always claimed she taught every first-grader to read by Christmas!)
Many Obstacles
Faster, Less Confusion

English words are minimal in design and hard to remember. For the child, English words look like this: thmfhg, ldfht, tshxw, htpng. The child has to find VISUAL HOOKS in each of these graphic shapes that will provide instant recall when the child sees the shape in a book.

Another problem is that English letters change from lower to UPPER case. Consider: dale/DALE. Only someone familiar with English would guess that you are seeing the same four letters in both words. (Additionally, English words appear in many type styles.)   

English WORDS were not designed to be memorized as sight-objects. Anyone who tries to do this will find the job very difficult.

However, as quick indicators of sounds, our LETTERS have just enough individuality to let the brain make an identification on the fly.

When reading, we dip into words only as much as we need to. A little for familiar words; a lot for unfamiliar words. We dip until we have a positive read, or we go to a dictionary. (Guessing is a technique used by people who can't read.)

Success is Rare

Routine Success
Millions of people peak at 1,000-2,000 sight-words, a level of progress called “functionally illiterate.” Some people with powerful memories actually learn to read and reach college; but they always report that reading is hard work. 
Phonics is successful because it works with the actual nature of the language, which is alphabetic/phonetic. Letters = sounds. Talk to people who read a lot, or for pleasure, and you will find they can't imagine how reading could be done any other way except phonetically.
 
© Improve-Education.org
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SOPHISTICALLY SPEAKING

The astonishing thing to note at this point is that Whole Word, Sight Words, etc. have not gone away. You hear all the time that a large percentage of fourth-graders or eighth-graders can’t read at “grade level.” These reports are talking mainly about the victims of Whole Word. It’s almost as if somebody doesn’t want children to learn to read.

Why do schools continue to use an unworkable pedagogy? How could our elite educators get away with pushing this inferior method for so long? The short answer is: lots of sophistry, jargon and lies. Here are some of the most fascinating examples:

I: BAIT AND SWITCH
ONE: Educators freeze the frame at the first month of education. Oh, they cry, we don’t want to bother with all that phonics stuff. All those little details. Why not just memorize the main words, often called Dolch Words? They make up the bulk of what we read all day. When children know the 250 most common words, then they’re in great shape to read just about anything. That is the actual pitch, made chiefly to the parents. And it’s all bull.

First of all, it’s very difficult to master those 250 words (especially with upper and lower case, and so many different type faces). And it never gets easier. There’s no breakthrough moment, when reading suddenly comes into focus. For the child, the project seems hopeless. No matter how many words you memorize, there always seem to be others you don't know. Then you’re in second, third or fourth grade and you can’t read ANYTHING from the real world. Meanwhile, people all around you are reading as if it’s the easiest thing in the world. You naturally conclude that you are defective. You become embarrassed, sullen, hostile.
 
In short, there’s an absurd trade-off made at the very beginning where so-called educators say, "Here, children, this is the easy road! Come with us!" Absurdity is, these quacks say they don’t like Phonics because of all the MEMORIZATON required, then they make children embark on a project requiring a thousand times more memorization.

II: COMPARING TO NUMBERS

TWO: Memorizing words by their shapes is a lot like memorizing numbers. Think how difficult it is to recall telephone numbers and birthdays. For a young child, looking at English words for the first time is a lot like an adult looking at a new phone number. If you want to remember a phone number you know that you have to repeat it several times. You have to work at remembering it.

The dogma of Whole Word actually stated that teachers merely had to point to a word, say what it was, and this would be enough for the child to learn to read. This was called “the direct method.” Imagine someone pointing to a phone number, reading it off, and saying, “That’s Joe’s phone number, remember it.” Most people couldn’t remember even 10 numbers in this manner, never mind the equivalent of a reading vocabulary.

One of the Whole Word gurus actually sold books called Instant Words. Nice marketing. The name conjures up the image of kids memorizing long lists of words on the fly. Suppose the book was titled “Instant Numbers.” All the main constants, for example, from math and physics. Everyone would laugh at the claim of “instant.”

Consider just phone numbers. How many do you think you could memorize? I suspect even 100 would be high for most people. Very high. Any number over 20 would be a huge amount of work. And yet the pushers of Whole Word and Whole Language have always pretended that learning lots of Sight Words was easy, a natural thing like learning to talk. Sure, you just hold a book in your hands and all those words will stick in your brain! When did that ever happen? With any kind of items. A few people can recall pi to 100 digits, or even 1000 digits, but most of us would struggle to reach 25 digits. Point is, this kind of brute memorization is hard work and no fun. The satanic genius of Whole Word is that it converts learning to read to the equivalent of learning pi to 1000 places. 

III: CODE VS. MEANING

THREE: Educators for many decades have referred to Phonics as having “code emphasis” while Whole Word is defined as having “meaning emphasis.” Most people, on hearing this jargon, get confused and lose interest in reading, probably the intent.

The terms are also prejudicial. For example, code is something that spies use. Codes are secretive and deceptive. Why would we want to have codes involved in reading? Surely that’s a bad thing and we would want to oppose it. Meanwhile, meaning is a good thing. We seek for meaning in our work. We all want to have a meaningful life. Surely, a reading pedagogy that emphasized meaning must be a good thing.

Educators use these dishonest terms to create a false picture of what happens in the first grades. Children, we are told, may learn the code; but they don’t actually know how to read. They can pronounce or say, for example, the word “elementary” but they do not know its meaning!

This attack is a stunningly brilliant sophistry. The ability to pronounce a word even though you do not yet know its meaning is, in fact, the very greatness and genius of alphabetic language. What happens in actual practice? The child--on those occasions when he doesn’t recognize the pronounced word--looks it up in a dictionary, now possesses its meaning, and life goes on.

(Compare this sequence to what happens to the victim of Whole Word. The child sees a word “elementary,” has no idea what it says or means, and has to ask someone or guess.)

But the con here is much greater than so far indicated. Educators love to pretend that a child pronouncing but not understanding a word is the norm, when it is the exception. What happens normally is that the child HAS heard the word before and DOES know the meaning. Once the child sounds the word out, there is that Eureka moment when the child says, “Oh, elementary, I know that.” The sounding-out makes recognition possible. (Whole Word readers, of course, can’t sound out words and thus never learn to read. So the pushers of Whole Word had to pretend that the good, natural and desirable thing is somehow BAD.)

Research shows a remarkable thing. Even young children know a vast number of words, which they have heard at home, on television, at the movies, or speaking with friends. The figure will startle you. Children entering first-grade typically recognize almost 25,000 words and names. So there’s a high probability, when they sound out a new word, that they will recognize it as one they’ve spoken or at least heard.

The people pushing Whole Word actually foster the picture of a young child reading mindlessly and without comprehension word after word. These poor children suffer from “code emphasis.” In fact, as most children arrive with a recognition-vocabulary of almost 25,000 words, and start working with only the more common words, it’s almost impossible that they would get ahead of the vast vocabulary in their brains. Indeed, the urgent task for these children is to tell them, as quickly as possible, how to recognize the words by eye that they already recognize by ear.

Now consider the tragedy of the children trapped in Whole Word who will never learn to recognize even a small fraction of the words they already knew on the first day of school. These children could reach middle school and still not be able to read, for example, the three-syllable words that they routinely used at the age of seven. Think of such common words as quarterback, computer, television, discipline, military, Hollywood, digital, expedition, interstate and so forth. These words, and think especially of proper names, are not on any Dolch list.

No place name is on a list of Sight Words. Whole Word guarantees that children will forever find maps to be Terra Incognita. Want to know why geography is out of favor? One reason is that parents would be constantly reminded that their children can’t read.

Judging by comments I’ve seen on the net, this code-versus-meaning business is still taught at the ed schools, still taken seriously. Educators hang on to the picture of children reading whole paragraphs, never comprehending a syllable, like a robot. Think back to when you learned to read. The unrecognized word was actually rare. One or two per page, maximum. The number of unrecognized words is a function of the vocabulary used by the writer. As you learn more words, you read more challenging authors. But the experience of dealing with the strange word is much the same for an eight-year-old as for an adult reader. Assuming, of course, that they have learned to read by Phonics.

For the person trying to read by Whole Word, the number of unrecognized words is a function of how many words have been committed to memory. Even if the person reaches 10,000 words (rare) or 25,000 (very rare), there are still going to be lots of words they don't know and can't read. These people are supposed to guess and use context, which are devices designed to work around the fact that these victims cannot read. Indeed, the ultimate sophistry is to define reading by Whole Word as reading! When you look at a gallery of photographs, and name the people in the photographs, you are IDENTIFYING, you are not reading. But this process of pulling up names from inside the memory is exactly what a Whole Word "reader" does.

A real reader pulls the information from inside the words.

Indeed, speaking of robots, the only "people" who could really read by Whole Word would be robots--they can memorize 100,000 sight words in minutes!

IV: GETTING AWAY WITH CHILD ABUSE

FOUR: Whole Word has been in play for more than 70 years; it has created more than 50 million functional illiterates; and it's still dumbing down the country. What shelters our educators from condemnation? Here are two factors that don’t normally come to mind:

ADULTS HAVE LITTLE SYMPATHY OR UNDERSTANDING: Once people learn to read, and reach college age or beyond, they have almost no memory of what it was like to learn to read or how difficult the process was. When a child has difficulty, the usual reaction is to think that the child is handicapped.

Furthermore, Phonics soon becomes second-nature to the adult. I don’t think that most adults grasp what Whole Word demands of children--namely, to ignore sounds; and to remember words by their shapes. Imagine you are learning “bird.” A teacher tells you the meaning and pronunciation. Now, if only you can fix this shape in your brain. First, you note that the shape has four sub-shapes. Aha, you notice the dot near the center--sort of like a bird’s eye. Then you see the verticals at each end--sort of like wings. Bingo, you’ve got it. You have three mnemonic hooks for this word.
 
Now, using the same kinds of techniques, try to memorize “beach,” “they,” “street,” “house,” “ask,” “give,” “think” and other first-grade words. See how awkward the process is. You have to analyze the word, invent "mnemonic hooks," and memorize a lot of stuff. And each new word and its clues tend to crowd out the previous bunch of clues. Perhaps now you can really appreciate that mastering even 500 words is going to be a mountain of work. That amount, of course, is just the first step toward literacy. (And when you first encounter BIRD, you’ll probably not make the connection! No eye, no wings!)

SEE NO EVIL: We don’t usually want to think the worst of people. I believe this phenomenon explains how Catholic priests for so long were able to escape retribution for pedophilia. If someone claimed that a priest was guilty of abuse, wouldn’t your first reaction be, “Please, I don’t want to hear that. Unless you have some real evidence, don’t mention that again.” I suspect a very similar reaction has protected our educators all these decades from charges of what I think can be called intellectual child abuse. Suppose someone says, “The schools don’t teach reading properly; it’s the educators who are causing all the illiteracy.” The first reaction might be, They are educators! Why would they want to cause illiteracy? That’s crazy talk.

The facts remain, however, that the educators did cause widespread semi-literacy by favoring a pedagogy that never did work as claimed. Virtually no human can memorize even 5,000 sight words, never mind 50,000. My own conclusion is that we need to hold educators accountable. It is only by taking their bad ideas away from them that we’ll see improvement. CODA: You have to ask yourself, what kind of SOB would dumb down a child?



V: THE TYRANNY OF RESEARCH
FIVE: The only research we need to see in the reading wars would be comparison studies between schools using Whole Word and schools using Phonics. How are kids doing at the end of the various grades?

You don’t see such studies. Around 1930, our educators pushed Whole Word on the entire public school system without any studies suggesting this was a good idea. The decision was theory-driven and ideology-driven.

What the so-called experts do is not very helpful. As nearly as I can express it, experts focus on a narrow window of time (for example, first grade) and then they focus on very technical problems and sub-problems. Hundreds of researchers have written thousands of articles with such titles as “Constructive processes in prose comprehension and recall,” “Cognitive flexibility in hypertext: theory and technology for the nonlinear and multidimensional traversal of complex subject matter,” “Becoming literate: the construction of inner control,” “Language as a social semiotic: the social interpretation of language and meaning,” and “In the middle: writing, reading, and learning with adolescents.”

Many of the articles presuppose that Whole Word is the perfect methodology; the rest of the articles usually point in that direction. The goal of all this activity seems to be to inundate teachers with a bias against Phonics. No ordinary teacher could stand up to all this “research.”

 

 
   
WHICH PHONICS PROGRAM??
Make sure it's all Phonics, synthetic Phonics, and nothing but Phonics.
I favor the cheapest and shortest programs.
It's very important that it be fast, fun, and have a light touch. 
I learned to read without knowing any Phonics rules, 
so I don't trust too much detail, drill or pedantry at any point.
Truth is, the experts have many favorites.
See partial list in "42: Reading Resources." 
(It's hard to beat the "A is for apple" approach;
and YouTube has some fine singing alphabet videos.) 
 
 

RELATED ARTICLES ON THIS SITE

Please also see:
"21: A Tribute To Rudolph Flesch";
"30: The War Against Reading";
"33: How To Help A Non-Reader to Read";
"40: Sight Words -- The Big Stupid";
"42: Reading Resources" (please start here); 
and "Reading Theory" (in index to left of page).
 

 

 
THE GENESIS OF THIS ARTICLE

I recently got a letter from a couple with a child in kindergarten. The child was struggling; the parents were miserable and had decided to homeschool their kid in the future. And why? Because the basis of the school's curriculum was learning 40 Sight Words. The woman said she had explored the topic on the internet (late 2008) and found lots of sites devoted to Dolch Words and Sight Words. It seemed that most of the world embraced this thing.

What, I thought? They're still spreading this kudzu?! And that’s when I decided to put a page on this site that lays out the arguments in a simple tabular form.

I checked the net recently: it's quite scary. Some of the sites pushing Dolch Words are professional organizations or even government entities. Jargon and confused theorizing are the norm. I have a video on YouTube that might help: "How Dolch Words Cause Illiteracy and Dyslexia." Takes about eight minutes; but it makes one deal with the sheer craziness of asking kids to memorize thousands of almost identical designs.
 

Churchill said democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others. It has been noted as conceptually related that capitalism is the worst economic system except for all the others. To which I'll add my sense that Phonics is the worst way to teach reading except for all the others. Interestingly, the far-left seems to hate all three.    

 

SAD NEWS: NEWSPAPERS COMMIT SUICIDE

 
All over the country, newspapers have been losing money, advertisers, influence and readers. One reason is that the country has FEWER READERS, thanks to the bad policies pushed by the education establishment. And all the while this decline has been going on, the same newspapers have been supporting-- uncritically and reflexively--this very same education establishment.
Another problem is that schools don't teach enough basic knowledge (e.g., Where is Japan? What is Antartica?), so there are fewer people who can fully take advantage of a newspaper.
  Bottom line: newspapers should oppose
the counterproductive gimmicks pushed by educators,
and should in every possible way promote reading, literacy, and basic knowledge. When schools won't teach, newspapers must step up.
At present, many newspapers are their own worst enemy!
(If a paper isn't sure what to do, please contact me; I'd be happy to advise.) 
 

 

© Bruce Deitrick Price 2009