Especially For Young Women


boy reading

Learning to Read


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.

You can read it, right? But you've never seen these particular 'whole-word' shapes before.

You can read the sentence because you have developed one of the most important skills which helps with reading. 

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.

 In 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 spoken.

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 aid'

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 reading.

Remember that the 'look-say' proponents argued that children did not need to associate letters with sounds, and that they would 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.

reading reading  reading  reading  reading 

reading  reading  reading  reading    reading  reading  

4. When a child begins to learn to read, he can already speak! The child already hears and understands spoken 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 board.

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 correctly?

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?

For 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!

The child might as well guess that it says, "Gugga bugga slubberdoxic fishigans."

 In short, learning new languages is made horrendously difficult by denying children knowledge of letter-sound relationships.

the valid research shows a two-year reading retardation that lasts up to adulthood when children are not taught letter-sound relationships

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.

Secondly, 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 ones.

For example, I can never figure out the word RECOMMEND. 

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 every opportunity.

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 boys.

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 appalling 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 important!

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. 

Why Johnny Can't Read

Ever since 1500 B.C. people all over the world – wherever an alphabetic system of writing was used – learned how to read and write by the simple process of memorizing the sound of each letter in the alphabet. When a schoolboy in ancient Rome learned to read, he didn’t learn that the written word mensa meant a table, that is, a certain piece of furniture with a flat top and legs. Instead, he began by learning that the letter m stands for the sound you make when you put lips together, that e means the sound that comes out when you open your mouth about halfway, ... . Therefore, when he saw the written word mensa for the first time, he could read it right off and learn, with a feeling of happy discovery, that this collection of letters meant a table. Not only that, he could also write the word down from dictation without ever having seen it before. And not only that, he could do this with practically every word in the language. Rudolf Flesch - Why Johnny Can’t Read - 1956

Before the invention of the alphabet, writing was ideographic. Language was represented by picture-symbols which required a great deal of memorization and was never very accurate. It was easy enough to represent commonplace objects and simple actions by picture symbols. But when it came to communicating complex philosophical abstractions or great subtleties, ideographs were inadequate. The alphabet was a tremendous improvement. Once you mastered the sound-symbol system, you could write down any thought in precisely the manner you wanted it to be conveyed. This enabled the Greeks to expand the mind’s capacity to think and work, and it permitted a tremendous advance in man’s intellectual development. Samuel Blumenfeld - The New Illiterates - 1973



December 2005

Phonics To Be Used In Teaching Reading The way children are taught to read in primary schools in England will be shaken up, Education Secretary Ruth Kelly has confirmed. The government has accepted a review which backs the greater use of a method called synthetic phonics.

+ The reading report, by Jim Rose, a former chief inspector of primary schools, strongly criticised teachers for leaving children to "ferret out on their own how the alphabetic code works". It effectively called for the Government's literacy strategy to be torn up.

January 2011

Government School Watchdog
Says 'Bring Back Phonics'

Bring back phonics and rigorous tests and ‘virtually all’ children will be able to read by the age of six, according to Ofsted - the schools watchdog.

A headteacher writes in the comments section ...

As a teacher of (mainly) primary age children for more than fifty years, and as an ex-headmaster, it makes me very, very angry to think how badly so many British children have been served since the 'Janet and John' approach was tossed on the scrapheap.

Interviewing teachers for a post teaching five to seven year olds twenty five years ago, I found applicant after applicant saying they taught by the 'real books' method - meaning you don't bother to teach children the sounds of the letters.

We didn't appoint any of them.

We appointed a Montessori teacher who used a phonic approach and the results were outstandingly good, with happy children who loved reading even before they were six. And no, we were not an elitist school, admitting only bright children.



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