Whole Word Reading Is Aping Experts

One of the arguments in favour of whole word reading instruction is that it is something which children will do whether you like it or not. But this is precisely why it should not be the focus of early years instruction. With novices, schools must focus on teaching what does not happen naturally, not distort their methods of instruction into a poor imitation of natural processes that would take place without expensive professional intervention.

Nobody can deny that over time, we come to recognise how words look, as whole words. Once we are fluent readers, this is what we’re doing almost all the time, unless we come across a word we have never read before. Then we have to use our knowledge of phonics to spell it out. But by definition, we are not fluent readers if we are having to decode each individual word laboriously.

The point of using systematic phonics is surely that it is the most efficient way of building the skill of decoding, so that children can begin to read as quickly as possible, read lots, and then naturally progress on to reading by word recognition, which is the end goal, but cannot be the starting point. Using whole word recognition as a method to teach reading to novices is starting at the end instead of starting at the beginning.

This seems to be the confusion in so many areas of teaching. We think that by making children pretend to be experts, they will actually think like experts.

  1. An expert reader recognises whole words.
  2. A novice needs to decode them.
  3. Systematic phonics is the method for decoding them.

This is one of Daniel Willingham’s central points: cognition is different for a novice, and we do novices no favours by having them ape expertise when they do not yet have the knowledge required to think genuinely like an expert.

Put children through a decent systematic phonics programme, then give them books to read, and they’ll soon be recognising words. We found this with our third child (having seen the older two muddle through unsatisfactory programmes): we used Engelmann’s Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons.


5 thoughts on “Whole Word Reading Is Aping Experts

  1. Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    Actually Daniel Willingham wrote also a book on this very topic – reading – Raising Kids Who Read – with the essence summarized in this paragraph from this review

    “In kindergarten through second grade students learn the mechanics of reading. After reviewing the debate about teaching reading through phonics or whole-world instruction, Willingham concludes that in both theory and practice teaching phonics is the marginally better way to teach reading to the majority of students. Most U.S. elementary school teachers use a “balanced literacy” approach that draws on both instructional practices. Willingham argues that less time should be spent on non-essential language arts activities for students in K-2 and more time should be spent teaching other subjects (e.g., social studies, science) that increase students’ general knowledge. Adults should model enthusiasm for reading and help the child feels like a skilled reader. Willingham emphasizes the value of parents and children reading together daily for short bursts of time. Parents should ask their children questions, such as “what did you do today?”, so that kids practice telling a coherent story.”


  2. Another spiffing blogpost as usual and I agree. This time you’ve given a link to a great reading program that I can recommend to family and friends!

    Must admit, I hadn’t made the link to the general trend of ‘get children to act like adult experts = they will be experts’ phenomenon. And now I’m thinking that there are so many ways this ideology manifests in education: restorative justice, critical thinking, student voice. There are probably many more!

    Liked by 1 person

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