At a Loss for Words: Why millions of kids are poor readers
August 24, 2019 9:12 PM   Subscribe

For decades, schools have taught children the strategies of struggling readers, using a theory about reading that cognitive scientists have repeatedly debunked. And many teachers and parents don't know there's anything wrong with it.
posted by reductiondesign (116 comments total) 63 users marked this as a favorite
 
Interesting article. I guess I was lucky to be taught reading by an old-school Englishwoman who was all about sounds and syllables.

The article got me wondering what good research would find about the best way to learn hieroglyphic or ideographic writing systems.
posted by clawsoon at 9:38 PM on August 24 [7 favorites]


Fascinating. The kid that opens the story exactly narrates how I deal with and process numbers. I am 53 and work as a postman, so the strategy is no longer tenable. In meeting my biological family, this is a known narrowband dyslexic trait in others closely related to me.

I have been told I was a ‘resistant’ reader, but I do not recall it. Pretty much as soon as I learned to read I was repeatedly disciplined for reading too much (not sleeping in order to read and so forth). My recollection is that my reading began in first grade with the Tolkien Ring books.
posted by mwhybark at 9:38 PM on August 24 [9 favorites]


I'm making a game for my youngest who has pretty strong dyslexia to help her with learning key words. The apps that exist are mainly flashcards or intended for children who aren't dyslexic and she loves the idea of having a game built for her particular interests, so it makes a really fun project for us.

Part of that means reading up on dyslexia and spelling, a fairly narrow research field it turns out because spelling is a very specific skill subset of literacy and not as well studied as you might imagine given the sheer amount of teaching time it takes up in children's lives.

The link between phonetics and written characters is so fundamental to spelling, which in turn strengthens reading and writing that it is a knock-on effect to everything else. One of my favourite research notes was about how in English, the vast majority of words do follow fairly strict and regular spelling conventions, especially long English words. And while the vocabulary is larger as you get older and more advanced - kids in older grades are exposed to an estimated 10,000 new words each year - those words are in families, so a new word like "extinguish" would also have extinguishing, extinguishes, extinguished, etc. You could actually cut it down through groupings and related words to about 1,000 new vocabulary words which a kid with strong phonetics can manage.

The challenge is the core starting words that are most used which are very often irregularly spelt because they've inherited historical spellings and have resisted spelling regularisation because they're so widely used. These words need to be learned into longterm memory for speed and that can be very difficult if you have dyslexia without explicit repeat instruction.

Multi-sensory learning like vowel and consonant colours, sandpaper letters etc, word boxes, repetition of alphabet (my kid has again forgotten the alphabet! she learned it before she was a year old and then forgets it pretty much every year. My oldest son who also has dyslexia checks it on his phone still - this is just how it happens), and making sure most of all that their school and teachers are not TOTAL MORONS WHO FORGET TO TEACH USING PHONICS

Sorry, just the idea that people would think it's okay to teach using a discredited for thirty-fucking-years idea to wilfully send kids off unable to read because they can't be arsed to get new school materials and then shame the kids for being slow readers? Damn it.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 9:46 PM on August 24 [36 favorites]


And screw that - the parents may not know but there is no teacher who cannot know that phonics is available and a better method. Every fucking homeschool group has the whole words/phonics debate at some point which rapidly settles into phonics is the default and this might have been acceptable in the 1970s and pre-internet, but this is not that world anymore. This is like a doctor saying let's have a chickenpox party.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 9:48 PM on August 24 [18 favorites]


Wow, this Goodman/Clay stuff just sounds like intellectual snake oil.
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 9:53 PM on August 24 [5 favorites]


Wow, this Goodman/Clay stuff just sounds like intellectual snake oil.

Developing the ideas may have been well intended, but sticking to them despite all evidence surely isn't. It's just ego self-preservation at this point.
posted by gusottertrout at 9:57 PM on August 24 [14 favorites]


About 25 years ago I worked as a support tech in the education faculty at a New Zealand university.

I used to talk to the academic staff as I helped them with their computers and ask them about their work.

I remember very clearly talking to a lecturer who told me bitterly that the founder of the reading recovery programme mentioned in the article juiced her research by the simple expedient of finding ways to exclude children who didn't prosper from her dataset on spurious grounds. Nobody wanted to acknowledge this, he said, because this would mean attacking a local celebrity researcher who had become a global success.

I think about this conversation every time I read an article on failure of "whole language" approaches.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 10:03 PM on August 24 [41 favorites]


Also I can't help but remember how danged credulous a lot of the academic staff seemed. New Zealand had a system of "teachers colleges" which were specialised vocational tertiary institutions and they were kind of ... inbred. Most of them were associated with universities and eventually amalgamated with them. Culturally they were run like schools for kids, authoritarian and without much if any input from other disciplines. So I think it was easy for them to become environments where bad research happened and theories of learning without grounding became dogma. See also "learning styles", and brain gym.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 10:12 PM on August 24 [6 favorites]


I feel like the one insight of the whole-language people, that's really valuable, is that being shit at spelling (because you are shit at phonics, and also because English sucks) should not stop you from enjoying WRITING, that you should worry about the STORY you want to tell, and not so much about the words being perfect. (Which is sort-of the inverse of their main point about reading.) A lot of kids who grew up in phonics-only systems, who were not great spellers, got the joy of writing and creativity beaten out of them by teachers who were super nit-picky about spelling in the service of phonics and so those kids refused to write if they didn't have to, became convinced they were bad writers, and even avoid writing business memos if they can. And as a parent and past school board member (and daughter of a public school reading specialist), it's long seemed to me that part of the love teachers have for whole-language systems is that it keeps kids engaged and creative in WRITING.

I sort-of thing we should be teaching phonics for reading, but taking a very light hand to spelling, like, "This is a good thing to learn but we won't beat you down about it, we're going to have drills and tests and homework but you're not going to get a C on your report card in third grade because 'rough' is a shitty word that's hard to spell" and not grading spelling at all on writing assignments in the elementary years, and reminding students that spell check is a thing.

The other thing is that while there is definitely a "right" way to teach reading that is successful for most students, there are always, in every subject, students who learn in a different way. My husband never learned phonics -- AT ALL -- and basically photographically recognizes words after a single viewing. He can't understand how anyone can't spell, because he sees a word once and knows its visual pattern perfectly, and can recall it when reading and produce it when writing. Like he literally asked one of our kid's first-grade teachers, "But if he's seen the word once, why can't he spell it?" He has tried hard to learn phonics because it's how our kids are taught to read, but he thinks it's -- not exactly nonsense, because he understands the point, but BIZARRE. He thinks sounding out words in SUPER WEIRD, because the sounds in the word have nothing to do with how he recognizes them, which is as entire pictures of each individual word.

Definitely one of the big tensions I saw when on school board was that there's a huge push for differentiated learning, where each child gets stuff appropriate to them, but there's also a huge push for scientific teaching methods, where the One Best Way is how all students are taught, and benchmarks and standardized tests tend to be tied to whatever the current One Best Way is. So you often end up in a situation where the material is differentiated, but the teaching methods are standardized, and that's usually like 85% good, but the 15% who are dyslexic or who have my husband's photographic thing or who think in other unusual ways are not well-served by having differentiated material but standardized teaching. I don't really have a solution for this problem, I have just noted the problem repeatedly over time. Good teachers try to adapt to their students' individual learning methods, but public schools in the US are absolutely drowning their teachers in too many students and too much work, so their ability to adapt is limited by very real time and resource constraints.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:15 PM on August 24 [31 favorites]


I have a pretty distinct memory of learning to "read". I was read a storybook so often I knew the whole story. One day, I figured out this meant I could fake read the book out loud to others. I fake read the book a bunch of times, and somehow in the process actually learned how to read. I'm not saying this is a good teaching strategy necessarily, just thought I would share.
posted by xammerboy at 10:17 PM on August 24 [11 favorites]


Goodman rejected the idea that you can make a distinction between skilled readers and unskilled readers; he doesn't like the value judgment that implies. He said dyslexia does not exist — despite lots of evidence that it does. And he said the three-cueing theory is based on years of observational research.

And this is the guy writing reading textbooks? D:
posted by Quackles at 10:29 PM on August 24 [14 favorites]


Slightly mixed feelings about this. One book that’s stuck with me is E.D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy which argues from a cognitive science perspective that advanced reading comprehension must be grounded in cultural understanding and a theory of mind shared between readers and writers. It made me skeptical of phonics approaches pretty early on, which seems to be the preferred approach in this article. Hirsch built his argument by showing that (for example) readers exhibited wildly different levels of reading comprehension depending on the subjects they were reading about, such as pairs of otherwise-similar passages about Indian vs. American weddings.

His conclusion was that strong readers were those familiar with a high volume of shared touchstones relevant in their literary surroundings like characters, facts, stories, poems, songs, quotations, and histories. He also suggested that school age is a particularly perfect time to crams kids’ heads with such knowledge and that most traditional cultures offered education in the form of enormous volumes of rote memorization for this age to build that literate foundation. Left to their own devices kids will construct this kind of culture for themselves in the form of encyclopedic knowledge of Pokémon, Marvel, Minecraft, and such.
posted by migurski at 10:47 PM on August 24 [17 favorites]


Slightly mixed feelings about this.

Cultural literacy is an entirely different, and hotly contested, issue, with who decides what it culturally important and what isn't and how fixed in importance that knowledge is or should be among the many things disagreed about. (There were some books and articles that provided opposing sets of important cultural touchstones, for example, like Graywolf Annual #5 on Multicultural Literacy. Which is worth checking out if you can find a copy.)

The article is about the basics of learning to read, not advanced reading. It notes cues are useful for the advanced reader, but relying on them to learn how to read can delay or distort understanding of how letters and sounds give pattern to words.
posted by gusottertrout at 11:17 PM on August 24 [21 favorites]


There's so much in early education that is just nonsense that somehow became standardized and then ossified and is now nearly impossible to remove. The obvious things are factual errors in the curriculum that everyone learns and then someday hopefully unlearns, like the taste map on the tongue (no such thing), that the "primary colors" are red, blue, and yellow (they aren't), or any of the weird myths about the national founders that American children are taught; the less obvious but more pernicious things are bad models like the "scientific method" or the overall whitewashed version of US history that American schools teach.

But bad pedagogy like this is the worst: theories about how children learn and/or how teachers can best teach that are outright wrong, and have been known to be wrong for a long time. When my wife was first starting to teach and in training for her teaching certificate, it was clear to both of us that there is an awful lot of misunderstood science or outright pseudoscience that is being taught to educators.


On a related but slightly tangential note, when I co-authored a short commentary piece about another research group's study of baboons performing a "word-recognition" task a few years ago, our paper prompted an "angry" response from a few reading researchers. In our piece, we'd made the point that the study illustrated that the ability to mentally group letters into words as unitary objects ("orthographic processing"), which the phonics proponents view as requiring a step that maps letters to sounds, was something that clearly didn't need any linguistic ability at all, since baboons could be trained to do it. Our interpretation (and that of the research group that did the study) was that this grouping of letters into visual objects could be learned purely using features of the brain's visual system which are evolutionarily ancient within primates.

The reading researchers wrote a response to our commentary chiding us for not recognizing the huge literature showing that learning letter-sound form associations is absolutely necessary for teaching children to read. It was clear to us that for them the issue at stake was more to do with the problems this article describes. Unfortunately, I think the need to debunk this "cuing" approach to literacy education has perhaps led some researchers to overcompensate. For example, it's clear that people who are congenitally deaf are able to learn to read English despite lacking any letter-sound form associations. And of course there are many written languages for which the graphemes don't correspond to sound forms at all.

Exactly as Eyebrows McGee says, there are almost certainly a variety of possible strategies for attaining literacy, and recognizing that different learners may respond best to, or find on their own, varying strategies is important for avoiding situations where teachers can actually hinder learning by forcing a student into a strategy that doesn't work for them.

(Incidentally, when we were writing our commentary together, my boss and I both agreed that if baboons could do this orthographic processing task, crows could probably do it, too. Sure enough, a year or two ago, yet another research group published a study showing exactly that. It was very satisfying.)
posted by biogeo at 11:23 PM on August 24 [47 favorites]


Also, I still have a memory of being five years old in kindergarten, having recently read The Velveteen Rabbit at home with my mom, and being given a worksheet on which I was asked to use a crayon to draw velveteen. I was extremely confused as to how I was supposed to draw just a soft, fluffy material, and I think I ended up just making a sort of yellow scribble. Then when we compared our drawings, I discovered that I was supposed to have drawn a Valentine.
posted by biogeo at 11:31 PM on August 24 [16 favorites]


This article explains a weird thing that happened to me when I finally learned to read at the beginning of 3rd grade, about a year after the school had given up on me.

I couldn't read, but I'd loved comic books from at least the beginning of the 1st grade, and I had boxes full of all kinds of them. One day I was 'reading' a Classics Comic — the Prisoner of Zenda — and I heard talking. I thought it might be the radio, but the radio was off. And it wasn't my parents or sister, but when I came back to the Prisoner I heard it again. It took ridiculous amounts of time that afternoon for me to realize I was hearing the words in the word bubbles of the cartoon panels.

And that was that; after that I could read, and it was a matter of weeks, if it took that long, for me to catch up with the class, and then go beyond it. I couldn't write, I couldn't even form letters, but I could read.

But when I read any kind of actual bound book, and I started with animal stories at the library, I couldn't read pages that had pictures on them unless I covered the pictures up with my hand. It was just impossible, and I think I still had to do that into the 5th grade.

And I think this article led me to an explanation for that:
Margaret Goldberg, a teacher and literacy coach in the Oakland Unified School District, remembers a moment when she realized what a problem the three-cueing approach was. She was with a first-grader named Rodney when he came to a page with a picture of a girl licking an ice cream cone and a dog licking a bone.

The text said: "My little dog likes to eat with me."

But Rodney said: "My dog likes to lick his bone."

Rodney breezed right through it, unaware that he hadn't read the sentence on the page.
I think all that time I had been 'reading' my comic books, I had been narrating them to myself, and that when I really started reading, if I looked at the picture on the page my internal narration would start up and block the internal reading voice.

When I had a chance to look at The Prisoner of Zenda again as an adult (through a link someone posted here), it turned out to be the wordiest, most vocabulary-burdened comic I have ever seen, and the pictures, even if they hadn't been obscured by massive word bubbles, were scarcely capable of carrying the story forward whatsoever.

So if I'd wanted to know what happened in that story, I had no choice except to read it.
posted by jamjam at 11:31 PM on August 24 [29 favorites]


While I'm sure that phonics is the thing for some set of kids, it was torturous and boring for me. My parents read me books, I followed along, it was soon obvious what word went with the spoken ones, I started reading for myself, words not obvious in context I asked them what it meant, and once I had the basics I was introduced to the dictionary. Then I had to sit through so many boring phonics exercises at school.
posted by tavella at 11:36 PM on August 24 [6 favorites]


While I'm sure that phonics is the thing for some set of kids, it was torturous and boring for me.

It was really frustrating for me because I'd already learned how to read, so phonics was as much a deconstruction of a process I didn't learn systematically, but in a more ad hoc fashion of my own which likely involved cuing and some rudimentary sounding out or something. Afterwords, heh, I had to go to a special tutor for a day because I had difficulty enunciating some different letter sounds even though I could read them. P and B, M and N and certain E and I sounds. Still occasionally struggle with the P and B when sounding out words to spell and have some other weird quirks around transitional word placement to this day. But I do think phonics probably helped better nail down some of the more flighty approach to reading I had, even if it was a pain.
posted by gusottertrout at 11:44 PM on August 24 [4 favorites]


A lot of kids who grew up in phonics-only systems, who were not great spellers, got the joy of writing and creativity beaten out of them by teachers who were super nit-picky about spelling

I can understand a harsh teacher making kids not want to write, whatever criteria they emphasize, and I agree with having a relaxed approach. But for a teacher to focus (gradually, patiently) on encouraging good mechanics seems orthogonal to the creativity issue--sometimes even liberating. I remember my cognitive science class going over this study in which 48 undergrads were asked to write poems, and some were told they'd be evaluated on creativity while others were told they'd be evaluated solely on handwriting. But in fact, they were all evaluated on creativity, and the ones who thought they were only being judged on handwriting did the best by far.

I think one problem with relatively clear criteria like spelling and handwriting, though, is that kids sometimes perceive their own issues there. I've definitely seen a kid struggle with this. He hated to write because he could see his letters were not well-formed and realized he didn't know how to spell all the words he'd like to use. That's frustrating by itself, whether teachers are picky about it or not. Fortunately, computers and spellchecker suggestions exist, and for some kids that's a way forward.
posted by Wobbuffet at 11:58 PM on August 24 [7 favorites]


Can I use this to explain to myself why many people regularly respond to things I write in ways that only seem to make sense if they'd read something completely different?

I tend to think they just aren't bothering to read whatever I've said because they're more "waiting to speak" than "listening" as such, and I'm sure that's part of it, but it would also make sense if at least some of the time the issue is that they've misread words and not noticed.

Which of course, can happen to anyone, but I understand the article as saying the 3-cue system can make that sort of occurrence more likely.
posted by Acid Communist at 1:54 AM on August 25 [13 favorites]


I work in technology in this field, but am not a teacher.

My observation is that phonics is like climate change: it's a simple well-demonstrated scientific fact ("phonics is better for learning to read" / "the world is getting warmer because of humans") that's has become a left/right progressive/conservative issue, and thus part of identity and hard to discuss. Beware!

Also, we're dealing with humans and complex systems, so it's super complicated. For example, a school might use phonics successfully to get all their children reading the word sheep, but if the children don't know what a sheep is because they haven't had an upbringing rich enough in information, stories, experiences... well. (You may replace the word "sheep" with one appropriate for your culture).

Having said all that: phonics is the best way to teach reading. Here is a section from the executive summary of the 2006 Rose report on teaching reading in the early years in the UK (my country):
"It is no surprise to find that the main
ingredients for success in the teaching of
beginner readers are: a well trained teaching
force;well designed, systematic programmes
of work that are implemented thoroughly;
incisive assessment of teaching and
learning, and strong, supportive leadership.

"At best, our settings and schools draw upon
these factors and embody the principles of
high quality phonic work within a languagerich
curriculum that gives rise to high
standards of reading and writing. It follows
that the challenge now is to ensure that, in
all settings and schools, the teaching and
learning of early reading and writing in
general, and phonic work in particular,
measure up to this best practice."
Rose report 2006

And on the politics, Kirsty Scott in the Guardian touches on some of the issues: Phonics: lost in translation, The Guardian, 2010
posted by alasdair at 1:58 AM on August 25 [9 favorites]


I spelled Deinonychus in 1st grade and wrote about how it had independently moveable claws which impressed my teacher enough that he wrote a little note on my worksheet (he died of cancer, the class loved him, bless his soul)

But I could not pronounce Deinonychus, getting some accents and some vowel sounds wrong. Also I remember seeing the word "light" on a piece of food packaging at home, and pronouncing it totally wrong phonetically: "li-guh-huh-tuh" and every time the paragraph repeated that word I would whisper "li-guh-huh-tuh".

But that must've been some form of phonics, right? Grade school child trying to sound out unfamiliar words according to some set of rules. It was not until 5th grade that our teacher explicitly taught us phonics.

I've seen ESL students later on are basically taught IPA. I never learned that but my immediate impression was, what a roundabout way of learning because it introduces a whole middle layer of symbols to memorize and map on; eventually you have to internalize the actual English patterns and not the weird dictionary squiggles.

Phonics is great! It's like being told the secret code, and by 5th grade I think the maturity is there to actually understand the supposed system.

The problem though, is that English is not even properly phonetic, which is the big lie of phonics. But my impression is this gets into research issues territory, as opposed to the typical debate where teachers aren't really linguists or scientists and clued into such theoretical questions.

Some researchers say that English is partly phonetic but also morphological, so more attention should be paid to how sounds and spellings interrelate. Adding the morpheme "ed" to make a word past tense is not phonetic, and moreover, phonetic regularity is lower priority than morphological regularity. That's the claim by some linguists.
posted by polymodus at 2:02 AM on August 25 [8 favorites]


Also, if English were phonetic we would be spelling it Inglish
posted by polymodus at 2:13 AM on August 25 [5 favorites]


Wednesday! Wed-nes-day. weeeeed-nessss-daaay. There are so many words that I sound out how they're spelled and I have such a reader's pronunciation that I have had moments where I argue with myself about it when I end up saying a word and getting totally turned around and ending up back on the phonetic (or mutated by my brain and time version of phonetic) pronunciation being right and the wrong (right) one being a blip.

According to my memory, I was a late reader. But according to my best friend who is a current teacher, I apparently was average. What I remember is that I thought I couldn't really read, and then one day in 3rd grade I felt super embarrassed during reading time where we read passages out loud in a circle, and the next few weeks I worked really hard to learn a lot of new words, talking them out and writing them with my mom and older brother. And then, like magic, I could read, and I shot straight from picture books to Narnia and after the Silmarillion over summer break there was no stopping me - books without pictures in them had a lot of dragons in them, like, all the time! And the encyclopedia had a whole section on all the different mushrooms, can you believe?

This article and this mefi thread are both fascinating. I think that in my family, because we're such relentless talkers, I had stored a huge library of meanings but hadn't made enough effort to attach them to spellings. This totally tracks with all my other perfectionism and ease of learning vs reluctance to do any work whatsoever problems. I am willing to bet that my family started me off with phonics and the lackluster Texas school I attended in kindy through 2nd grade did not, but the new school in 3rd probably used one of those balanced approaches mentioned in the article. Back when I was doing professional copywriting and subtitle editing, my secret power was an ability to see typos and doubled words that are so often glossed over. My pattern recognition is pretty dang intense. For me to learn to read with real confidence I must have just needed to focus on the right patterns - and know what those patterns even were to begin with.
posted by Mizu at 2:26 AM on August 25 [7 favorites]


I went through four different school systems in three different countries from kindergarten through third, but I never learnt phonics. I'm pretty certain they weren't introduced at all. This worked very well for me, though to this day, I'm not a fast speller: I have to write some words to be able to see if they are good. In the 4th grade, I started in a class where reading was based on phonics, and they had this (to me) strange accentuated reading style. To me, it was silly: I'd been reading adult books (travelogues and history) during the holidays. I was used to reading for my siblings and doing voices. I couldn't have read like that if I wanted to, but I was bullied by the other kids for reading in the wrong way. Till I read this piece and the comments here, I haven't understood why the teacher didn't help me. Now I can see that she was in a pedagogical dilemma. Differentiated teaching can be hard.

I think the reason learning to recognize each word as a shape worked for me is that I loved reading, from my first book. So I "practiced" a lot. Practice is the core of most learning. When kids have better things to do, reading is harder to learn, regardless of the method. On the other hand, this is purely anecdotal, but because I grew up in a progressive/hippie environment in the sixties and seventies where Summerhill was an ideal, I knew a lot of kids who didn't learn to read at all before they were 13-15 years old and found out it might be a good idea on their own. They are all succesfull in their fields today. It wouldn't be ethical to do the research on this, but it is interesting.

Like Eyebrows McGee's husband, I have struggled with helping my own kids with their reading and spelling, based on phonics. My eldest figured it out herself, but it has been a problem for my youngest who is mildly dyslectic.
I do math wrong as well, but that came in the new, lasting school: the math teacher really got that I am a very visual learner and taught me to draw all the math. She was my angel in many ways, I was often sent out of class for disturbing, and she almost always picked me up and took me to whatever class she was teaching. I teach at university, so adults, but I still try to differentiate my teaching, inspired by Mrs. Soe.

In the end, clawsoon puts it gently: The article got me wondering what good research would find about the best way to learn hieroglyphic or ideographic writing systems. In my experience, a lot of didactic research is not informed by critical questioning. A fair reason for that is that politics weigh heavily in the field, because both parents and politicians worry a lot about the quality of education without having any understanding of how it works. As a consequence, research that can't stand up to critical review can still get funded through politically directed grants.
posted by mumimor at 2:26 AM on August 25 [4 favorites]


I use orthographic processing to "read" words that are really far away, like bus and street signs. It is a useful tool when individual letters are not clearly distinguishable, but clearly not a substitute for actually being able to read.
posted by grumpybear69 at 3:24 AM on August 25 [2 favorites]


Oof, I just tried to summarize this article to a couple English teachers and they responded like I just said the Earth is flat... so yeah. I certainly don't recall learning to read using this method and to me it sounds BUCK WILD but I'd like to dig into the research more before I bring it up again.
posted by davejh at 3:33 AM on August 25 [4 favorites]


Huh. It's interesting to read the above about Phonics being on the same 'team' as climate change, (comment above) as phonics here is something that conservative politicians in Australia use as a "we'll start teaching reading the real way" electoral promise/threat, along with changing the history curriculum. So I've been pretty phonics skeptic, as a teacher, Although looking back I totally learned to read using phonics*.
I am a secondary teacher, and we've recently begun using Fountas and Pinnell, to help us figure out just how weak our struggling readers are as they come to us. The picture of the struggling reader from the article is a lot of my students, though!

The other issue with reading is that after about grade 3, there is usually not any more explicit reading teaching: students are expected to improve their reading as they read more.

Lots to mull over!

*I remember reading being a real struggle, and being given lots of 'readers' to work with over the holidays, until a moment in grade two where it suddenly clicked (like a lens twisting into focus) and the story suddenly flowed. I still remember where I was- sitting in the sun room, reading in the orange hammock. Reading is pretty great!
posted by freethefeet at 3:39 AM on August 25 [2 favorites]


Oh, no, sorry! Phonics is conservative and right, but still true. I didn't explain. Team Phonics is not made of good guys: it includes politicians like Michael Gove. However, it is the right policy if you want to teach children to read.

If English were more phonetic we would have two spellings of the ("the cat" versus "the only cat"), plurals would sometimes be s and sometimes z (cats and dogs) and our many dialects would be more of a problem. So it's okay.
posted by alasdair at 4:28 AM on August 25 [7 favorites]


I think all that time I had been 'reading' my comic books, I had been narrating them to myself, and that when I really started reading, if I looked at the picture on the page my internal narration would start up and block the internal reading voice.

This is what I found interesting about the article - the idea that there are ways of learning to read that are actually harmful.

It seems intuitively obvious that different kids have different ways of learning, and that any approach that gets them actually reading will eventually lead them towards literacy, but the way this article tells it sounds like whole language is teaching some kids to just get better and better at pretending to read. So they seem to be fine, until they can't pretend any more, and then they need to unlearn a whole lot before they can even go back to square one.

I guess it probably doesn't do too much harm to the lucky ones who pick it up easily enough that they don't need to pretend, though.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 4:30 AM on August 25 [4 favorites]


Phonics phirst absolutely, but it's important to recognise that you need to establish other fundamentals of reading at the same time, even though you're only approaching written words through phonics.

Phonetically decoding written words is a vital skill, and it is best taught via phonics, but politicians (and pedagogues with a reading programme to sell) have a tendency to forget that many other "reading" skills need to be taught that are independent of the word decoding process. The ability to grasp, interrogate and manipulate structure and context isn't innate, but it is essential to understanding any text from a lavatory sign to the Bible and back. Those skills need to be both explicitly taught and imparted through extensive reading to children accompanied by discussion and their own storytelling. Look at English state education under the current regime to see how a zeal for phonics (despite the fact that it has been in consistent use for decades) can be used to conceal abandoning teaching children how to engage with texts as a whole.

The underlying flawed assumption of both cueing and the damaging overemphasis on phonics that has been documented in some dysfunctional education systems is the idea that "reading" (or even literacy as a whole) is one skill that can be delivered as a neat package. This is, itself, predicated on the assumption that many taught and learned reading skills are innate. The kinds of privilege that underpin this assumption are, I think, pretty obvious.
posted by howfar at 4:36 AM on August 25 [8 favorites]


Mizu, I still pronounce it Feb-roo-aree instead of Feb-yew-aree because my mother (who was a librarian) would come down SO HARD on any kid who pronounced "library" as "lie-berry". I moved to the UK where the "February" pronunciation seems to be one of those RP class indicator words, so it's just part of my weird patchwork-yank dialect now.

As for whole-word recognition, there was that meme going around several years back where a paragraph of text scrambled all letters of the words except the first and last. If you were a quick reader (as I happen to be) you'd get about two thirds of the way through before internalising that the text had just told you what it did, and you'd squint at the rest and be astonished before breezing through the last third.

It seems to me that word recognition stuff is the foundation of speed-reading, which isn't that related to actually learning to read. I tend to think of it like peripheral vision. Peripheral vision has poor-to-no colour perception, so someone can hold a cloth up to the right of your ear, and it's only when you turn to look directly at it that you suddenly realise it's red. When you turn back, your brain persists the redness and keeps it filled in from some sort of memory.

So word recognition is like peripheral vision: good enough for many things and important in a fast-paced world, but it's the direct forward vision that gets you to learn about what is going on in new systems put before you.

Most of the brand new words that make me stop and resort to phonics-like approaches (often informed by phonetic systems of other languages imported into English) are either scientific terminology (usually a regrettable pastiche of Latin and Greek) or English-on-English neologisms (remember when "blogebrities" made the blue, and everyone said they couldn't help but read it as "bloggy-brights" instead of the blog/celebrity mashup it was intended to be?).
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 4:48 AM on August 25 [5 favorites]


I have a lot of complex feelings about this topic because: I learned to read early so I have no memories of not being able to read or struggling to read in any way, it's like breathing for me; my mom was a Reading Recovery teacher leader, she was really good at it, and she devoted her professional life to the model under fire in this article, and I currently work (in tech) for an organization that follows a more progressive, effective model by the numbers. I don't really have a point but I really enjoyed the article and the commentary in this thread, thanks!
posted by Kwine at 5:53 AM on August 25 [8 favorites]


I learned to read from my mother, who taught me using phonics. By the time I went to school for the first time, I could already read quite well as a result. I don't recall ever learning how to read IN school specifically, though they must have taught us. Maybe I was too busy reading the materials. Either way, phonics worked a treat for me but as with most things, I'm not surprised that it doesn't work for everyone. My mother also taught me grammar by gently correcting my grammar every time I spoke. So I had pretty decent grammar as well. When we finally learned the grammar rules officially (12th Grade!), I found myself getting confused because my knowledge of grammar was kind of visceral rather than academic, if that makes sense?

Learning how to tie my shoelaces tho... now THAT was an ordeal.
posted by some loser at 5:58 AM on August 25 [3 favorites]


The unutterable fuck is this MSV shit?

Cynical brain says that kids are intentionally being taught to be poor readers so they don't do critical thinking with self-guided research by text, but instead just blithely absorb authoritarian bullet points via FOX news, talk radio and hot-take memes. Why can't Sally read? Because then Sally might form opinions of her own.

Same thing with the killing off of liberal arts.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:11 AM on August 25 [10 favorites]


I learned to read in English fairly easily using a somewhat phonics based book (cat, mat, bat) before I went to school.

I'm a test case for whole word, because they tried that with me in primary school for Hebrew school (first two years). They used flash cards for Hebrew words, and it was hopeless for me because I have very little visual memory. The only word I could manage was yayin (wine) because it has a distinctive shape. It's partly that I didn't care, but mostly that they were offering me a ridiculously difficult task.

In the third year, they taught the letter sounds. Hebrew is a phonetic language! No problems with minimal reading after that. I still don't have much vocabulary, but that's a different issue.

I'd never heard of three cues before-- I'm a good reader, and I do use context a lot, but I think it's important to know the sounds, too.

At what age should children be told that there are many theories about teaching reading?
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 6:19 AM on August 25 [2 favorites]


Another critique:
Whole language reading as a pedagogical technique spread like wildfire. It was fanned by two powerful empirical gusts drawn relentlessly by the doldrums of intuition. Firstly, it appeared to work; at least initially. The more difficulty a child has with reading, the more reliant they become on memorisation of texts and the utilisation of word shape and visual and contextual cues and the more fluent they appear, although often paraphrasing and skipping words (Juel et al. 1985). By being taught non-phonological compensatory strategies, poor readers seem to make progress; progress that eventually stalls once they reach seven years old and texts become more demanding, have fewer visual cues and the child’s logographic memory capacity had been reached. By this stage, confident readers have cracked the phonetic code for themselves (Adoniou, 2017) so appear to have mastered reading through ‘whole word’ methods.

Secondly, the method appealed to teachers. Both Smith and Goodman appealed directly to teachers to ignore the gurus and experts, trust their intuition and carry out their own research (Kim, 2008). The theory that reading was, like oral language, intuitive, absolved teachers from having to teach it. This aligned perfectly with the constructivist teaching theories of Dewey (1916) that abounded in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s (Peal, 2014) with the belief that knowledge, including knowing how to read, could be discovered and constructed. This despite Perfetti’s warning that, ‘learning to read is not like acquiring one’s native language, no matter how much someone wishes it were so’ (1991, p. 75). Teaching phonics on the other hand was highly technical, complex and required training, practice and repetition gaining it a reputation for ‘drill and kill’. Whole language methods, with the emphasis on guessing and intuitive learning enabled teachers to abdicate responsibility for the teaching of reading and concentrate on the far more enticing elements of literacy.
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posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 6:37 AM on August 25 [11 favorites]


Well, I feel ill-at-ease. I just clicked away from reading this over to facebook, where an art teacher I know had posted the same article asking reading/literacy teachers to weigh in. Four responded--and every single one of them said that teaching cueing is just fine and the article was wrong. They cited the fact that "we've moved back and forth between phonics and whole word methods several times over the decades" as a reason why it's okay that they're teaching their children this. I asked one if she'd read the article, and she said she did, and disagreed with it--I asked her what part of the studies cited she disagreed with and then she went silent. One said that it was a lack of "oral interaction" and that screens are the reason kids can't read.

Meanwhile, my five year old does this. I'm not sure if it's something she was actively taught (her daycare is mostly play based, with a little letter tracing). She knows her letters and the sounds they make, but 90% of the time, if I ask her to sound out a word, she TOTALLY guesses based on context and the first letter. And she's almost always wrong. Just flat-out incorrect. If I slow her down and make her sound it out, she's right. But I worry that I'm the only one asking her to do this.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:18 AM on August 25 [16 favorites]


The appearance of phonics when I was ten or twelve made me intensely glad that I had a) already learned to read b) without, as far as anyone can remember, anything other than some basic instruction by bored babysitters when I was a toddler. The first word I remember reading was Pluto. Dad was reading me a Disney picture book and all of a sudden, the word was there. I said "Daddy that says Pluto!" and as far as I know, that was pretty much that - I could read. (I am told I did a pretty damn workmanlike job sounding out "Evanston Review" some time prior to that, but I have no memory of that. Sounding words out is actually not how I read.)

But I fully acknowledge that my brain is weird and weirdly optimized for text. Many years later, there was a line in a David Eddings book describing a character who could read by absorbing entire lines at once (and another who could read whole pages at a glance.) I'm not quite that fast - I pick up about a third to half of a line at once. But it has not a goddamn thing to do with phonics or, in fact, language as a means of transcribing sounds at all.
posted by restless_nomad at 7:23 AM on August 25 [4 favorites]


While I'm sure that phonics is the thing for some set of kids, it was torturous and boring for me.

It was for my kiddo, too. She was so bad at it that her teacher recommended she be evaluated, and sure enough, ADHD. She did a summer of tutoring using Orton–Gillingham, which is kind of souped-up phonics combined with rules and multi sensory teaching, and became a fluent reader.

Phonics has been the default in every school I've encountered here in NYC. As an immigrant, I find it astounding that the US let's every little town decide for themselves how to teach children.
posted by snickerdoodle at 7:40 AM on August 25 [4 favorites]


This is why at least half the people who look right at my last name and "read" it turn it into something different, even though it's only two syllables and it follows normal phonetic rules. How can someone look at a name that has no "n" in it and decide it's a name ending in "n?" Well, that's what happens when you're taught to look at the first letter and decide what would make sense.

Of all the good things my mother ever did for me, one of the best may have been to teach me to read using a phonics workbook when I was 3 or 4. She said I was clearly ready to learn and she wanted to make sure I learned phonics after seeing how poorly the "look and say" whole word memorization method of teaching had worked for her younger cousin. I taught my own kids to read with phonics, too. My sister's kids were taught in school using methods like the ones described in the article. No phonics beyond "Look at the first letter and think about what word would make sense."

So many people don't even understand what phonics is. They think phonics instruction means not also reading interesting books, teaching a love of literature, or teaching how to get meaning out of text. Phonics comes before or alongside all of that, not instead of it. But it's a crucial first step. Before you can get meaning out of a text you have to be able to correctly decode the individual words. Reading is phonics. There are people who think they don't use phonics to read but unless you're deaf, if you're a good reader I'm pretty sure you understand phonics; you're just applying it so fast that you don't notice what you're doing. Can you read nonsense words like "ficker" or "prake" or "sissel?" If you can, you're using phonics. The way phonics is taught might sometimes be boring or confusing or too slow for kids who are picking it up easily, just like anything else kids are taught, but that doesn't mean it's not a skill everyone needs.

Some people say English isn't really a phonetic language. Yeah, right. It's true that you can't tell just from looking that "right' is pronounced "rite" or "who" is pronounced "hoo." But is there any chance in the world that either is pronounced like "bat" or "airplane?" No, of course not and we know that because English is a phonetic language. It's just that there are multiple possible sounds for certain letters or letter combinations.
posted by Redstart at 7:48 AM on August 25 [21 favorites]


Phonics also made reading and especially comprehension advancement easier because of etymology. At least that's how it's worked for me. This was late 70s Midwest USA.
posted by fluttering hellfire at 7:58 AM on August 25 [5 favorites]


The appearance of phonics when I was ten or twelve made me intensely glad that I had a) already learned to read b) without, as far as anyone can remember, anything other than some basic instruction by bored babysitters when I was a toddler.
Yeah, I also taught myself to read before I started school, and I think phonics drills would have been torture for me. But I think that part of the problem is that people like you and me are a pretty small portion of the overall population, but because we're often avid readers who care about reading, we're overrepresented in the people who weigh in on this stuff. It pains me to argue that schools should do things that will make them even more unfriendly to kids who resemble tiny kindergarten me, but I also think that schools need to attend to the needs of the majority, and most kids are better off being taught phonics.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 8:08 AM on August 25 [10 favorites]


My husband never learned phonics -- AT ALL -- and basically photographically recognizes words after a single viewing.

I appreciate that your husband specifically is none of my business, but I always wonder how people who learned reading this way approach being asked to write down a word they've only ever heard and not seen.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 8:13 AM on August 25 [3 favorites]


I also think that schools need to attend to the needs of the majority, and most kids are better off being taught phonics.

Oh absolutely, I was intending to say more "There's a lot of variation in brains and espousing a One True Way is always going to leave people out in the cold", which is the bigger-picture problem in US schools.
posted by restless_nomad at 8:16 AM on August 25 [2 favorites]


Haven’t read all the comments, so forgive me if I’m retreading what others have said. I have a master’s degree in teaching. This article is bullshit. Like virtually every article about reading instruction I’ve read online recently, it trots out the well-worn false dichotomy between using contextual strategies and using phonics to read. Guess what? Good readers use both!

The article criticizes balanced literacy for teaching reading strategies when in fact the “balanced” in balanced literacy means that it incorporates both intentional phonics instruction and comprehension strategies.

Based on my many years of experience, I will tell you that many kids who have had strong phonics-only instruction can read every word on the page but don’t necessarily “get” the whole story. And contrarily I have some students whose comprehension is strong but whose phonemic awareness is not that great (these students actually tend to do fine in reading, they just suck at spelling). Good teachers are first and foremost teaching kids that reading is a *thinking* process that deeply engages many parts of your brain in a variety of strategies to make meaning of the text.

I don’t teach the “three cues” in isolation with a cutesy chart, because that’s not a good way for kids to internalize any lesson. Instead, I model how to *use* strategies, how to ask questions as I read, and how to visualize what’s happening in the story. I also model how I sound out words. I *also* have many, many conversations with kids where we make sense of the story based on what we know about narrative conventions, what we are noticing, what the characters are doing, etc.

Reading is intellectually complex work. Teaching is also incredibly complex, nuanced work. I hate articles that make a straw man out of the methods of dedicated educators who are attending to that nuance in order to sell an oversimplified pet theory.
posted by mai at 8:33 AM on August 25 [18 favorites]


Phonics and phonetics are different things though. Phonics is one invented model to interpret certain results of linguistics research. Written English also has morphology which is like a micro-grammar. Also, English is like merely 50% phonetic, and not very phonetic compared to other foreign languages.

The idea that phonics is scientifically necessary is not obvious, either. Chinese is not phonetic (actually that not quite true), does that mean Chinese is a bad language for children? Proponents of phonetics aren't really interested in basic science but rather a narrow question of what seems to work better.
posted by polymodus at 8:46 AM on August 25 [4 favorites]


Haven’t read all the comments, so forgive me if I’m retreading what others have said.

Oh dear, you might want to read the comments, as you are the only one who thinks this article is bullshit. I thought it was a great illustration as to why we need to actually test pedagogy once in a while so that we don't do something stupid like fail kids by teaching them to read in exactly the worst way possible just because "that's how we've always done it" The scientist at the end who refuses to even believe in dyslexia was a nice touch. Really shows how some teachers get calcified and refuse to acknowledge that maybe the way they were taught to teach might not be the right way.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 8:56 AM on August 25 [8 favorites]


I model... how to ask questions as I read, and how to visualize what’s happening in the story. I also model how I sound out words. I *also* have many, many conversations with kids where we make sense of the story based on what we know about narrative conventions, what we are noticing, what the characters are doing, etc.

The kinds of things you're talking about are the things my kids' school does in later grades, long after the "pre literacy" work of phonics is introduced. They then move to simple c/v/c words, learning about blending. Then it's "explode the code". Only then did the kind of things you're talking about get introduced.

Interestingly, I recognized what the article described as cuing because that's what my kids instinctively did when they "read" books before they started learning to read at school. It didn't help them at all, and I remember telling them not to guess because it was preventing them from reading.
posted by snickerdoodle at 8:56 AM on August 25 [5 favorites]


mai, it's not possible to use three cueing strategies with a phonics-based strategy. As the article says:
But she's come to understand that cueing sends the message to kids that they don't need to sound out words. Her students would get phonics instruction in one part of the day. Then they'd go reader's workshop and be taught that when they come to a word they don't know, they have lots of strategies. They can sound it out. They can also check the first letter, look at the picture, think of a word that makes sense.

Teaching cueing and phonics doesn't work, Sajous-Brooks said. "One negates the other."
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:26 AM on August 25 [6 favorites]


I think I understand where mai is coming from, regarding the ability to read letters without actually comprehending what is being 'read'.

Some rambling personal history. I first learned to read the Western alphabet in Spanish. I don't have clear memories of learning to read, it just seemed once I was in school I could read and write. Then we went back to Korea and I had to learn to read and write in Hangeul. Then we ended up in a Spanish-speaking country again when I was in 3rd grade, and although I could 'read' Spanish text perfectly, I had no idea what I was reading. I had forgotten all my Spanish while retaining the ability to read the Western alphabet as is done for Spanish. At this point i was also learning English in school, with half of my schoolwork in Spanish and half in English. I even had math class twice a day, with one taught in Spanish and one taught in English. When reading English, I was using both phonics and the cueing approach - that is, unfamiliar words were sounded out in my head as if they were written in Spanish, but I'd try to guess the meaning of the word, and the text I was reading, from various cues. Also for some reason for English I have the photographic perception of words described above, so I only have to see it once to retain what it looks like. I don't have this photographic memory for words in my other languages, Korean, Spanish, and Portuguese. For whatever it's worth, I managed to score 800 in the verbal section of the GRE back in the pencil-and-paper test days.

Personally I think a phonics-based approach works well for languages like Korean or Spanish, where the mapping between spoken and written words is quite regular. With English, where spelling seems much more idiosyncratic, retaining snapshots of the words feels much more efficient? than trying to remember spelling rules.
posted by research monkey at 9:37 AM on August 25 [1 favorite]


I'm a first-grade teacher in California, and we've been using phonics-based programs for 20 years, and we've used SIPPS for the last 5 or so. My kids who come in to first grade already reading get reading groups with activities and discussion. My kids who need to learn to read get SIPPS at their level with a reading specialist. If they don't progress we look at special Ed services. This controversy doesn't exist anymore in southern California public schools afaik.
posted by Huck500 at 9:40 AM on August 25 [7 favorites]


I also taught myself to read, using a phonics based method, before I started school. And sure learning phonics would have bored me senseless, but I didn't need whole language either. What I needed was to be allowed to read what I wanted (I liked advanced books so it didn't have to be forced on me to stretch myself) and the rest of the class could learn how to read without me. The advanced kids should not be setting the curriculum for everyone, nor do they need to follow it exactly when it doesn't work for them.

I never quite understood the fight, because obviously you don't want to just use phonics to inculcate a live of reading, since it won't, but it is a necessary part, not whole. (Taking linguistics later was a revelation of stuff I had sussed out or drawn from French, which had grammar taught to me, unlike English in my entire primary and secondary schooling.)
posted by jeather at 9:48 AM on August 25 [2 favorites]


I used to follow this blogger who eventually started homeschooling, and she completely separated out writing stories or essays from both spelling and practicing writing letters. It was a really interesting thing, because of course at five or seven you can talk much more fluently than you can write, so this avoided slowing down the essay skills based on other factors. I see why it would be hard in a classroom, though.
posted by jeather at 9:58 AM on August 25 [1 favorite]


Why read all the comments, when you can guess what they say by looking at the picture?
posted by heatherlogan at 10:06 AM on August 25 [35 favorites]


I'm a university math teacher, which is as far as one can get from an ECE reading instructor while still being an active-duty educator, but this still seems to have an impact I can observe. When teaching our intro-to-higher-math class (every university has something like this, where there's a first course in learning how to construct and comprehend proofs), I run into a number of difficult-to-articulate inabilities students have, some of which seem to be issues peculiar to math, but a few of which I broadly class under "functional illiteracy" --- that they straight-up don't understand, and don't seem to be capable of constructing, sentences where the precise meaning and order of words has significance. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that this difficulty traces back to a teaching method which emphasizes coping strategies over certainty.
posted by jackbishop at 10:33 AM on August 25 [15 favorites]


I am wondering if this is related to the chronic internet problem of people who both can't understand tone/nuance/specificity in conversation and also can't understand that people are reading their typed words, not magically intuiting their intent. It sure does sound like an explanation.
posted by restless_nomad at 10:37 AM on August 25 [14 favorites]


Literacy scholar and researcher here. And teacher. Emily Hanford is doing nothing but trying to stoke another reading war in her "reporting" on this. At least in this article she cited some research--OH WAIT, ALMOST EVERYTHING SHE CITED IS FROM BEFORE 2000--but in lots of others she just writes about one principal with one teacher that didn't know how to blend whole language and phonics, WHICH IS THE BEST WAY TO TEACH READING to most people. Of course some need more of one than another. Wonder why Hanford isn't publishing in peer-reviewed scientific journals of reading or literacy or educational research? Think about it. She isn't citing from the leading journals, either: JLR, JOLLE, AERA, RRQ, etc.

But this basically anecdotal thing of teachers don't know how to teach reading is wrong on a few levels. And why aren't enough 3rd graders on level? Inconsistency, poverty, defunded schools, journalism like this, standardized testing, deprofessionalizing the teaching profession, changing curricula and standards every few years, colonialism, and dominant cultures and hegemonies, to name a few.
posted by Snowishberlin at 10:38 AM on August 25 [19 favorites]


I don't think I need to read every comment in a metafilter thread to be able to have something worthwhile to say about a field in which I have fifteen years of professional experience.

My disagreement with the article is not about the particulars of the "three-cuing" method. I agree that, taught in isolation, this isn't good pedagogy.

My disagreement is with the way the article paints a bunch of educators as anti-phonics when those same educators have whole chapters in their books dedicated to how to teach phonics effectively. I think it's a trick that a lot of educational theorists use to get attention - paint an oversimplified picture of someone else's methods so you can come in with your own simplistic method as a solution.

But while we're on the subject of the limitations of phonics instruction, ask a child to sound out "choir." A child who isn't paying any attention to context might say "cho-ire" and be confused. Phonics alone isn't going to help them get to comprehension. But if the sentence says, "the students were singing in the choir," then context is a big help. The point isn't to ignore phonics, it is to teach strategies that supplement it.

It wouldn't surprise me to learn that this difficulty traces back to a teaching method which emphasizes coping strategies over certainty.
Actually I would describe the problem a different way. I would say that a lot of teaching over-relies on skills in isolation rather than encouraging students to think about the meaning of the whole.
posted by mai at 10:39 AM on August 25 [12 favorites]


This is really just a subset of the whole vast array of completely-disproved theories and methods that are widely taught in education theory, used in the classroom, and even the basis for teacher evaluations. In my experience, most of my most effective colleagues are those who came from the field they teach (not elementary), rather than those who got education degrees.

Many of these zombie theories and practices sound sensible and people relate to them, so they stick around long after they've been proven to be complete BS.

That said, an equal proportion of the ed research is also unmitigated nonsense, tried out in lab conditions on a ludicrously small sample size, and with poor controls.


Separately, my experience with my own children learning to read is that some kids are just polar opposites, which is why you get the collection of "phonics worked for me/ruined it for me" and "whole word is great/awful" comments above. My son is almost helpless at phonics and simply memorizes words, and tries to read at a ballistic pace, understanding be damned. My daughter carefully sounds things out word by word if necessary, and speeds up only when she knows all of them. Both eventually became good readers, but got there by very different pathways.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 10:39 AM on August 25 [2 favorites]


In my experience, most of my most effective colleagues are those who came from the field they teach (not elementary), rather than those who got education degrees.
What does "come from the field they teach" even mean in the context of this discussion? The field in question here is teaching reading. There are no people more experienced at teaching reading than elementary school teachers. If you believe that expertise comes from experience in the field, then you should be deferring to them, right?
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 11:23 AM on August 25 [2 favorites]


Snowishberlin, you have brilliantly articulated what I felt, but didn't dare to write because it isn't my field. Not least this: Inconsistency, poverty, defunded schools, journalism like this, standardized testing, deprofessionalizing the teaching profession, changing curricula and standards every few years, colonialism, and dominant cultures and hegemonies, to name a few. This is why parents and politicians love the various quick fixes. Improving literacy is hard, and thus expensive, and no one wants to hear that. So you can build a career offering simple solutions and facile criticism of those teachers who are doing the work.

I appreciate that your husband specifically is none of my business, but I always wonder how people who learned reading this way approach being asked to write down a word they've only ever heard and not seen.
I answered this above: writing can be hard if you learnt whole words. What I don't do is phonics. Whole word doesn't mean I've learnt all the words in all the languages I speak, it means I've learnt visual forms of many words and I can mostly figure out how to spell them from context: if I heard sort/sought for the first time, in most cases I'd be able to figure out which it was from the grammatical context. An example of a word I've struggled with for ages is hegemony. It's an absurdly simple word, from a phonetic point of view, but until I had seen it in writing in several different contexts, I had no idea what to do with it.
posted by mumimor at 11:44 AM on August 25 [1 favorite]


One of the key problems with teaching reading based on context is that it points almost directly to many other associated problems around the influence of children's backgrounds on how they learn. Cues by context by necessity favor children who come from vocabulary rich background, where they've been exposed to more words in use and can then basically work backwords using their memory of a word's use to apply it a sentence they are unfamiliar with. To guess the what the word "choir" might mean from context, you first have to have some idea of what a choir is. Children who haven't heard the word previously have no context to fall back on.

The article doesn't argue against context for more advanced reading, it is saying that for learning the building blocks of reading phonics is the better method. For either method the importance of relying on truly simple and common words to develop comfort with reading seems imperative. Trying to teach basic reading by use of exceptional words in spelling and/or use seems like clear path to frustrating students and making the whole process feel like a rule less chore. (Chore, incidentally, being what I imagine I'd have thought "choir" spelled from context as that's what singing was to me.)
posted by gusottertrout at 11:59 AM on August 25 [3 favorites]


I don't think I need to read every comment in a metafilter thread to be able to have something worthwhile to say about a field in which I have fifteen years of professional experience.

Certainly not. But there is an irony that the criticism of the "cueing" approach to literacy education is precisely that it encourages students to rely more on their inferences and expectations than on the literal content of what is written, and this is exactly what your comment did with regards to the content of the discussion thread about the article. Your professional experience is a very valuable contribution to the discussion, but your argument that the article is "bullshit" is slightly undercut by demonstrating a (much more sophisticated version of) the very error that the article claims that the cueing approach encourages.

In fact I'd suggest that the teaching method you describe that you use is quite different from what the article describes as being problematic. You sound like a really good teacher, and if the approach you describe is characteristic of the holistic approach to reading education that teachers actually use, then I think we're in good hands. But the article describes something rather different:
Adams thought this diagram [of the three-cueing model] made perfect sense. The research clearly shows that readers use all of these cues to understand what they're reading.

But Adams soon figured out the disconnect. Teachers understood these cues not just as the way readers construct meaning from text, but as the way readers actually identify the words on the page. And they thought that teaching kids to decode or sound out words was not necessary.
(My emphasis.) In other words, the article claims that Adams observed that teachers used the three-cueing model as a replacement for true orthographic processing, and cites other evidence to support this. Now, I have no idea how prevalent this actually is, and you may be right that no teachers actually think this way. But I do know that when my wife was teaching middle school and high school (and even in her current tutoring of high school students), there were certain kinds of errors that some of her students frequently made that were very puzzling to her, which we would talk about. If some of her students were originally taught to read using the cueing model as described in the article, though, some of these errors make a lot of sense.
posted by biogeo at 12:10 PM on August 25 [12 favorites]


What does "come from the field they teach" even mean in the context of this discussion? The field in question here is teaching reading

That's why I specified not elementary. The point was that education programs actively teach false information (which was the entire point of the linked article), so the most effective teachers outside the elementary level often did not start their career with them. Within elementary schools, that's not really possible, so you get problems like the ones described in the article.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 12:14 PM on August 25 [1 favorite]


I teach at a state university, and have wondered whether students in my region aren't taught enough phonics/ are provided ways to duck nailing it down. Many of them, when they run into a long/weird unfamiliar new term, will mumble out some random guess of a word with the same first letter and then shrug and try to move on when they find they're off base, or try their hardest to evade dealing with the word somehow, and when I'm like "sound it out?" they look at me like they have no idea what I'm suggesting. It's like they're trapped at some level of particular level of literacy and will not learn to read new words except under extreme duress. Also can't proofread to save their lives-- if it has the right first and last letters and the spellchecker isn't flagging it, it's good to go. A lot of approaches might work in the first grade and I appreciate the blended strategy at an early level, but god give me college students who somewhere along the way had a good phonics foundation, because, you know, some of the books we read don't have pictures.
Maybe related: many students at my school are also petrified of any foreign language requirement and will move heaven and earth to get into a major program that doesn't include any.
posted by Capybara at 1:00 PM on August 25 [8 favorites]


I was taught, in school, to deduce the meaning of unfamiliar words from context. So I used that technique for years. Then a friend (trained in early childhood education) asked me if I knew the exact meaning of words I'd learned using "context clues." I realized that honestly, most of the time I had only a vague idea what the word meant or had guessed entirely wrong.

So now, when I read books in my second, weaker language, and I come across a word that is not in my vocabulary, I look it up in the dictionary. I re-read an old favorite in this language and was dismayed at how many words I'd just plain not understood. Sure, I understood the story and what was going on, but I was missing those key words, and they added a whole level of nuance. So, so much for context clues, imo.

My mother taught me to read, before I entered school, using phonics. I still remember the book where it clicked - Berenstain Bears. I was not looking at the pictures to learn the words. I was going "s... s... sis-ter b... bear...."

And it worked.
posted by Crystal Fox at 1:30 PM on August 25 [1 favorite]


your argument that the article is "bullshit" is slightly undercut by demonstrating a (much more sophisticated version of) the very error that the article claims that the cueing approach encourages.

In fact I'd suggest that the teaching method you describe that you use is quite different from what the article describes as being problematic.


I didn't say that I hadn't read the article. I said I hadn't read all the comments (I read about half of them).

The teaching method I describe myself using is the method advocated by Lucy Caulkins, Fountas and Pinnell, and other balanced literacy advocates. These are exactly the experts that the article is arguing against, this is exactly the method that the article is claiming is unsound.

The examples given in the article don't sound like good teaching, but my point is that those examples of poor teaching are being used as a stand-in for an entire body of knowledge about how we teach reading, and used as an argument to reject that body of knowledge. Even though there is a lot of evidence that when readers attend to both comprehension and phonetic strategies, they grow more as readers than if only attending to either set of strategies in isolation.

Absolutely any teaching method is going to suffer from being misapplied by poor practitioners. I don't think the balanced literacy approach is too complicated for most teachers to do successfully. But either-or debates about methodology don't help.
posted by mai at 2:27 PM on August 25 [6 favorites]


I teach at a state university, and have wondered whether students in my region aren't taught enough phonics/ are provided ways to duck nailing it down. Many of them, when they run into a long/weird unfamiliar new term, will mumble out some random guess of a word with the same first letter and then shrug and try to move on when they find they're off base, or try their hardest to evade dealing with the word somehow

As someone who can sound things out I cannot imagine a worse time than trying to sound out a new word in front of my entire class, especially as it is likely to be multisyllabic and so figuring out the stress would also be a pain. Oh god I am shuddering just imagining this.
posted by jeather at 2:28 PM on August 25 [2 favorites]


Clearly instead of spelling bees, we need reading bees, students competing to read unpronounceable words and sentences.
posted by polymodus at 2:37 PM on August 25 [2 favorites]


That's an excellent idea, Nyarlathotep.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 2:52 PM on August 25 [4 favorites]


Big Bird might agree.
posted by Wobbuffet at 3:43 PM on August 25 [2 favorites]


I don't remember being taught to read but this thread has made me think how I read, which suddenly made reading more difficult. I recognise word shapes and read faster than most people I know, but I remember telling my mother about a book I read when I was 7, about orgies, which surprised her and we finally worked out the word was ogre, and I had not known a phonetic option for dealing with the unusual "re" ending. My father died soon after that and I moved to a tiny 2-room school, where the long-time teacher there invested hours in teaching latin & greek roots which assisted in my comprehension of unfamiliar words. I also had to stand outside with Karen [no friend of mine] and recite out spelling words loud enough so he could hear from the classroom upstairs. I hated the shame and put more effort into my homework. In grade 8, I did not know how to spell fiancee for one of the stories I wrote for English, and my teacher said I should have looked it up in the dictionary, but starting with the "fee" sound, there was no way I was going to find it. In Grade 10, I corrected my (different) English teacher's correction of my spelling of "indomitable" - luckily she was good natured and I had a dictionary in my hand.

With my kids(about 24 years later) the oldest learned to read by playing a computer game that made you match a word label like "dog" with the picture of one. There were multiple options, so I hate to think how much trial and error he had to go through, in order to match the label and the image and then remember the correct label the next time.

His sister found that she didn't need to read because her brother could, and she also memorised the words out of favourite story books so I thought she could, but she entered remedial reading classes when she was 7 with lovely patient teacher's aide (and while I was meant to support with home reading, both my daughter and I got frustrated with each other and I probably did more harm than good). My son's reading skills jumped ahead when Harry Potter came out (all the boys at school were raving about it) and by Grade 7, my daughter's reading and writing ability resulted in winning a statewide essay competition.

Son (who is starting an editing/proofreading course) and I play scrabble on line, and though I am 23 years older than him, with years of reading academic articles and whopping the pants off most other scrabble players, we maintain a 50:50 ratio in wins/losses after over 100 games. My daughter is in the process of finishing her PhD.

If I have a point, I guess that there are different ways people learn, different ways they are motivated and damn, being literate and having literate children is one of the great joys of my life.

Also surprised that the 4 resources model developed by Freebody & Luke is not part of this discussion, because it seems to mix all the strategies together in a useful model.
posted by b33j at 3:51 PM on August 25 [2 favorites]


Something that was briefly mentioned up thread but not elaborated on much how deaf students would have no use for phonics as there is no sounding out involved for reading the words are what they are without necessarily having a sound file attached, so to speak. For most students the working assumption is that their spoken/heard vocabulary is the primary way they categorize the world of things and concepts, so phonics is a way of leveraging that knowledge to inform their reading by association.

Spoken language and written language aren't the same thing though, and aren't processed in the same ways. You can know a word in writing that you have never heard pronounced and understand it perfectly well. You can also have "double files" where you know what a spoken word means and what a written one means, but you don't connect the two. Voila! was one of those words for me for the longest time. I understood it's use in both contexts, but didn't connect the pronunciation to the spelling, so I didn't really have a "sound file" for the written word as it didn't need one any more than say a proper name might from an unfamiliar language. Which is also relevant to many words, like voila, in that the context I understood it by in both written and spoken language was only that of popular culture in the US. The meaning of the word in French wasn't involved at all until I finally bothered to look into it later.

Understanding is generally going to fit a need to know model. If you don't feel you need it, or at least want it, you aren't going to learn and retain the information well. Students not primed to want to understand and learn, or who don't carry a big storehouse of words and concepts with them to class aren't going to be well equipped to learn by any model as they don't have the same foundation to aid them.

Some teachers I had and I'm sure many that still exist today could miss the point of phonics or other ways of learning by failing to connect the purpose to the practice of the endeavor. Pronunciation in itself doesn't aid reading, it has to be connected to knowing the meaning of the words as they are spoken and then linking the two ways of understanding together. From that you begin to be able to access ideas from more and more formats that will continue to expand your knowledge if you choose to pursue that goal. Or that's how I tend to think of it anyway.
posted by gusottertrout at 3:53 PM on August 25 [3 favorites]


I wonder how phonics vs. cueing affects learning of emojis. Perhaps learning phonics in grade one is what's holding me back from knowing what the hell all those tiny pictures mean.
posted by clawsoon at 4:03 PM on August 25 [3 favorites]


It would be really interesting to know how early-childhood reading is taught in Japan, which has both phonetic (hiragana/katakana) and whole-word-symbolic (kanji) writing systems. I know that in comic books for kids, the kanji in speech bubbles are typically glossed with their phonetic pronunciations in small type right beside them.
posted by heatherlogan at 4:07 PM on August 25 [1 favorite]


The problem with talking about "reading" is it's such a multifaceted skill that for the purposes of this discussion it's somewhat vague. I understand this article to be primarily talking about orthographic processing, that is, the way that readers process the sequence of letters on the page into a visual word-form that is a unique object with properties derived but distinct from the letters that make it up. This is a distinct question from reading comprehension, which encompasses how the reader understands the meaning of both the individual words as well as the higher order semantics of the text.

The idea that using contextual cues of various sorts to assist in reading comprehension is beneficial doesn't seem to be controversial. The question is whether using contextual cues for orthographic processing may actually be harmful. The article cites considerable scientific evidence (much of which is more recent than 2000, contrary to what Snowishberlin asserted above; those more recent references are just hidden in the footnotes) that it is because doing so actually allows students to skip the orthographic processing step entirely in the elementary texts they use when first learning, a strategy that ultimately fails when they move to more advanced texts.

I understand the article to be claiming that Caulkins, Fountas, and Pinnell still adhere to the tradition that advocates for the use of "three cues" in the orthographic processing step, even if they now also all include phonics as an additional strategy. The article cites at least one researcher as well as individual educators who claim that they have observed that teaching cueing alongside phonics essentially negates that strategy, as many students will still learn to avoid orthographic processing entirely. If this is not the case, and in fact these authors advocate only for the use of contextual cues for reading comprehension rather than word recognition, then it's really unfortunate that they all declined to be interviewed for the article. (Frankly I think it's unfair of Snowishberlin to attack Hanford's motives in writing this article when the "other side" refused to give their perspective when asked; of course it ended up being relatively one-sided.)

I should also emphasize that I'm no partisan of phonics. I think it's generally a simplistic way of thinking about reading (or, really, orthographic processing) that doesn't map onto English writing all that well. The mapping between orthography and phonology in English is so irregular that its irregularity needs to be emphasized from the very beginning. What is demonstrably true is that actually acquiring the skill of orthographic processing is essential for fluent literacy, and phonics at least has the advantage of teaching children to focus on what is actually written on the page rather than using contextual cues to skip processing the written words whenever possible. Now in the (relatively common) case of dyslexia, orthographic processing may be intrinsically impeded, and individuals need alternative strategies for getting meaning from written text. In this case it may be that cueing is actually superior to phonics, although I'm not convinced this is true either. But certainly teaching all children to read the way dyslexic readers do is not doing anyone any favors, and that seems to be the main point of the article.
posted by biogeo at 4:12 PM on August 25 [9 favorites]


I grew up reading books and can’t recall ever struggling to read in grade school. I think the main component was practice. I’m lucky that the methods my teachers used worked for me, so all my reading time was truly practice time, rather than reinforcing feelings of frustration or inadequacy.

At the same time, I have had plenty of experience with struggling to read texts. When I was a kid, I got abruptly plunked into a Spanish-speaking school, when I hardly knew a word of Spanish. Even though I quickly learned the rules of reading and writing (which are perfectly regular and easy to memorize), and I could therefore read any text and take dictations better than most native speakers, I had a huge deficiency when it came to knowing the meaning of the words I was dealing with. I’d simply never been exposed to many Spanish words.

When I read an unfamiliar word, I could guess the meaning from context, if I understood most of the words around it (or, indeed, if I was reading a picture book). But if it was a dense advanced text with lots of unfamiliar words (say on history or biology) I’d really struggle to keep any sense of what was going on, despite being able to “read” and “write” perfectly. I could churn through the words mechanically, but meaning sometimes totally eluded me. Fortunately, this experience didn’t negatively impact my self esteem. Since I already knew that I was a good learner in English, and I knew I could read and write in Spanish, I inferred that my issue was simply with word familiarity in Spanish.

I feel like the article could have gone into this aspect. Reading isn’t about words, it’s about meaning. The fewer words you know, the harder it’s going to be to use any of the techniques mentioned. You can’t guess a word you don’t know. You can sound out a word you know, but knowing its pronunciation isn’t going to be much more helpful than knowing its spelling if you’ve never heard the word before. I guess that’s why they have the concept of “grade level” texts in school, to ensure that readers are familiar with most of the words. But still, I learned a huge proportion of the English words I know from reading. People who can’t read well are missing out on this avenue for learning words. Hopefully they have ample opportunities to listen to more advanced speakers, in order to learn more words that way.
posted by mantecol at 4:14 PM on August 25 [2 favorites]


As I recall written Chinese is taught by brute force memorization, plus a pseudotheory of how some root shapes (called radicals) semantically and sonically combine to make compound characters. It's a pseudotheory in that the combinations are heuristics, thus not a formal theory with precise rules. The memorization is accomplished by K-12 writing booklets where students write dozens of the same new vocabulary and character over and over, every week.
It raises an interesting question, is the Chinese written language efficient because the characters serve to differentiate homophones (which are frequent in Chinese and related languages) and allow concise written sentences? Or is written Chinese inefficient because it is not phonetic and costs too many brushstrokes and "memory overhead"? I don't think anyone has definitively answered that, even though today we have so much computer power to do this kind of information theoretic analysis.
posted by polymodus at 4:34 PM on August 25


It's interesting that 40% of all kids will learn to read regardless of what method they are taught by. And here at least, about 7% are dyslectic and get special education. So from an efficiency point of view research should be focused on the 53% in the "middle", though that middle is probably a very diverse group, with very different learning challenges.

I've noted that practice is not a focus, in the article or in the comments, and I wonder why. I've discussed this a lot with my sister-in-law who is a reading expert in elementary school (here is Denmark), and she focuses a lot on practice, while using different methodologies to reach the individual kids.
One of the subjects I teach is design, where there are some of the same issues within theoretical didactics. A lot of design education theorists want to find methodologies that somehow magically work without practice. If I project from my design-teaching experience, I'd say that you should be able to teach all of the 53% and some of the 7% with vigorous practice. But I know people who attend design classes to some degree self-select toward personal ambition, even when they are not design students.

I mentioned above that writing is not easy for me. It's not bad either, and I think the reason it isn't was a really harsh practice regime in school, where we had hard spelling and grammar exercises twice a week from fourth (where I entered the school) till ninth. Now, knowing about education budgets, I realize it must have been a huge investment. Think of the hours our teacher must have spent correcting every single assignment. And then we also had free form essays, group assignments and literature for her to prepare and evaluate. We worked hard, but she worked incredibly hard.

In a book on the architect Mies van der Rohe's teaching, the author claims that every school creator is autobiographical. I am obviously aware that academic education tries to free us from our experience so we can do better, but I also think there are elements we bring along with us as we teach. Mine is probably practice.
posted by mumimor at 4:52 PM on August 25 [2 favorites]


> It would be really interesting to know how early-childhood reading is taught in Japan, which has both phonetic (hiragana/katakana) and whole-word-symbolic (kanji) writing systems.

In South Korea we also use a mix of phonetic Hangul and hanja (Chinese characters or kanji when used for Japanese), although hanja use seems to be decreasing over the years. When I was in elementary school, reading instruction was strictly in Hangul, and followed a phonics approach when initially teaching associating sounds with letters. Hanja instruction started in middle school, initially with brute force memorization of the simpler characters, which formed the basis for learning the more complex characters, as the simpler characters were the 'radicals' as described by polymodus above. Ihere was a lot of repetition writing in workbooks. In high school you were expected to be able to read poetry and passages from pre-Hangul Korean texts, which were all written in hanja. I'm not as familiar with the hanja requirements in schools these days.

In daily life, it was almost impossible to read a newspaper without knowing hanja, as words which came from Chinese / traditionally written in hanja were printed in hanja with only native Korean words written in Hangul. In the case of printed books aimed at adult readers, the typical approach was to write all the text in Hangul, but for certain words also include the hanja in parentheses. In the case of hanja loan words, words with different meanings are phonetically spelled the same in Hangul, so including the hanja prevents ambiguity. These days I rarely see hanja in newspapers, and I get the impression it's not as necessary to learn hanja to get by.
posted by research monkey at 5:22 PM on August 25 [3 favorites]


My husband never learned phonics -- AT ALL -- and basically photographically recognizes words after a single viewing.

I appreciate that your husband specifically is none of my business, but I always wonder how people who learned reading this way approach being asked to write down a word they've only ever heard and not seen.


I’m kind of like this - I more or less read via recognizing whole words or even taking in most of a sentence at once. I definitely don’t look at individual letters, but I can tell when a word is spelled incorrectly because it just looks obviously wrong, though I don’t necessarily know how to spell it correctly.

The kind of situation you ask about doesn’t really happen, because I’ve learned most words by reading and not by hearing them. I was one of those kids who mispronounced words all the time because I only knew them from books (I remember being really embarrassed that I said fat-i-goo once for fatigue). That said, if someone said a word I didn’t know I could write down a phonetic spelling. I do know what sounds letters make and can sound out unfamiliar words, it’s just not something that I normally need to do.

Additionally, If I don’t know how to spell a word (or rather, know how the word looks visually when written down), I actually have a lot of trouble remembering it. This comes up most frequently with names - I just cannot remember names unless I know how to spell them, to the extent that I’ll sometimes invent a spelling in my head so that I can remember the name!
posted by insectosaurus at 5:57 PM on August 25 [3 favorites]


much of which is more recent than 2000, contrary to what Snowishberlin asserted above
Frankly I think it's unfair of Snowishberlin to attack Hanford's motives in writing this article when the "other side" refused to give their perspective when asked; of course it ended up being relatively one-sided
I should also emphasize that I'm no partisan of phonics

Hard no. In order: no, maybe 5 of those sources, including 1 summary piece in some journal I've never heard of; have you read her work? What is her purpose then? I think there is a very good reason scholars aren't responding to APM, but are publishing their research in highly regarded journals; and what are you a partisan of, if not?
posted by Snowishberlin at 6:09 PM on August 25 [1 favorite]


I'm now curious about what kind of research has been done on precocious/hyperlexic kids, and how they learn to read. (Partly because that might tell me how I learned to read.) Are those kids using specific strategies that work better/faster, or are they methods that won't work for neurotypical kids?

I have no memory of how I learned to read, and neither do my parents, because they didn't actually teach me. The way they found out that I could read was that I asked for gum on a car trip, they said there wasn't any gum, and I pointed out the window and said, there's a pharmacy over there, can we get gum? And they looked at each other and said, well, our three-year-old can read the word 'pharmacy' so I guess she deserves gum.
posted by nonasuch at 6:30 PM on August 25 [6 favorites]


I remember a few years ago going to "reading time" at my kid's school, where each morning we'd spend 10 minutes reading a book together, and some of the books used the cueing approach where each page has something like:

The dog is in the house.
The dog is in the garden.

... together with a picture of the dog in the appropriate locale (or whatever it was; I forget the details). And it was pretty clear that when she didn't recognise the word immediately, she'd stop trying to read it and just guess, which was usually easy because of the pictures and the repetition.

At the time I assumed that there must be some deeper theory behind this, but now I'm wondering whether those books are basically tricking parents and teachers into thinking that kids are learning to read much faster than they actually are. Which for some of them could be really harmful. Hm...
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 6:34 PM on August 25 [1 favorite]


Many years later, there was a line in a David Eddings book describing a character who could read by absorbing entire lines at once (and another who could read whole pages at a glance.)

I think I remember this. Was this Polgara and Poledra, respectively?
posted by biogeo at 7:27 PM on August 25 [1 favorite]


I learned english as a second language after chinese, and I basically applied the same method I had used with that language, which is to simply memorize how to write and pronounce every word. It's not that I don't know how to use phonetic methods, it's that it's a secondary skill that I learned afterwards, which is less dependable than simply memorizing everything. How many words does a typical person know? It's not that many. Memorizing them all is totally doable. In computer science terms, I used a dumb lookup table instead of some sort of spelling to pronunciation mapping algorithm, because I knew it could all fit in memory.

There was an ad that used to run on TV when I was a kid, where a boy would have trouble reading the word "island", and it actually made me angry that anyone could somehow be incapable of pronouncing a word with only six letters in it. This particular sequence of letters has this particular sequence of sounds. What does it matter that parts of that sequence are pronounced differently in other words? I had no idea just how different people's brains are. Like how people can get homophones mixed up with each other in writing... they're like, different words. Who cares if they sound the same? Is everybody mentally sounding out every word they write?
posted by hyperbolic at 7:50 PM on August 25 [7 favorites]


Is everybody mentally sounding out every word they write?

This is a good opening for me to say: No. I've noticed a lot of comments saying they, as individuals, don't read letter by letter. But really no one does once you've "learned to read". Obviously learning in childhood people have very different experiences but this is normal.

Sounding things out is literally how you portray a semi-literate person in film or TV. The whole article and phonics is about learning to read and doesn't apply after age eight or so (as they basically explain.)

Adults with adequate reading sound out words only words they don't know, and honestly then only if they are reading aloud or making an effort. I actually realized a bit ago that I was not bothering to learn the name of Indian colleagues--I'd just pick up patterns and know based on pattern recognition if I saw an e-mail from Venkataramana or Chandrasekhar what their nickname and face was. Even though these names are not that hard to sound out. I could have done it at age five! So that of course made feel like a total shit. I hadn't even realized I was doing it though! After that I made a point to learn them. But lots of scientific terms of art or other things I'd have to sound out separately and I still don't bother.

Incidentally I *do* mis-spell homophones routinely then usually catch it if I re-read. Does that not happen in Chinese? You always write the correct symbol for the meaning?
posted by mark k at 9:30 PM on August 25 [1 favorite]


I know this is a text-based website so it biases fluent readers, but many of the comments above are pretty much combining to 'look what a great early reader I was' and ending up creating a conversation that is not welcoming to the people this article is about, people who struggle with reading or had difficulty learning to read.

I think metafilter can do better. Should.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 10:02 PM on August 25 [6 favorites]


I'm friends with a lot of English teachers in Japan, so I've got a few anecdotes about the learning process here. Kanji learning is done through rote memorization. The way I've been studying it is by breaking them up into radicals and creating mnemonics based on those, but I think that's a foreign concept to most native speakers because they simply absorbed them all at a young age.

The interesting thing is that they attempt to learn English the same way. A single word is processed like a single Kanji, an arbitrary collection of strokes that have an associated meaning and sound. I heard one story of a friend talking about the sounds letters make, and an adult Japanese teacher of English was floored by this news. I couldn't imagine learning English without this knowledge, but on the other hand, my sound-it-out language learning skills have not served me particularly well when it comes to memorizing the kanji.

Anyway, it's been interesting hearing from actual teachers in this thread and from folks in real life who have actually studied this field. And I'm taking this article with a big 'ol grain of salt because it smacks of the kind of pop sci "everything you know is wrong!!" Malcolm Gladwell bullshit that's so seductive (oh I would love it if those mean teachers I didn't like were also unscientific and bad!) but is actually flattening any nuance and cherry picking evidence. Not saying that's definitely the case, but I've been burned before, and I need more than one questionable article.
posted by davejh at 10:12 PM on August 25 [1 favorite]


I haven’t read all the comments yet, but it’s sobering to know how many Americans struggle with basic reading and that it could possibly be at least in some part to a multi-decade misstep in instruction.

As far as cueing, it seems to me that it is employed by “strong” readers after sounding out an unfamiliar word doesn’t trigger any linkage with a known spoken word.

And context and initial letter (or prefix and ending) are also part whole word recognition. But cueing works a lot better after you have a collection known word parts that you do recognize phonetically you can so you can attempt to decompose the unknown word into components that yield a plausible meaning, in context.

It seems weird that the cuing approach always used enough phonics to rely on the initial letter and its sound, but not...well...cuing on known words plus other meaningful sets of phonemes. Which is to say, morphemes.

Since we know “farmer” is a person who farms, and we know the word “bank” so what’s a “banker?” Under picture of a farmer on a farm and a banker at a bank. Then once the reader sounds out a new -er word they can construct its meaning if they know the stem, and if not they get still get the sense that’s it’s a person or object that does a certain job.

It makes sense to me that phonics and cuing shouldn’t be taught as alternatives, because kids who have trouble with phonics or word recognition will bypass it. But in actual reading, cuing is used once word recognition fails and is also part of being a strong reader, especially later on school when you’re being constantly bombarded with new words with common parts and related meanings across different subjects.
posted by snuffleupagus at 10:43 PM on August 25 [1 favorite]


I think the whole word method, which I take to be recognizing words by their shapes and saying or hearing the sound one has learned to associate with that shape, does make for faster reading, but that it also has two big disadvantages compared to decoding the word phonetically by the sounds associated with the letters of the word.

If you happen to be reading a descriptive passage in literature or non-fiction, a lot more of your ability to visualize the things being described is tied up by the whole word method than the phonetic decoding method, and this reduces and interferes with the capacity to see and enjoy word pictures.

And if you're a writer, and you're trying to hold an object or scene in your mind's eye as you describe it for your readers, I believe it's much harder to do that if you have to see the words you're writing in your mind's eye as well, instead of hearing what you're going to write and mapping letters directly to that internal sound — and I think that may be why a number of excellent fever dream level intensely visual writers have been indifferent spellers.

Such as F Scott Fitzgerald:
F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby, was notoriously bad at spelling.

Although he was an avid reader and showed an early talent for writing, Fitzgerald was a poor student who struggled to achieve passing marks in both grade school and in college. He was kicked out of school at the age of twelve because he had difficulty focusing and finishing his work. He briefly attended Princeton University, but failed most of his courses and was on academic probation when he chose to drop out and enlist in the military.

After reading a typo-filled version of This Side of Paradise, literary critic Edmund Wilson—a former classmate —declared it “one of the most illiterate books of any merit ever published.”

Fitzgerald wasn’t even able to spell the name of one of his closest friends, Ernest Hemingway, often misaddressing him in correspondence and papers as “Earnest Hemminway.” The editor of his collected letters called him a “lamentable speller” who struggled with words like “definite” and “criticism.”
posted by jamjam at 12:40 AM on August 26 [1 favorite]


Regarding the qualifications of the author of the article, a quick search of her name turns up an easy to find bio:


Emily Hanford is a senior education correspondent at APM Reports, part of American Public Media. She has been working in public media for more than two decades as a reporter, producer, editor, news director, and program host. Hanford has been at American Public Media since 2008 where she produces education documentaries that air on public radio stations nationwide and can also be heard on the Educate podcast. She has written and produced content for many news outlets, including NPR, The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Washington Monthly, and PBS NewsHour. Her work has won numerous honors, including a duPont-Columbia Award, a Casey Medal, and awards from EWA and The Associated Press. In 2017, Hanford won the Excellence in Media Reporting on Education Research Award from the American Educational Research Association.

If you want to throw shade on her work, fine, but maybe provide some basis for the claims instead of just hinting she's a hack.
posted by gusottertrout at 1:45 AM on August 26 [5 favorites]


I think the whole word method, which I take to be recognizing words by their shapes and saying or hearing the sound one has learned to associate with that shape, does make for faster reading, but that it also has two big disadvantages compared to decoding the word phonetically by the sounds associated with the letters of the word.

If you happen to be reading a descriptive passage in literature or non-fiction, a lot more of your ability to visualize the things being described is tied up by the whole word method than the phonetic decoding method, and this reduces and interferes with the capacity to see and enjoy word pictures.

And if you're a writer, and you're trying to hold an object or scene in your mind's eye as you describe it for your readers, I believe it's much harder to do that if you have to see the words you're writing in your mind's eye as well, instead of hearing what you're going to write and mapping letters directly to that internal sound — and I think that may be why a number of excellent fever dream level intensely visual writers have been indifferent spellers.


It seems you don't know this, but are just guessing. I can't know how it is to read differently than how I was taught as a child, (whole word, not whole text), and I can imagine the things I'm reading about just fine, thanks. It seems to me that Japanese and Chinese readers and writers have fine experiences too.

On a more serious note: the imagination is literally boundless. You just have to train it. It's one of the beautiful things of humanity. Imagine 6 impossible things before breakfast every day while learning Kanji, and you'll be good.
posted by mumimor at 2:29 AM on August 26 [1 favorite]


I teach college biology. A big part of my courses is often talking about organisms by their scientific names. Students are terrified of scientific names. I emphasize that these are made up words, so there's not really a "correct" pronunciation. I emphasize that these made up words are often based off of Latin or Greek roots, which use pretty standard pronunciation rules, and so sounding them out usually works well. And still students refuse to even attempt to say the scientific names of organisms and often do the thing where they look at the first letter and guess some completely unrelated word that starts with that letter.

The good news is that you can usually google "How to pronounce xxxxx" and find multiple videos that just say a word. Some of my students still refuse to actually listen to that and learn how to say the word and instead go to all the trouble to embed one of those videos in a presentation and have the computer say it for them.

I started jr high in 1989, so I really just missed by a few years these changes in how reading is taught and was always flummoxed by how differently my students seemed to have learned to read from how I learned to read. This article helps me understand them better.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:21 AM on August 26 [4 favorites]


"I appreciate that your husband specifically is none of my business, but I always wonder how people who learned reading this way approach being asked to write down a word they've only ever heard and not seen."

My husband typically has the opposite problem, where he can read hella more words than he can pronounce. He learned a lot of Latin roots in junior high, for whatever reason -- his junior high decided their vocabulary-building program would consist entirely of Latin roots -- and that helps with pronouncing unfamiliar words that have Latin roots, which when you're into technical vocabulary is a lot of them. And I mean, he does know what letters make which sounds in a basic way, although he's missing some of the major pieces of phonics (his mind was blown when he learned about silent E from one of our kids watching PBS at some point).

I'm trying to think of examples but I've only known him as an adult when his vocabulary was quite large so I don't really have any except pronunciations of last names gone horribly wrong, but that happens a lot in the US because there are so many contributing languages to last names and I'm not sure phonics would help!

My oldest son seems to learn words the same way as my husband, and when he has to write down a word he's never seen written (which is not that often, he reads a lot), honestly he just punts, or sometimes writes the first letter and a period to "abbreviate" it. But a lot of the time he just won't write words he doesn't know. My middle son, who has a more typical relationship with words, has no fear of leaping into words he knows but cannot spell, and just spells things out phonetically as best he can ("mutation" was "meyoutashein" this week). The other sort of funny consequence of my husband's no-phonics, word-picture method of reading is that when our middle child writes out little stories, like the one he wrote this weekend about mutants and their mutations, my husband can't read it AT ALL. So this little story began:
Whut if someone (a woman) had a meyoutashein patrn in theyr uoteris where every time they had a baby it had a randam soperpaower ..."
Which is "what if someone (a woman) had a mutation pattern in their uterus where every time they had a baby it had a random superpower ..." I stumbled a tiny bit on "pattern" because it's short on vowels as he spelled it, but it's easy enough to figure out what he meant because the words are spelled pretty phonetically (although man is he all over the place with vowel blends). My husband looked at it and couldn't figure out a single one of those phonetically misspelled words except "Whut" and "theyr" because he can't do phonics and if the word picture isn't correct, he can't decode it without a LOT of work. After some work he got "random" but "mutation" pattern" "uterus" and "superpower" were a complete mystery to him and he was gobsmacked that I rapidly decoded it upon first reading.

Point of anecdata, I'm quite an indifferent speller, and the words I struggle with the most are ones where there's no phonetic distinction, like words ending in "-able" "-ible" and "-eble." I either have to brute-force memorize them or just guess. Because I do generally read whole words as a speedy adult reader, I can usually tell when they're wrong, but I can't necessarily make them right. So I might go with "edable" and look and say, "No, that's not it" but if I don't guess "edible" on my second try I'm screwed and have to go look it up, because after two tries they all look wrong. When I'm typing, common words are stored in my kinesthetic memory and my fingers type them automatically -- I don't have to think about it -- but when I have to hand-write them I make more mistakes. Some words I've memorized in a cadence -- like the little schoolyard chant of M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I; I have a good auditory memory and if I can put it to a rhythmic cadence I can spell it right. Other words won't stick, no matter what -- surprise (people say "suh-prise" in my dialect so I want to spell it "suprise"), restaurant, maintenance, recommend (I spelled that wrong right here twice before I got it right, thanks waggly red line). When I worked as a copy editor I had a list of about a dozen words taped to my monitor because I KNEW I could not spell them no matter what, and could not remember them no matter what. "Bureaucracy" I struggled with for years (poli sci was one of my majors) but it finally clicked that it was bureau and now it's okay, but I do have to slow down and consciously think "bureau" to get it. Direct French borrows are some of my worst words, like stupid hors d'oeuvres. That "oeuv" bit I can't even tell by looking if it's right (too many short and rounded letters in a row) and obviously English phonics are no help to me.

I've been learning Spanish this year and it's actually pretty glorious, I'm a great speller in Spanish because the phonics are so darn direct, and it's easy for me to hear when the stress falls outside the normal pattern and needs an accent. It honestly feels AWESOME to go to write a new word, or a word I'm only semi-familiar with, and to just know how to spell it. I hadn't realized quite how much of my energy in English is taken up with the fact that I'm not a great speller until I got to stop worrying about it in Spanish.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:18 AM on August 26 [6 favorites]


I've said this before but my kids' school doesn't even teach kids how to read really at all. They are expected to come into kindergarten knowing all their letters, what sound they make, and they get a list of words they are expected to know by sight - about 20 in kindergarten that expands to about 100 by 2nd grade. So that work is being done by moms and pre-k teachers.

They do cover letters and their sounds, but it is much more in service of writing where the expectations are much lower.

I've personally always thought phonics was overdone in English, in terms of learning to spell, because by the time you are in first or maybe second grade (8 years old) then the 'lessons' it teaches are overwhelmed by the exceptions. Heck, the word 'phonics' can't even be spelled phonetically. - it would be PHONE-ICS.

Incidentally I also volunteer to read with kids, and the teachers are able to identify problem readers very young (generally in kindergarten, generally dyslexic) but getting into the dyslexic program is a voluntary, most parents decline it, and getting pulled out of class for special teaching is socially very hard for kids, because even the extremely disabled are not generally pulled out of class. So (socially, in the mind of a k-2nd grader) dyslexia is worse than a severe physical or verbal disability. So they don't personally fight for extra teaching if their parent turns it down.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:45 AM on August 26 [1 favorite]


From the article, one of the founders of cueing, Goodman, said

"Word recognition is a preoccupation," he said. "I don't teach word recognition. I teach people to make sense of language. And learning the words is incidental to that."

This seems objectively wrong to me. If you haven't learned the actual words, you're guessing, and you're not reading but making up a story in your head that may match what's in front of you, but more by luck than judgement. And while it's going to be quicker than doing the hard work of actually learning the words, so it's entirely believable that when tought together kids will just take the shortcut - which only works at the most basic level and limits further learning.

I see this with my 4 year old daughters, when they're 'reading' a story book to themselves they know well - they're reciting the story from memory, cued by the pictures, and sometimes make hilarious mistakes. FWIW, we're teaching them phonics, as is pre-school, and I believe it's now enforced by dictat for early-years reading. Gove made some horrible decisions as Education Secretary, but on enforcing the use of synthetic phonics teaching despite resistance, due to strong evidence it's the most effective, I have to give him some credit.

Obviously language comprehension is important, along with context, meaning and subtext, but that comes later, once you can actually read (almost all) the words on the page and understand their literal meaning. Along with spelling, which phonics won't help you with...

A big part of phonics is using it translate existing vocabulary, and clearly for young children that's going to be via converting a word on the page into one they already know verbally.

here are people who think they don't use phonics to read but unless you're deaf, if you're a good reader I'm pretty sure you understand phonics; you're just applying it so fast that you don't notice what you're doing. Can you read nonsense words like "ficker" or "prake" or "sissel?" If you can, you're using phonics.

I can and do use phonics, having learned it as a child - but I certainly don't use it to read most words. IIRC once you have memorised a word, then the pattern recognition part of the brain can kick in - and most of us have *very* good pattern recognition engines in our head (sometimes too good!) which is far faster - just as 'knowing' times tables is quicker than trying to work it out on the fly. I guess your husband is relying entirely on his pattern recognition Eyebrows McGee!

And phonics can't always save you. I've learned a much larger written vocabulary than spoken, as I was, and am, such a voracious reader. Memorably, when I was a child and came to say Mercades for the first time, despite knowing it was a brand of car, I got it very wrong - merkahdees. And there's traps in the other direction, like mercator projection... Last year, I was the only one of my (UK) colleagues that knew how to say Yosemite correctly for the new macos release - thanks to Yosemite Sam! They went for yo-see-might. So these days I use a pronunciation guide for unusual words I know but have never spoken, which in a technical field can be quite a few, and sometimes controversial *cough* GIF *cough*

And I can think of at least three ways to pronounce sissel. (rhymes with thistle, or starts like size, or seesaw, though that last one may be too much learning french recently)

Nor does phonics explain why this:
"Yuo cna porbalby raed tihs esaliy desptie teh msispeillgns. "
is legible to most.

But even pattern recognition has its limits.

"keep of the
the grass"

"A vheclie epxledod at a plocie cehckipont near the UN haduqertares in Bagahdd on Mnoday kilinlg the bmober and an Irqai polcie offceir

Big ccunoil tax ineesacrs tihs yaer hvae seezueqd the inmcoes of mnay pneosenirs

A dootcr has aimttded the magltheuansr of a tageene ceacnr pintaet who deid aetfr a hatospil durg blendur "

Those last 3 get harder as the letters get more scrambled, even as the first and letter stay the same. And we can distinguish the difference between slat and salt at speed, so there's definitely more going on in that soggy gristle in between our ears than we sometimes recognise.
posted by Absolutely No You-Know-What at 7:49 AM on August 26 [3 favorites]


By 2nd or 3rd grade, parents are usually more open to special teaching for dyslexia. But by then their kids are very far behind.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:49 AM on August 26


I think I remember this. Was this Polgara and Poledra, respectively?

Belgarath and Polgara, respectively, from Belgarath the Sorceror.

I can sound out words fine, in English - I think, like a lot of folks here, I picked that up *after* the orthographic processing - and also like a lot of folks here, the vast majority of my vocabulary was gained via reading and not hearing. And this leads to some weird things - I have a decent grounding in both Spanish and Greek/Latin etymology, such that even though I don't speak French, I can often puzzle it out via cognates and roots. But I cannot even distinguish individual words when I hear it spoken, and I have no idea how to pronounce any of the words I recognize. Those are really two separate parts of my brain. I haaaaaated reading aloud in school (still do) because my reading works several times faster than my speaking and I have to stop and go back and catch up over and over and over - I'm effectively memorizing short phrases, saying them, and while I'm saying them starting to memorize the next phrase long enough to get it out. It's exhausting.
posted by restless_nomad at 8:03 AM on August 26 [2 favorites]


I'm confused by some people's comments on sounding out words.

Encountering "Mercedes" for the first time today, I would probably stop, say "mair-say-deez, murk-edd-ess, murr-chey-dis" etc and if no-one nearby could clarify, just go with whatever felt right based on suspected language of origin.

I have no idea what system that is. I know I was taught on actual Dick & Jane books as a child in the 2000s by my mother, which the article says is whole word, but I've no memory of whatever they taught me at school.
posted by Acid Communist at 8:21 AM on August 26


I don't remember learning to read, but I remember not being able to read. I actually even remember two examples of being taught how a word was spelled and thinking "I will never be able to learn this" - 'red' in preschool and 'away' in kindergarten. Also in kindergarten, I was apparently given a test which could have placed me in once-a-week advanced learner classes, but I refused to take it because "kindergartners can't read." The next year, I was given the test again and passed it. By the year after that, I was routinely getting in trouble in my 'normal' classes for reading above-grade books under the desk during lessons.

I have no idea what happened. Truly. My parents read to me every night and I'm sure that was a huge factor, but the jump from "this is unfathomable" to "this is easy" just... happened somehow, without my conscious awareness. I really wish I could remember it better.
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:25 AM on August 26


But I cannot even distinguish individual words when I hear it spoken, and I have no idea how to pronounce any of the words I recognize.

I think that is completely normal. Really the only way to know how to pronounce most words past 2 syllables is to hear them said. To raise the difficulty, how about local accents. How do you teach a kid phonics when the word "can't" rhymes with "ain't", not with "ant"? My first grader had to draw and illustrate her favorite thing about returning to school on the first day - and she wrote "woking to school". I'm pretty sure I have emphasized that "walking" has an "L" in it, but who knows what she hears in relation to how she thinks words should be spelled?
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:28 AM on August 26 [2 favorites]


Oh! Also I learned Hebrew (well, I learned how to transliterate Hebrew, along with a double handful of prayer-relevant words) and I waited and waited for the click to happen such that I could just *read* it and it never took. So in that respect, learning how to sound out words totally failed my particular brain. (Although I spent less time on it and had access to zero pleasure reading in Hebrew, so I had a lot less incentive to practice, but still, four years of twice a week lessons with a pretty hefty performance to work towards was a lot less than the occasional babysitter with a picture book when I was a toddler.)

How do you teach a kid phonics when the word "can't" rhymes with "ain't", not with "ant"?

I also really wonder if there's a difference in how people process dialect rendered in text based on which way they learned. I know a lot of people have a hell of a time with dialect, but Ah have nae truble wi' it atall.
posted by restless_nomad at 8:31 AM on August 26 [2 favorites]


(Largely, I think , because I just pick up the different spellings as unique words, likewise with fantasy-novel fake words.)
posted by restless_nomad at 8:32 AM on August 26


Heck, the word 'phonics' can't even be spelled phonetically. - it would be PHONE-ICS.

Huh, phonics to me seems to follow the standard rules, I don't have the vowel as in "phone", I have the one as in "don/dawn" (same vowel for me). Accents do a lot too.

My littlest sister, who went to immersion school, had fascinating spellings in English at first -- my favorite was "putrflai", showing that she was aware of aspirating vs not aspirating ptk.
posted by jeather at 8:43 AM on August 26 [4 favorites]


And I can think of at least three ways to pronounce sissel. (rhymes with thistle, or starts like size, or seesaw, though that last one may be too much learning french recently)

The double s tells you it has to be a short i, as in thistle. Vowels before doubled consonants are short. That's why if you add -ing to a word like sit, you have to double the t to make it sitting. It signals the short i to the reader. Otherwise it would be siting and you would pronounce it with a long i.
posted by Redstart at 11:02 AM on August 26 [8 favorites]


I was a late reader, and flew under the radar for a while by being a good guesser and good at memorising things. But eventually (more through my parents than school) it 'clicked' and I went from third worst in class to top five in under two years - and that was very much through phonetics. It was really interesting to repeat the process learning Russian as an adult - this set of basically meaningless shapes gradually morphing into something readable as I learned the sounds the letters made alone and in combination, and once again getting that 'click' when they became (relatively) easily readable words, even if I didn't know the meaning. Of course, the meaning is important - but I can still (very slowly, running my finger along the line and sounding like I'm four) read the cyrillic alphabet, while I understand maybe three words in Russian. Sounding out is emphatically the way I recognise words - I just tested this out by going to the Isvestia website and laboriously reading the main headline. I didn't recognise the word Северодвинском at all - sounded it out, realised that it's "Severodvinskom" ie about the city of Severodvinsk. I honestly have real trouble wrapping my head around learning to read in other ways, though I know it's possible (as noted upthread, people who are hyperlexic do seem to come at it from a different angle).
posted by Vortisaur at 12:54 PM on August 26 [1 favorite]


> I haaaaaated reading aloud in school (still do) because my reading works several times faster than my speaking and I have to stop and go back and catch up over and over and over - I'm effectively memorizing short phrases, saying them, and while I'm saying them starting to memorize the next phrase long enough to get it out. It's exhausting.

OH MY GOD - This is exactly my problem, but I've never been able to articulate it. My wife absolutely loves for me to read things out loud to her, and I've never been able to explain that it's a literally exhausting process, or even really understand what my issue is myself. I've just sort of settled on "I don't really feel comfortable with that and I don't know why." This whole process is exacerbated by the fact that my short term memory is REALLY bad.

Anyways, thank you for helping me put my finger on why I have no issue talking nor reading on their own, but crack when they are combined.


I'm not sure entirely how I learned to read, I just sort of learned early? I was one of those who had to sit through phonics as well while feeling like I had a good grasp on pronunciation, but I remember getting really confused when I was learning Spanish at the same time (in elementary school), because every so often I'd come across a perfectly ordinary english word that suddenly looked unrecognizable and I would default to "Spanish" pronunciation. I have a very vivid memory of it being my turn to read something out loud, and I got through it all perfectly until I hit the word "house" - which was suddenly unrecognizable, and came out "Ho-OO-say." I always thought that single moment was why I hated reading out loud (and truly it didn't help, but you have explained my issue with this in a way that totally resonates and makes sense to me.)
posted by MysticMCJ at 3:52 PM on August 26 [2 favorites]


The only controversy here is how intelligent and educated people can manage to talk past each other without understanding each other for so long.

Strategies that use context to infer the meaning of a word are perfectly valid tools within that domain. They are, however, worse than useless at the word level despite being perfectly good tools once a higher level of understanding has been reached.

It's not that anyone is wrong in the sense of factually incorrect, it's that the balanced approach teaches people to use a tool outside the parameters in which it is meaningful or useful and in doing so impedes understanding.
posted by wierdo at 5:30 PM on August 26 [7 favorites]


Regarding phonetics, I remain astonished at the people who seem to think that any new piece of a word they encounter uses a vowel's long sound. I was baffled at the UK pronunciation of "derailleur", which Sheldon Brown taught us to spell in English instead of French because we say "dee-rayle-urr" instead of "day-rye-uhr".

But nearly every Englishman I know says it "duh-rayle-ee-yurr". I couldn't make head or tail of it. "You're adding an extra 'i' in there somewhere to get that 'EE' sound. It simply isn't in the word!"

"What?" was one response, "It's an 'e', for the 'EE' sound. Don't you Yanks ever go to school?"

But in most words the 'e' is either silent or makes an "eh" sound, or some other short vowel sound. Long vowel sounds are the exception rather than the rule. But it seems people learn the alphabet song or something else that sticks the names in their heads and that's all they have to work with, I guess?
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 10:58 AM on August 27


many of the comments above are pretty much combining to 'look what a great early reader I was'

I'm the opposite of this. I'm a good and very fast reader now, but didn't learn to read until I was 7. My sister had taught herself to read at age 3—or possibly earlier, since it was only when she picked up a Time Magazine at a dentist's office and started sounding out words that my mum realized she hadn't just memorized all of her storybooks as she'd been assuming—so my parents sort of assumed that I, being equally bright, would also figure it out on my own. I got halfway through grade two without learning to read, and my mum decided to teach me herself since it appeared they were going to just keep passing me at school.

They were teaching phonics. In my 5- and 6-year-old brain, they were just making me do weird things like adults were wont to do and there was no use questioning it, just look at the letter, make the sound they say it represents, and eventually they let you go outside and play on the jungle gym. I genuinely don't know how my parents reading me books (and watching Sesame Street for that matter) didn't sync up in my head with this weird thing the school was making me do, but I didn't understand that the letters they showed me and made me make sounds for were meant to be used to make words.

It's possible that some other style of teaching might have been better, but I doubt it. I was a dreamy little kid, lost in my own world of make-believe most of the time, and I was at a relatively low-resource school. I just needed individual attention.

On the plus side, my mum has a theory (which I think is intriguing and might be valid) that my aptitude for poetry is partly related to spending two and a half years just making sounds without attaching meaning to them.
posted by joannemerriam at 11:01 AM on August 27 [1 favorite]


I have many thoughts about this debate and no time to write them! The article, while making some solid points, is also strawmanning REAL bad (as mai above pointed out). Hanford is a journalist, not a scholar; it is not impugning her motives to note that she has not dealt with the scholarly literature in a nuanced way. She shows in the article that she is very skilled at constructing heroes and villains, though.

(I say this despite the fact that in the Intro to Linguistics course I teach, when we get to the very short section out textbook devotes to the Whole Language debate, I am with the textbook, 100% on the side of phonics. The textbook is not nuanced either, but then, it's not an education class.)
posted by demonic winged headgear at 2:35 PM on August 27 [1 favorite]


Still processing all this, but before comments are closed, I wanted to slip in a link to this article -- a critique of Hanford's approach -- by a well-known education scholar, Gerald Coles: https://newpol.org/issue_post/cryonics-phonics-inequalitys-little-helper/
I'm not yet sure I agree with everything Coles says, but it is at least a useful view of another side to this debate.
posted by demonic winged headgear at 4:53 PM on August 29


Coles and Hanford sound like they're talking past each other. "Reading comprehension" depends so on so many things, chiefly familiarity with the topic. As such, those tests are always going to reflect socioeconomic status more than anything else. It doesn't surprise me that kids taught with phonics are more "skilled" readers at 6 but haven't accumulated the cultural capital needed to score well on reading comprehension at 9.

I learned to read English when I was 7 or so. I'd been reading Vietnamese beforehand, and I just applied the same techniques until it clicked together. And because I had very strong reading skills, my teacher just threw up her hands and sent me to the library all day to read as I wished, because she had to spend her energy on all the kids who were struggling. And at a school where over 90% of the kids for free or reduced lunch, there were a lot of struggling kids.

Reading every book in that library was how I learned "reading comprehension" of the kind the standardized tests look for. I'd just come to the States; no one in my family spoke English. There was a big cultural deficit to overcome. Phonics was the tool I used to overcome it.
posted by snickerdoodle at 5:57 AM on August 30 [4 favorites]


> Incidentally I *do* mis-spell homophones routinely then usually catch it if I re-read. Does that not happen in Chinese? You always write the correct symbol for the meaning?

Sort of!

If I'm writing Chinese characters by hand or hastily selecting characters from a pinyin keyboard interface, I might goof on the correct radical or miss a stroke, which tends to result in 1) a completely different word and thus a different meaning than the word I was intending to write, or 2) gibberish, due to the missing components required to render the character legible enough to understand. (There's a technique of "cursive" writing (often seen in restaurants or calligraphy) where the strokes are not precise but still legible to people who understand that style of writing, which I find even more difficult to puzzle out, but not impossible if I recognize the general "shape" of the words involved.)

Like, here are two very similar-looking characters:

人 = person, people = rén
入 = enter, join = rù

I don't see the latter as often, or hear it as often. If I just saw the character on its own, there's nothing about the character to remind me that it's ru4 (ru in the 4th tone). If I heard someone pronounce the character, I could figure out the pinyin because I'd "see" rù in my head, but nothing about the sound alone tells me the meaning unless I've already connected the meaning with the sound, and nothing about rù reminds me it's 入 unless I happened to have refreshed my memory (like I did just now) by asking Google (or a more fluent person than myself) what it means. But with 人 (rén), it's one of the first words I ever learned, and I've probably seen it thousands of times, so I don't have to consciously remember 人 = person or 人 = rén, I just know it all instantaneously. However, for 入, my primary association of it is "the one that looks like 人," and not what it actually means or sounds like.

Whereas for English, I think I'm like Eyebrows' husband with his visual photographic memory for words. I never learned phonics in school (or if I did, I zoned out) because I already knew how to read before kindergarten and I don't remember the process of how I learned to read - it just feels like something I've always known how to do. Spelling is typically not a problem for me after I've seen a word, and I generally have read so much that I'm far more likely to have seen a word before ever hearing it. Growing up, there'd usually be some odd word whose pronunciation I would learn much later in life, like "disciple" being pronounced di-SYE-pul (sounding more like it rhymes with trifle) instead of diss-ih-ple (rhyming with triple). At some point, I think I read about fictional kids learning how to read, which is how I picked up on phonics and sounding out words being a thing - I don't remember ever doing so in class.

(Still in the process of reading the FPP article, but it's already been really interesting seeing the comments people have made earlier regarding the different techniques/concepts for learning.)
posted by rather be jorting at 4:34 PM on August 30 [2 favorites]


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