A (Partial) Defense of Whole Word

Apologies for the lack of usual posts. The whole family got sick: me, Husband, Munchkin, and Rascal, and whatever it was, it was awful. I’ve never had the flu, so that might have been it. Or it might have been Covid, but nobody lost their sense of smell (my mom did, but I’m not sure that we caught this from her or not). So, who knows? Either way, it took two weeks, but we finally got over the worst of it.

Ivermectin is awesome, by the way.

But back before everyone was sick, I saw some articles circulating on MeWe about how relieved people are that public schools are switching from “whole word” back to “phonics” for teaching reading in schools. So, of course, I can’t find them again (MeWe’s search function leaves something to be desired), and just went to see what the internet in general had to say.

The definition of “whole word” as a way to teach reading seems to be in dispute. I’ve seen several different ones just this morning, and nobody can even seem to agree what it is in the first place, let alone how to teach it. But the agreement seems to be that it doesn’t work, whatever it is.

Which confuses me, because that’s how I learned to read.

I can’t remember a point in my life when I didn’t know how to read, and I’ve tried. The words always held meaning. Even if I didn’t look at the word and know what it meant, I knew that it was a word, and that I could sound it out gradually, or ask my mom what it meant, or figure it out from the context. I had an officially recorded fifth-grade reading level . . . in the first grade. I don’t have to work to read, it just happens. Things like billboards while driving. I don’t “read” them. I look at them, and I see the words, and they automatically mean something. Reading isn’t work for me.

The reason it isn’t is that my parents read to me when I was little. All the time. Fingers underneath the words, so that eventually, I memorized the story, and then gradually, the words began to mean something because I saw them over and over and over again. Memorization eventually led to understanding.

I’ve been teaching my sons to read like that. Munchkin has whole Thomas and Friends stories completely memorized: word-for-word accurate. He’ll go around the house quoting them (“They were going so fast, Sir Topham Hatt’s hat flew off into a field, where a goat ate it for tea.”). He’s been known to take the book and “read” it to his brother. He memorized which words go on which page.

But every now and then, he actually does “read” something. He recognizes his name, and even knew what it was when he saw it printed on a loaf of bread, a brand name that we can’t get in Texas, but that my father-in-law liked in Maryland. He wasn’t prompted; he looked at that word, we asked him “what does that say?” and he answered correctly. He memorized it, of course. I think his “reading” is half memorization, and half actual word recognition. But he’s only three, and you have to start somewhere. He’s not old enough for phonics, or even the way “whole word” is taught in schools.

But this is where the current definition of “whole word” as a teaching method falls completely apart.

My mom learned to read the same way I did–by being read to (which is, of course, why she did it that way with me and my siblings). My dad, on the other hand, learned phonetics in school. The difference is astounding. My dad doesn’t read for fun. He barely reads for necessity. He hates it. If you watch him, you can see him shift from “watching” to “reading.” He tilts his head down a bit and goes into “read mode.” Those billboards on the side of the road pass by him with no meaning unless he isn’t driving, and turns his attention to them to read them. The book I wrote? My dad has never read it, because he hates reading.

So, according to my mother, that’s thanks to “phonics,” which is inferior to “whole word.”

Enter the modern definition of “whole word,” and that goes completely to pieces.

The current definition seems to be “these aren’t words, these are shapes, and you’re supposed to memorize them without anyone taking the trouble to make you remember them.” Which is completely idiotic. No wonder most of American kids are practically illiterate. English isn’t Chinese; these aren’t ideographs, they’re letters that form words.

So, the modern “experts” are busy hating “whole word” and promoting “phonics.” Even the homeschooling book I bought and love (The Well-Trained Mind) spends several pages slamming “whole word” as a way to teach a child to read.

Well, I guess I must be some kind of savant, or some garbage, because that’s how I learned to read. The problem doesn’t seem to be with the memorization method that my mother used on me and my siblings; the problem is trying to take that method–being read to–and morph it into something that is useable in a classroom setting.

That’s where it falls apart.

If you are a five-year-old in a standard public-school kindergarten, and your parents have never read to you (either because they don’t read well themselves, they didn’t have time because they’re working, or whatever reason), then it’s absolutely accurate that the “whole word” method, where you’re just expected to conclude what this group of letters means on your own, based first on the picture on the page and then on the context later on, is a sure way to make sure the child in question is completely illiterate. In that context, the popular slamming of “whole word” is justified.

But that’s not how it’s supposed to work.

One thing that The Well-Trained Mind told me that I can’t forget is the concept of “knowledge pegs.” The author compared the brain of a child to a peg board. At first, it’s blank. Then, you take “pegs” and insert them into the board: you make them memorize things (facts, numbers, words, etc.). Then later, you come back and “hang” knowledge on the pegs you’ve left behind. It was a perfect analogy, and makes teaching small children make so much more sense. Memorization of any information also gets slammed by modern teachers, society, parents, etc. “It doesn’t impart actual information” or “It’s just rote memorization, that’s not education,” etc. But you have to start somewhere.

Reading to Munchkin is the same thing: he’s getting “knowledge pegs.” It’s not the end of all information; it’s just the beginning. Memorization will eventually lead to understanding. “I know that ‘t-h-e’ spells ‘the,’ because I see it here, and here, and here, and here. I recognize it. And look, I recognize my name. Those letters spell my name. ‘T-r-u-c-k’ spells ‘truck.'” Yes, there will be gaps in there, because he can’t just absorb language by osmosis. He’s going to encounter words that are outside of his experience.

So then what?

According to the above article on “whole word,” he’s supposed to read the word, judge the word by its first letter and guess, or skip the word entirely.

No way. That’s not reading. That’s some idiot with an education degree “skipping over” teaching something, and claiming that it works when it doesn’t.

But what did I do when I was a kid? I could “sound out” words. English only has so many ways to do things (with exceptions, like the word “colonel,” which makes no sense if you apply English pronunciation rules to it), so usually, you can figure it out. Meaning can also be imparted through the context of the full sentence, but that only helps if you can read the rest of the sentence. If you’ve skipped every word but the familiar ones, the ten-word sentence only has four words, and it can mean anything.

I had a much larger bank of words to work with when I was a little kid, because I read books all the time. My parents read them to me, I read them to my sister and my brother, and so on. And not just that. When we were in a store, my mom would point to words on advertisements, products on the aisle, all over the place. She was giving us those “knowledge pegs” all the time. So, when I came to a word I didn’t know, I asked what it meant, or concluded what it meant. When I got a little older, I went to the dictionary and looked it up.

That doesn’t work in a classroom setting, because the kids in the classroom have different reading levels, and it’s impossible for a teacher with twenty or more kids to look after to sit down and read a book with one at a time, pointing at the words one at a time, explaining them and defining them, the way my mom did with us.

So, if that won’t work, then what do you do? Apparently, “phonetics” is the way to go. But how do you teach that, and at the same time keep kids from turning out like my dad? It doesn’t help to be able to deconstruct a word phonetically if you don’t actually read enough to apply those deconstructing rules to what you actually see. If you have no word bank to work with, words that you’re already familiar with, you may as well explain baseball to a dog. There are no “knowledge pegs” for a teacher to hang that kind of knowledge on.

Kids need both. They need the repetitive nature of being read to, learning to recognize familiar words, and then extrapolating as they go on. Take that “rote memorization” and then use it to springboard into the phonetics, where those recognizable words make even more sense. I know that it says “cat” or “dog,” and now I know how the word “cat” or “dog” is put together in English. So when I see a similar word, my extrapolating skills can work with that. That method might teach me how to pronounce or read a word, but it can’t impart the meaning of the word. Phonetics alone are just as much a failure as whole word alone.

Parents need to read to their kids. If you don’t like reading, do what my mom did: point out words in the grocery store, on big ads on the road, or trucks as they zoom by. Anywhere. Put as many “knowledge pegs” into your kids’ head as you can. Then, when a well-intentioned teacher comes along later, they have somewhere to hang the knowledge. It’ll be several years before the Munchkin can pick up a dictionary and use it to look up an unfamiliar word.

But I’ll work my ass off to make sure he knows that he can ask about unfamiliar words, so that they’re not unfamiliar for long, and he’ll know exactly where the dictionary is as soon as he’s old enough to use it.

Once again, the problem isn’t that “whole word” is always a failure (otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to read, and neither would my siblings, or my mother). The problem isn’t that “phonetics” is always a failure either, despite my dad’s bad experience with it. It’s much more complex a task than that, and pretending that one way always works for everybody is the kind of stupid statement that exposes exactly how idiotic the people running the education system in this country really are.

The bottom line is, and always will be: THE PARENTS ARE THE PRIMARY EDUCATORS. Teachers in a broken system like the public schools in America can’t work miracles with nothing. They may be professionals; but they have more than one kid to teach. Parents can’t expect to just throw their children at the public school system and they’ll return completely civilized and educated. My first-grade teacher was amazing, and now that I’m an adult, my mom has told me lots of stories about what was going on behind the scenes when I was in elementary school. Mrs. Lyle retired after the year I had her, because she was an educator, a real teacher, and she wasn’t going to waste her time potty-training the six-year-olds in her class. That wasn’t her job. And yet, according to the attitude of the society, it was her job. There were first-graders in my class who apparently had never been toilet trained (and no, I’m not talking about a child who had a learning or physical disability; that’s a separate problem, and yes, my school had “special ed” at the time), and Mrs. Lyle was supposed to be teaching them that basic skill, rather than teaching them to read.

THAT is the problem. If it was like that in the early nineties, then it’s probably only gotten worse now. Put the monkey on the right back. It’s not “whole word” versus “phonics.” It’s the state of the current school system that has to be addressed.

Parents: they’re your responsibility. Cowboy up and get it done. Educate your kids.

And yes, I can say that. I have kids. I know that it isn’t easy. A day in the office is infinitely easier than a day with my kids. But they’re my kids. I’ll answer to God for how they turn out. We decided to have them; now we get to educate them. If we didn’t want to, we should have thought about that beforehand.

It’s not the job of the public school system to raise my children. It’s my job, and raising them means potty-training them, teaching them “yes sir,” “no sir,” “yes ma’am,” “no ma’am,” “please” and “thank you.”

And how to read. Professional teachers are all well and good, but they can’t just take a five-year-old with no reading experience to suddenly turn into a bookworm.

That’s my job.

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