Imagine that you are fairly new to the
art of reading. And now see if you can read this sentence.
Wunce appon er tyme thar
lyvd ay narstie focks.
can read it, right? But you've never seen these particular 'whole-word'
You can read the sentence because you have developed one of the most important skills which helps with
When you read the above sentence, you
firstly look at the words, fail to recognise them quickly, and so begin the task
of decoding the sound that the words would have (if articulated) by, loosely
speaking, converting the letters to the sounds that they have when spoken.
this way, you can make a good job of reading the text.
And the very fact that our language has
an alphabet, whereby letters are related to the sounds of the words when spoken,
makes the task of learning to read a whole lot easier than if our language
script was 'ideographic' - like that of the Chinese, where the symbols that are
printed on the page bear absolutely no relation at all to the sounds of the words when
In Japanese, there are two kinds of
script. One is alphabetic and the other is ideographic, and, for example,
newspapers will carry a mixture of the two. Japanese children have to learn to
read both kinds of script. And, of course, they find it much easier to
learn the alphabetic script than the ideographic one.
Knowledge of the alphabet and the 'letter
sounds' are clearly extremely useful tools in learning to read.
for 30 years, teachers in the UK have
used a system of teaching reading to our children that
ignores completely the value of the alphabet as a 'teaching
It might therefore come as some surprise to
non-educationalists to learn that, for 30 years, teachers in the UK and the USA have
mostly used a
system of teaching reading to our children that ignores completely the value of
the alphabet as a 'teaching aid'. They have used something called the 'look-say'
method of teaching reading whereby the child is supposed to learn the
unique 'overall shapes' of the words as they sit upon the page.
Under this system, the alphabet is
irrelevant, and children are supposed to learn to recognise words on the basis
of their different shapes.
The educationalists argued that learning the alphabet, and
learning the sounds of the letters (and the combinations of letters e.g. 'ing') were
too difficult for children to master and too tedious for them to learn.
But that's another story - so let's go back to the
Remember that the 'look-say' proponents
argued that children did not need to associate letters with sounds, and that
not benefit from doing so, but that they should learn to read simply by recognising the
overall shapes of the words.
Here goes ...
1. When you read the sentence Wunce
appon er tyme thar lyvd ay narstie focks you must be a bit like a child
coming across words never encountered before. (You've never seen them!) And yet
you can decode the sentence correctly because of your knowledge of letters and
their sounds. But so could a child - provided that the child knew the relationships between
letters and sounds.
If the child does not know these relationships then he simply
cannot decode those words that are 'new', unfamiliar, rare, confused, or 'forgotten'.
How does a child use a dictionary to look
up words like ZEBRA if he doesn't know that ZEBRA is likely
to start with the letter 'z'?
2. How does a child use a dictionary to
look up words like ZEBRA if he doesn't know that ZEBRA is likely to start with
the letter 'z'? Having heard a word, the child only has some idea of how it is spelled by thinking
about the letters and their sounds. After all, if there is no relationship
between the spelling of a word and its sound, then ZEBRA might as well be
spelled XDT. Why not?
3. Given that there are thousands of different fonts and font sizes, and
infinite varieties of handwriting, how is a
young child supposed to read words simply by attending to their overall shapes?
For example, just look at these. Their
shapes are all different.
4. When a child begins to learn to read,
he can already speak! The child already hears and understands
language. So, for example, when the pre-reading child hears the word 'cat', he
knows what it is.
there is already an access route into the
meaning-part-of-the-brain BEFORE a child learns to read
In other words, there is already an access route (for
words) into the
meaning-part-of-the-brain before a child learns to read - and it is a
phonological route. It is a route that is based on sound. What could be more
silly than to pretend that this route into the brain does not already exist, and
so fail to capitalise on it, but, instead, demand that children figure out words
on the basis of overall (visual) shapes instead!?
5. When a child is learning to read, the
teacher knows that the child is reading correctly by listening to him read. In
practice, the teacher knows that the child is reading accurately, or not, when
the child is articulating the words on the page. In other words, the pair of
them are operating on the basis of sounds that are flying between them. Thus,
whether the teacher likes it or not, the child is having to create
sounds in order to demonstrate to the teacher that he can read.
6. I saw a giraffe
at the zoo is written on the blackboard. Mary has never seen the word
'giraffe' before - or hasn't seen it for a long time - or can't quite recognise
the shape - or can't get to grips with the never-seen-before handwriting on the
If she knows something about letters and sounds, however, she can easily
figure out what it says. She hears the word forming in her head as, step by
step, she decodes
the letters into sounds, and then, "Aha, I know that
word, and I know what a giraffe is."
But, notice, if there was no
relationship between the letters and their sounds then 'g-i-r-a-f-f-e' might as
well spell 'rhinoceros' or 'orangutan' or 'helicopter'. Indeed, if there is no
relationship between letters and sounds, then giraffe could be spelled
'q-t-f-r-e-a' or even as 'xq'. Thus, it is the fact that Mary knows about
letter-sound relationships that allows her to read (and/or partially guess) that
'giraffe' is the correct word on the blackboard.
7. The very fact that almost no average
seven-year old would fall for 'q-t-f-r-e-a' as being the correct spelling for
'giraffe' shows somewhat conclusively that, whether teachers like it or not,
children are very concerned to relate letters to sounds, and, further, that they do
so despite the fact that their teachers fail to capitalise on this important
relationship and would prefer that their children ignored it.
If children are not aware of letter-sound
relationships then what hope have they of spelling
8. If children are not aware of
letter-sound relationships then what hope have they of spelling correctly? It is
true that many spellings are highly exceptional (e.g. tough, dough, bough) and
cause problems, but without the letter-sound relationships, a young child trying
to spell 'dog' might as well plump for 'xxwwtthhzzqq'. And the fact that
children do not attempt to spell 'dog' like this, again demonstrates that children
are relating letters to sounds whether their teachers like it or not.
9. How on earth does a child cope with
learning about, and reading in, a new foreign language, if the alphabetic
letter-sound relationships that are available are ignored and not taught?
example, My father is dead, in French, goes
something like this. Mon pere est mort. Ask a
typical non French-speaking nine year old to read this (or something, say, taken
perhaps from one of those foreign language 'phrase' dictionaries for tourists)
and he'll come up with something that sounds vaguely correct. A 'feel' for the
spoken language will help to polish this further. But, if the child sees no
relationship between letters and sounds then Mon pere est
mort simply cannot be articulated at all!
child might as well guess that it says, "Gugga bugga slubberdoxic
In short, learning new
languages is made horrendously difficult by denying children knowledge of
the valid research
shows a two-year reading retardation that lasts up to
adulthood when children are not taught letter-sound
10. Those of you who think that,
eventually, all children will easily grasp the relationships between letters and
sounds, whether they are taught them or not, must remember three things.
Firstly, the valid research shows a two-year reading retardation
that continues into adulthood when children are not taught letter-sound relationships.
for thousands of children, every year, learning to read is so difficult for them that they give up
even trying to read.
Thirdly, poor reading affects
every single school subject.
The educationalists who promoted the look-say
method for teaching reading also argued that, for example, spelling should not be taught (or even corrected)
on the grounds that, bit by bit, the pupils would learn the spellings by some
strange process of absorption.
Instead, what actually happens (and particularly badly
so for dyslexic children and for those with various processing problems) is that the
many-different (and erroneous) ways of spelling the same words that are
'acceptable to the teacher', simply amass
themselves into a huge confusion matrix within the children's brains, leaving
them unable to figure out easily the correct spellings and/or unable to set them apart from all the erroneous
For example, I can never figure out the word
Sometimes RECCOMEND or RECCOMMEND look correct. I get confused. And
even if I write this word correctly, I don't have confidence about it. So I pick
up that dictionary again.
It's a pain.
But can you imagine what it's like for
young children who have spelling problems with hundreds or, perhaps, thousands
of words? - together with the confusions caused by the presence of many tens of
thousands of possible non-words, like RECCOMMEND, REKOMEND, RECKOMENED,
RECCOMENNED .... which the teacher finds 'acceptable'.
How can young children possibly find their own way through this huge mess
How can young children possibly find their own
way through this huge mess unless they are guided very strictly to the correct
solutions? - e.g. by making sure that they spell correctly at
And yet our educationalists, for all this
time, seemed unaware
of these huge problems that they themselves had created by refusing to deal
with the task of teaching children to spell correctly, and also by purposely
ignoring the extremely helpful letter-sound relations that our alphabetic system provides.
The overall result has been a complete failure to
teach our children to read and spell properly.
And the worse-affected have been the
And the reason for this is that in comparison
to girls - particularly in the younger age groups - boys are not very adept when
it comes to developing language skills.
Furthermore, boys are much more
likely to be dyslexic, have behavioural/attention problems, mixed (brain)
laterality problems, and/or to have other specific learning difficulties.
boys tend to need much more help than girls
when it comes to learning to read and write
And so, all in all, boys tend to need much
more help than girls when it comes to learning to read and write proficiently.
So, can you now imagine the effect that the
look-say method has had on those boys for whom learning to read would always
have been an extremely difficult task even under the very best of teaching conditions?
Indeed, one can only shudder at the
realisation that thousands of boys every year must have given up even trying to
read or write proficiently - which is why, today, some 7 million adults in the UK cannot even
use the Yellow Pages.
These adults - mostly male - are the people who
have been completely let down by our
government, by our teaching establishments and by our schools.
Don't Be Fooled
The following text is currently being presented around the internet as some kind
of evidence for the view that words are read as a whole - the implication being
that children ought to be taught to read by using the look-say method.
In fact, however, this text demonstrates
the complete opposite.
Here it is. You should be able to read it quite easily.
Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at an Elingsh uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht
oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht frist and lsat
ltteer is at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll
raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae we do not raed ervey lteter by it slef
but the wrod as a wlohe.
If anything, the above text shows that word
'shape' is not very important at all, whereas the letters within the words
are crucial - so crucial, in fact, that even their order is not very
Most probably, in skilled
readers of English, the possible phonemes (sounds) with which combinations
of letters are normally associated, are checked so rapidly by the brain -
for legitimate and likely meaning - given the developing context as one
reads along - that reading the words themselves is barely disrupted by the
fact that some of the letters are inverted.
Indeed, if the words were, in fact,
being read as a 'whole', then, for example, the word 'olny' is definitely not the
same as the word 'only'.
Indeed, 'olny' and 'only' are 'the same'
as far as the brain is concerned only because they have the same letters.
They do not have the same shape! In other words, in 'olny', the shape has
been destroyed, but the letters have not. And it is because the letters
have been preserved - rather than the shape - that skilled readers can
continue to decode the text correctly.
Further, the fact that the first and
last letter of each word is of singular importance when it comes to
the ease with which the words (in the strange text above) can be decoded adds weight to the view
that the phonemes associated with them are the key to reading.
Finally, of course, the way in which skilled
readers of English eventually go about the business of reading does not
necessarily shed much light on how beginning readers (and spellers)
should best be taught.