Johnny’s Fate: Guesser or Fearless Word Attacker

Terrence Moore

January 1, 2004

This is the second article of a three-part series.

A student’s ability to read depends largely on where he goes to school and the program of reading he encounters there. There is no guarantee that a student will learn to read. Nearly 40% of students in school suffer from “reading failure,” and 40% of Americans find reading difficult.

A student (call him Johnny) who enters a school wedded to the whole-language approach will be invited to read using the following methods. He will not be taught any of the letters or their sounds independently but be exposed to whole words. Letters, you see, are somehow a part of rote learning and not very fun, but words are lots of fun and can be learned in whole pieces on sight. Johnny can only be exposed to so many words at a time: one word followed by another word. There will have to be many repetitions of the few words Johnny knows before taking up the next batch. So he will begin “reading” textbooks with fun “literature” along the lines of: “Meanies wash in mud puddles. Meanies wash in mud puddles. Meanies wash in mud puddles. Where do meanies wash?”

Some words look so similar, especially when children do not know their letters (such as “while” and “white”), that these books have lots of pictures in them. With these pictures the children can guess better at what the words say. Indeed, guessing is really the crux of whole-language instruction. Whole-language theorists assert that by reading the first few lines of a story the child can infer the rest (Try that with Tolstoy!). Whenever Johnny comes to a word he does not know, The Whole Language Teachers Newsletter tells teachers to help him use other strategies. He should “skip it, use prior information… or put in another word that makes sense. Don’t sound it out.” If a child is reading a story in which a giant gets “angry” and the child substitutes the word “mad,” the child should not be corrected. After all, he has a “general sense” of the story. (Question: If I read the sentence “Whole-language is an ineffective reading program” and do not know “ineffective,” may I guess “hopeless,” “stupid,” “crazy”?) If Johnny does not begin reading pretty soon, there is no reason to worry. Reading, after all, is a “natural process” that the child will learn eventually, say whole-language advocates. He may even become aware of letters and certain phonemic patterns along the way, on his own, but never through direct instruction.

Should Johnny attend a school that teaches explicit phonics, his reading experience will be quite different. He will in a matter of weeks learn the twenty-six letters used to form the forty-something sounds (called phonemes) of the English language. Simultaneously, he will learn the seventy-something letter combinations used to graph the sounds one hears while speaking English. For example, Johnny will learn that the letter “m” always says /m/. The letter “a,” however, has several sounds, as in at, ate, want, or talk. After he has mastered all the letters and their sounds, Johnny can now be set loose on all the words in the English language.

Of course, Johnny’s reading, like any other skill, requires a great deal of practice. It goes something like this. When he encounters the word “reading,” quite a big word for a first-grader, he will take it systematically. R (always says /r/), ea (as in eat), d (always says /d/), i (third most common pronunciation), ng (as in ring). The student will already have the sounds memorized and will thus look at the word as “R-ea-d-i-ng, yes, reading.” The student will recognize the word once he has sounded it out because he has heard it before though he has never seen it. The whole process takes a matter of seconds. There may be some false starts: ea as in bread rather than eat, for example. But once a phonetics-trained pupil is given a word, he will attack it until he gets it right. For that reason, phonics is often called the “word-attack” method. Children learning phonics are taught to be fearless of words. The next time Johnny encounters the word it will be old hat. He will apply phonetic analysis again, but it will come much more quickly. Gradually his reading of words will become automatic.

Also see Part I of this series: The Verdict is In: Phonics is the Way to Teach Reading.

Terrence Moore is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center. He studied history and political science at The University of Chicago and later earned a Ph.D. in history from The University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Moore served as a Lieutenant in the U. S. Marine Corps and was an assistant professor of history at Ashland University in Ohio. He is now Principal of Ridgeview Classical Schools in Fort Collins, Colorado.