But throughout the 20th century and continuing now well into the 21st, the majority of American educators have rejected phonics, opting instead for some variant of the “whole word” method.
This method teaches children to look at the whole word, to recognize its shape, to examine the context in which it is deployed, and, if necessary, to guess. The first iteration of this method, known as “look-say,” held that children learn to recognize a written word by seeing it repeatedly. The theory was: Students need only master a core group of commonly used words and then employ context cues to decipher the rest. The children cannot be overloaded with thousands of new word shapes at a time. Therefore, the look-say method, starting in the first grade, entails introducing children to only several hundred new words per school year, which are then relentlessly repeated. Here, for instance, is a sentence from the kind of books commonly used: “‘We will look,’ said Susan. ‘Yes, yes,’ said all the children. ‘We will look and find it.’ So all the boys and girls looked. They looked and looked for it. But they did not find it.”
However, even advocates of look-say highlight its overriding, intractable problem. As one advocate put it, children
should receive praise for a good guess even though it is not completely accurate. For example, if a child reads “I like to eat carrots” as “I like to eat cake,” praise should be given for supplying a word that makes sense and follows at least some of the phonic cues.
Of course, countless sentences have multiple words that might satisfy the context cues. A reader unable to sound them out can only guess. Indeed, proponents of this method acknowledge the undeniable role of guessing in the process. As Martin Gross details in The Conspiracy of Ignorance: The Failure of American Public Schools, proponents of the look-say method claim that “reading is ‘a psycholinguistic guessing game.’ Students are encouraged to ‘create’ and are not marked wrong for guessing wrong.” Philosopher Leonard Peikoff writes archly of this method:
How would you like to see, at the head of our army, a general with this kind of schooling? He receives a telegram [today an instant message, if not a tweet] from the president during a crisis ordering him to “reject nuclear option,” proceeds to make a good guess, and reads it as “release nuclear option.” Linguistically, the two are as close as “carrots” and “cake.”
Advocates of the whole word method hold that phonics overloads a child’s mind with too many letters and sounds that must be memorized. So, in place of this, they endorse a system that requires readers to memorize the shape of every word in the language. Memorize not twenty-six letters and forty-four sounds that enable readers to decode untold thousands of words in the English language—but memorize the shape of every word in the entire language.
Phonics is a superb time and mental space saver: a simple method, once mastered, to decipher the vast preponderance of words. The whole word method, on the other hand, is akin to a gigantic warehouse containing millions and millions of items, randomly stored, with no letter-by-letter classification, requiring searchers to memorize the shape of each, later to recall that shape and its meaning as needed. It is no mystery that one method is vastly superior to the other.