The Problem with Whole Word Reading

It has been interesting to read about the evolution of education in America. During the eighteenth century, education moved from the home into schools and textbooks were created to help teachers tutor their students in the basics like reading and math. The McGuffy Readers were among the first of these easy-to-read books that are now called a basal reading series.

At that time, first and second grade books were specifically written to include stories that emphasized the sounds of letters in words. Teaching in the eighteenth century tended to be teacher-centered with students doing a lot of rote memorization.

Around the beginning of the twentieth entury, the Progressive Education Movement introduced instruction that focused more on the interests of students and what research was discovering about teaching and learning.

More and more stories began to emphasize particular sounds and other targeted reading strategies. Sometime in the 1950s a “whole word” approach to teaching reading began to be used – returning students once again to rote memorization.

So what is the problem with this whole word memorization approach? The best answer I can find is this analogy by Steve Waller. Reading music (phonics reading) versus playing by ear (whole word reading).

You can read faster by whole word reading just as you can play music faster by playing by ear.

But you can read more difficult passages by reading phonetically just as you can play more difficult music by reading music.

You can spell better with phonics just as you can write music better if you can read music.

Listed here are some other challenges associated with whole word reading:

Pronouncing Unfamiliar Written Words

If a whole word reader looks up a written word in the dictionary, they can define it but still can’t pronounce the word because the dictionary pronunciation keys have little or no meaning. Dictionaries don’t help whole word readers with pronunciation.


Whole word readers are frequently and understandably poor spellers. Without the skills of phonics, what spelling mechanism can be applied to a word not already memorized? How would a whole word reader know that a spelling mistake has been made? It makes sense that a whole word reader must either guess or substitute an alternative word, one with a known spelling.

Phonics does not ensure perfect spelling. More and more English words are adopted from other languages. However, additional reading strategies and skills, like marking can resolve most, if not all, spelling challenges.


Whole word readers are not inclined to use dictionaries. This tends to limit their vocabulary to written and spoken words they already know, words they were taught when they were learning to read or words that they needed to learn by whatever non-phonetic method the student was forced to utilize in school or work.

Motivation to Read

New and difficult words are a chore to read or hear because the resources that would make pronunciation or comprehension easier are not very helpful for whole word readers. New spoken words cannot even be noted down for later investigation because it cannot be spelled. Whole word readers need spoken words written for them and written words spoken for them.

Research has been conclusive that explicit phonics instruction is the most effective. The U.S. Department of Education, the National Research Council, and the National Reading Panel have all conducted research and have released finding reports that support this statement. The National Reading Panel’s report on its quantitative research studies on areas of reading instruction was published in 2000. The panel reported that several reading skills are critical to becoming good readers: phonics for word identification, fluency, vocabulary, and text comprehension.