Teaching Reading

I don’t know, folks, I tried giving every opportunity to the method used in American elementary schools to teach reading but I don’t think it works. I haven’t criticized it until now because I didn’t want to be rigid and decided to give it a chance.

For those who aren’t from here, the method is this. Instead of explaining to the children how letters come together to make words (m and a is mmmmaaaa, etc), teachers have them memorize batches of unrelated words called “sight words.” One week they memorize “make, go, and, to.” The next week they memorize “Monday, you, cat, five.” Problem is, by the time you get to batch 3, kids have forgotten batch 1.

They’ve been doing these “sight words” since preschool and I’m seeing zero results. I’m not worried for my kid who doesn’t need sight words because she already reads. But I’m really not surprised at the low literacy levels.

I don’t think anybody anywhere else teaches reading this way. Do they? Is there something I’m not getting?

47 thoughts on “Teaching Reading

  1. Teaching reading goes through cycles in the US. Intermittently people go back to phonics (learning sounds and putting them together, as you describe), but then there’ll be some new! thing! and they’ll do some stupid method again. When I would have been in first grade, it was a weird IPA-light spelling system, which meant that students had to re-learn to read actual English. This is why I skipped first grade. I already knew how to read and my parents thought I’d be either confused or bored. I definitely notice a difference in the classes I teach between students who can sound out words and those who try to recognize them. Middle English is easy for the phonics-trained, very difficult for the word-recognizes.

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    1. Right? I knew there was something weird about it. I learned to read English when I was 5 and it was using the normal method of sounding it out. I wanted to give the sight words a chance but I don’t think it’s working.

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    2. Ha! This is so true. My Dad taught me out of a set of old McGuffeys at age 3. As soon as I had the hang of it, we moved on to reading Ecclesiastes in the King James. I memorized huge chunks of it (“What profit hath a man of all his labor, which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh, but the earth abideth forever…”) because he found it amusing, this ponderous poetry pouring out in the high, piping voice of a tiny blonde kid in patent-leather shoes. He has a weird sense of humor. On the plus side, reading Shakespeare later was a piece of cake.

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      1. Totally like my dad who made me memorize complex, long poetry because he thought it was funny. He couldn’t get me to memorize chunks of the Bible because imagine me trying to recite that in public. That would get him arrested pretty fast.

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        1. I’m so glad I’m not the only one! At that age, I memorized Blake’s “Tyger Tyger” (“What the hammer? What the chain? In what furnace was thy brain? What the anvil? What dread grasp, dare its deadly terrors clasp?”), Poe’s El Dorado (“Over the mountains of the moon, down the valley of the Shadow, ride, boldly ride, the shade replied, if you seek for El Dorado”), and some awful parody of The Raven, called The Spaniel, about a talking dog… “As I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a yapping, yapping at my office door…”

          We also had a memorized but spontaneous-sounding dialogue, where my father would ask me about various Greek mathematicians– Pythagoras (“The square on the hypotenuse…” I had no idea what it meant, but I could recite it perfectly!), Archimedes (What did he do? He discovered the displacement of water!), and wound up with his favorite philosopher, Stroker McGurk: “If it don’t go, chrome it!”– this was popular around the motorcycle shop where he hung out. I’m told it was hilarious, not least because I was very small for my age, and people barely expected me to talk at all.

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          1. I taught my first child to read using the only phonics curriculum available to home schoolers back in 1983 (when most people still believed that home schooling was a felony). But before she knew how to read on her own, she’d memorized most of the picture books on our shelf just from having had them read to her so many times. I loved the looks on people’s faces when they heard a two-year-old kid recite “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

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            1. I taught Jabberwocky to the 5yo, and the 3yo picked it up by osmosis, but would not say the phrase “eyes of flame”. Instead he’d get this crazy look on his face and say: “with the FLAME EYES!!” every. time. It was so stinking hilarious 😀

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  2. The “whole words” method has always been bunk for most kids. I have no idea why they keep bringing it back. My mother fought that BS for 40 years as a teacher– was sick to death of teaching basic remedial phonics to bright fourth-graders who’d failed to learn to read in kindergarten, first grade, second grade… (by third grade they don’t even try anymore and just put them in the class with the slow kids). But still it persists, one assumes because a few bright children (particularly the ones whose parents take an interest) learn to read in spite of it. And it keeps the curricula-engineers in business.

    When my aunt’s children were in kindergarten, she had the same concern– that my cousins were not actually learning to read in school. My mom sent her our copy of “Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons” (the classic DISTAR-phonics-method-at-home text), she taught them at home, and they have been excellent readers ever since. Their schoolteachers were happy to take credit for that.

    My Dad taught me to read out of a set of old McGuffeys (I think they’re still in print!)– which have been successfully used to teach American children to read since the mid 19th century. If it ain’t broke…

    I used the Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons book with my older two kids, and it worked great, even though it was so boring my kids both stonewalled at around lesson 80-85 and refused to go any farther. But at that point, they had learned enough that we simply went to the library, checked out a stack of picture books about airplanes, tractors, trains, and trucks, read through them one page at a time, together– they sounded out the words, and I helped only if they needed it– and in a couple months they were off to the races, reading by themselves.

    If you poke around nearly any homeschooler forums, you can find other recommendations for good phonics programs that work just fine, and are perhaps not as dull as TYC100 (that was just the book I had so that’s what I used). I’ve heard from several parents of reluctant readers (mostly boys) that the “Writing Road to Reading” books are very effective, taking a motor-first approach of teaching kids to write the letters at the same time as learning their sounds. My kindergarten used the “Letter People” but I don’t know if that’s still around (my class could all read by the end of the year though).

    Of course, there’s also the time-honored tradition of simply sitting down with your kid and a book, every day, and sounding out words with them, which costs nothing 🙂

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    1. This is definitely the best method. I read to Klara all the time, and at some point I started moving my finger under the words so she could see what I was reading. Then one day she took the book from my hands and read herself. I help with an occasional word but that’s all I did by way of teaching her how to read.

      Of course, there was never any doubt she’d read well and early. She has college-level vocabulary because that’s how I normally speak, and she imitates me. It’s the kids whose parents aren’t readers that I worry about. Teaching the mechanical skill of reading is not a big deal. It’s creating a reader that’s hard. Somebody for whom reading is at the core of their self. That’s a precious, rare gift and turning reading into a chore just kills it.

      My analyst said, “Please teach her to read before she goes to school because at school they will kill any interest she has in reading.” I didn’t know what he meant but now I get it.

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    2. Whole words are a tool for people who already read fluently to increase their text scanning rate. It’s a lousy tool for beginners.
      I get a little chuckle when kids who have been taught decoding use words that they can read, define, and use in writing but pronounce slightly oddly.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, some of my family’s assumed pronunciations have become the stuff of legend.

        Stuff like the word “misled” being pronounced “MY-zuld”. Followed up by the earnest attempt to conjugate it into “misle” and “misling”…

        For myself, I repeatedly get hung up by that weird Japanese word that shows up on the electric bill, particularly if I try to read it upside-down. “Usage.” Pronounced “oo-SAH-geh”

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I didn’t realize kids often only were taught memorization. That seems a bit limiting. I know at my daughter’s (public US Montessori) they teach phonics and sight words. The kids were taught their letters by the sound each letter makes first, and learned what each letter was called after they started reading. But she did also have sight words, although with the phonics background to back that up. She surprises me with how well she can sound out words.

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    1. They do teach how to sound out letters but not how to bring them together. It’s the step from mmmm and aaaa to mmmaaa that’s missing. And that’s the crucial step. Once you get that, that’s it, you are reading. I’ve waited and waited but it’s already first grade and that isn’t happening.

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  4. I learned to from my parents and I was reading fluently in English by four, my parents always had lots of books at home and they used the phonics method. I’ve seen the sight word stuff used in different schools and it doesn’t work, the kids forget last week’s words. The kids learn random words but don’t know how to string together words to form sentences, which means they can’t comprehend what they read. I’ve seen it, teens who can’t understand the passage they’ve just read but can read the individual words

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    1. That’s precisely the problem. Aside from recognizing the words, you need to be able to get the meaning. Without that, it gets very boring very fast and kids lose interest.

      Another crucial skill is to teach them to retell a story. Even many adults are terrible at it, going off on tangents, getting lost in the details, unable to isolate the main message. Rambling, disorganization thinking is a sign of a personality incapable of self-containment.

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      1. Absolutely, it’s frustrating and bizarre to me to see teens who can’t identify the subject, verb and object in a sentence or tell you what the sentence is about. I’m glad I learned to read as a toddler and my parents let us read anything we wanted, too many kids have parents who shove a tablet in their faces to shut them up

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      2. We do this in a formal-ish way as part of homeschooling, ala Charlotte Mason. I read a chapter of something aloud to them, then they “narrate” the high points back to me. They’re pretty good at it, as they’ve been doing it since age 5. What’s funny is that the just-turned-3yo tries to imitate them without having much idea what they’re doing… he captures their tone perfectly, but the stories he tells are meandering, nonsensical, and peppered with five-dollar words. He thinks if he begins most statements with “and then…” or “although…” he is doing a fine job. Usually has his brothers shrieking with laughter.

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        1. This is so cute. It reminded me how when Klara was about 6 months old, she observed my husband and me talking and clearly wanted to participate. But she didn’t speak, obviously. So she waited for a lull in the conversation and in a very conversational tone made a serious of noises that perfectly imitated our intonation. Looked really happy with herself.

          I can just imagine her thinking. “Big creatures seem to enjoy making noises at each other. Let me make similar noises at them and see what happens.”

          Liked by 2 people

  5. Schools were never intended to teach kids anything except compliance. Sure, some teachers, even some administrators, sometimes try to do what they mistakenly believe is the duty of the schools – teach children the basics, and maybe get them excited about learning – but the structure of schools is all about doing what you’re told, for no better reason than that you are told. Age-graded classrooms – I’m sure your daughter needs to learn exactly the same things every child her age needs to learn at exactly the same rate, right? What could possibly be frustrating and dehumanizing about that?

    Fichte, the founding light of modern schooling, believed that reading was a distraction, that kids who could read would not pay attention to their state-appointed father-replacement, the teacher. Therefore, he reserved reading and writing for the very end of his compulsory education, after the kids had spent their childhoods learning that the only road to success was doing exactly as they told.

    I wish I were exaggerating or making this up – but I’m not.

    Or check out this story: https://carolinefurlong.wordpress.com/2022/10/05/mentally-deficient-and-unteachable-or-not/

    Liked by 4 people

    1. That is one of the continually jarring differences between having my kids in “mixed company” vs. hanging out with other homeschoolers. Kids who’ve been to school often will not play with my children if they are not the same age– and that is always, always the first question on meeting my kids: how old are you? What grade are you in? They’re intimidated by older kids, and feel themselves too good to associate with younger ones. They also self-segregate by sex much more strictly, even though the schools don’t separate them that way. That one stumps me. Perhaps it’s a function of overcrowding?

      Homeschoolers: no problem! My 8yo boy effortlessly made friends with three girls in his (homeschooler) orchestra group 10-12 years old (by looks, they’ve never mentioned their ages), because they bring card games with them, and are happy to have another player. And it’s always like that. Homeschooled kids don’t seem to care much about age, and instead sort themselves out by whether or not you’re fun to play with, or are interested in similar things.

      I was schooled myself, and didn’t realize until my own kids just how unnatural the age-sorting thing was, or how deeply people internalize it. Even adults, on meeting my kids, tend to ask what grade they’re in. My kids return a blank stare. I used to tell them to just say the number on their math books, but that doesn’t work anymore since 10-yo decided he wanted to start Algebra this year. Now we spend the first couple months of each school year doing a bit of silent calculation when asked, to figure out what grades they would be in, if they were in school.

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      1. The old neighbors behind our house were like that. The girl was only two years older than mine and absolutely could not comprehend the concept of interacting with someone who was not within 6 months of her own age. It was intensely frustrating for my kids who only saw a couple of potential friends. Fortunately they were replaced by an only child whose parents were happy to have him play with my crowd, some of whom are older and some younger. I hope that he keeps some of his ability to interact despite his public schooling.
        We taught my kids to say “I’m X grade age” because we figured that people were using grade level as a proxy for intellectual and developmental stage because people have a general idea of what third graders are like but hardly anyone knows simply what an eight year old is.

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        1. This is one of the reasons I’m happy with Klara’s Christian school. It’s a little school, so nobody has the space or the need to keep the kids sorted by age much. Klara has made a friend who’s 11 and another who’s 4. I’m so happy because she doesn’t have living siblings so she misses that kind of interaction.

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    2. If that’s the purpose, schools are failing at it, too. My students are completely unable to follow a simple set of instructions. Everybody is a very special cookie. Everybody is above the pedestrian need to do what they are told.

      It was especially bad in the translation course. Unless you do literary translation, being able to respect and imitate the format of the original constitutes between 50% and 80% of what you get paid for in translation work. If something is bold-typed, you bold-type it. If there are three spaces between paragraphs, you leave three spaces. If the text is in a square box, you put it in a square box.

      Exactly zero percent of students could do this. All semester long they struggled with it. This means they’ll never make money in translation because being a very special cookie who doesn’t need to follow rules doesn’t pay.

      Everybody is “creative.” Nobody is meticulous.

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      1. I think the problem here is that you are trying to get them to follow different instructions. Multiple choice, paragraphs of designated lengths, or word counts, following the bells from class to class Dash that’s the level of compliance schools inculcate. Actually doing as they’re told intelligently – which is what you want them to do – blows a circuit, I think.

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  6. When I was in first grade, in 1950-51, the method of teaching reading you describe here was considered to be the new and exciting way of teaching children to read. I am so very glad that my grandmother had already taught me to read, via the phonics method. I think the sight reading, as it was called at the time, fell out of favor a few years later. I had no idea it was back. I had always wondered why other students had such trouble with reading Middle English when I had a college course in Chaucer. Dame Eleanor Hull, above, made it clear!

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    1. Sight-words turns out to be a really great way to take very young children and sort them by how literate their families are… and keep them that way for their entire school career.

      Those of us with literate families were already reading when we started school, so the method of teaching didn’t matter. Those without were often permanently handicapped by the see-and-say stuff. Sheep to the right, goats to the left.

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  7. Research from reading education regularly shows phonics outperforming sight words for new readers (with nuance on some details).
    Somehow phonics got so connected to conservatism, especially to the extreme religious right, in the U.S. culture that people reject it for political reasons.

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    1. Wow, I didn’t know this. I’m learning a lot in this thread.

      I don’t want to be rigid but I honestly don’t understand this sight words method.

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      1. “I honestly don’t understand this sight words method”

        The idea is that that’s how adult very literate people read, they don’t pay much attention to individual letters but rather the whole word (or whole groups of words).

        Think of learning a foreign language especially in a different script – you start off looking at pretty much every letter and gradually start to read whole words and groups of words together.

        Or course it doesn’t follow that teaching children that method from the beginning has any particular value but at one time it was probably thought that it would speed up the literacy process (rather than slow it down…. which is also in the interest of some people).

        Liked by 1 person

  8. \ teachers have them memorize batches of unrelated words

    That’s the way my brother was taught to read in Israeli school.

    In Hebrew vowels aren’t explicitly written, except in dictionaries or special texts for kids. May be, it justifies teaching kids to recognize words w/o vowels to begin with.

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  9. It’s bad and it’s always been bad. If I was the conspiracy minded type I’d say it’s a plot to keep the children of the uneducated down (those of us who learned at home have a major advantage.) In my family we all just naturally picked up on it; for those who don’t, phonics is best. I don’t take strong stances on most educational subjects but I do on this one.

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    1. I’m very glad to get so much support in this thread. This is not a subject on which I’m confident because I only know it as a mom of one kid who recently learned to read. I’m happy to hear that I’m not imagining it.

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      1. I have no idea how good or accurate the book is (I loved it 15 years ago but I’m no longer a stupid teenager), but John Taylor Gatto’s “Underground History of Modern Education” covers this debate among other things.

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    2. My mother (retired teacher) thinks like you. She assumes it is a conspiracy to keep more special-ed teachers employed. Create “learning disorders” then demand more money to treat the problem, endlessly…

      She was, of course, a special-ed teacher. But her kids were the behavior problems not the learning problems. Always said she preferred it to a normal classroom because if you got the kids nobody else wanted, nobody would pester you about trendy curricula, and you could just teach whatever works.

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  10. I’ve only skimmed the comments, but it sounds like Klara’s teachers don’t know how to teach phonics properly? i.e., they are teaching the sounds but not putting them together? I think this might be a problem with the teachers, not necessarily with the whole U.S. system. My kids’ (currently 4th and 2nd in CA public school) kinder and first grade teachers definitely taught the class how to put the letter sounds together. I was in Zoom kinder with my youngest so saw it for myself. They also did the “high frequency sight words” thing, but the phonics (and putting the sounds together) was a key component. Fwiw, my kids were both reading by then anyway because they were interested in learning from me towards the end of preschool – I taught them using classic phonics, like you and many other commenters. It would never have occurred to me to teach it any other way!

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    1. How to teach reading has been a raging debate in elementary ed in the US for decades. Just google “Phonics vs. whole language” and there are millions of results. It sounds like Klara’s school uses some variety of the whole language approach.

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      1. I see! I’m a relatively recent (15 yrs ago) transplant from the UK. Thank goodness my kids’ teachers took a combined approach. All I remember about learning to read was being bored stupid by the “Topsy and Tim go to the zoo” type of books, and being a little behind with reading, until I got good enough to read proper adventure chapter books, after which I never looked back 🙂

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  11. There’s a reason “Hooked on Phonics” sells so well in the US.

    I can see the goal these people are after, which is to improve reading speed, but you have to start slowly in order to understand what’s there first.

    Hangul and Korean works this way: you learn each of the parts of the character, which are separate and follow specific rules, and then you learn how they’re grouped.

    And so each of those marks within a composite Hangul character is a separate character, and there are rarely any separately written characters.

    But you start with phonics and have to progress to “whole language” or “sight words” because otherwise you’ll be stuck taking apart every composite character to figure out how to read it, and that doesn’t work for reading speed.

    Japanese for English learners starts out with learning two basic character sets called hiragana and katakana which mostly consist of digraphs with vowels (such as “ka”) with some single characters (such as “n”) and trigraphs with vowels (such as “shu”).

    These are used later on in learning kanji, the character set inherited from Chinese that’s been modified over the centuries, by using hiragana as helper characters above the kanji in a way that mirrors what’s done with Hebrew with helper marks.

    While katakana mostly gets used for borrowed words and foreign names, you have to start with hiragana, learn the phonics of it, and then get ready to switch gears entirely to learn complex kanji that have to be recognised by sound, grouping, and context.

    Adding to this is a complexity you don’t get in Korean or Hebrew where you have multiple sounds for kanji depending on usage, multiple kanji that match a specific sound, and a much higher level of required context sensitivity than you find in English or German.

    That there are around 1450 official kanji may make this seem like less of a challenge than learning Chinese, but the exceptions are not orthogonal and come from hundreds of years of use, including regional variations that make certain words in Japanese mutually incomprehensible between native speakers from different regions.

    I used to think that “Kansai-ben”, the accent and dialect of the Kansai region, was the coolest thing because it was more country roots sounding than the Tokyo metropolitan dialect, until I actually had to try to use it.

    The Newscaster American Standard dialect exists for a valid reason!

    But across languages, phonics comes first and should be the bridge to these other techniques rather than jumping ahead to trying to recognise groupings.

    Why America does it this way that seems clever but is actually very stupid helps sell all of those “Hooked on Phonics” courses to American parents.

    BTW, hopefully my PA hasn’t made himself into a complete pain in the backside here.

    Now that my girlfriend has had a taste of being picked up by a chopper and hurried to a private airfield to board a general aviation charter, she’s wondering how often this is going to happen, plus she obviously liked this experience way too much.

    Or at least she did until I told her to ask the chopper pilot just how much his company’s making from the relatively short trip over to the airfield.

    “So this is why we don’t travel like this all the time.”

    “And this is also why we drove those trucks up from Broward, but we are in a hurry today.”

    It all started with an answer to a simple question and then escalated from there.

    We’re still not back yet, and in fact we’re nowhere near Florida.

    I just have a few moments after dinner before I help with the filling in process of government forms.

    But why send my PA here at all?

    Shikataganai deshita ne … 🙂

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  12. I read somewhere (I think in Normand Baillairgeon’s Légendes pédagogiques) that meta-analysis indicated that the US method you describe is the absolute worst, yet many are still convinced it is the best method to learn how to read.

    Mi mamá me mima mi mamá me ama.

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