Should I teach my grandson to read one word at a time, the way I was taught? Is this a good way?

If you learned to read in the 1950’s or 1960’s, you probably learned via the “look-say” method.  Your teacher wrote a word, such as “look,” on the blackboard.  She said it aloud.  You said it aloud.  You opened your reader to page 1.  There under a picture, was the word, “look.”  You read it aloud.  During the day your teacher referred back to the word on the board to help you remember it.  You repeated it.

The next day you did it again, except this time you added the word “see.”  When you turned to page two, there were both words, “look” and “see.”

2 Children reading books.  One is shown using a past reading technique and the other is using a more modern approach.By this method, children were taught to read words as whole units, much like Chinese children are taught their written language.  By the end of first grade, baby boom children had a reading vocabulary of about 150 to 180 words.  They might have been taught some phonics at this point, or phonics might have waited until second grade, or they might never have been taught phonics.  Students were expected to memorize thousands of words.

This “look-say” method was invented by Rev. Thomas H. Gallaudet, the director of a school for deaf and speechless children in the early 19th century.  Many schools adopted this method then, especially when it was endorsed by Horace Mann, the Secretary of the Board of Education in Massachusetts.  But after a while, teachers protested that their students couldn’t read.  And so teachers went back to a phonics-based approach until the 1950’s, when “look-say” became popular again.

There are several problems with this method of teaching reading.

  • With 50,000 words in everyday use in English, a student would never learn them all.
  • Nor could he read books which did not strictly adhere to the vocabulary list.
  • He would not learn word-attack skills to figure out new words.
  • But the biggest problem is that evidence was mounting by the 1970’s that another method, the phonics method, taught reading better.

Even so, “look-say” was not abandoned.  Instead in the 1980’s, it was wrapped into another reading instruction approach called “whole language” which ignored research supporting the superiority of a phonics-based approach.  Whole language focused on context, expecting the student to learn new words from the context of the other words in a sentence.  Like “look-say,” whole language was a haphazard approach.

So back to your question:  Should you teach your grandson to read whole words?  Sure, if you teach phonics as well.  But don’t skip the phonics.

Consider this:  You can teach your grandchild word after word after word, endlessly, or you can teach your grandchild about 41 letter/blend/diagraph sounds and about 100 rules.  Using the first approach, he’ll memorize several hundred words in a couple of years.  Using the second approach, he’ll master word attack skills that he can use on 80 percent of the words in the English language.

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