Is whole word reading bad for your child?

by Alenka

Hi, my name is Elizabeth and I’m new to this site. I would like to share some scientific findings and shed some light onto the “phonics versus whole word” debate. Hopefully this will help parents in making an informed decision about how they want to approach reading instruction with their child. If whole word reading is going to damage their brain, then certainly we should run away from it as fast as possible.

Let me start off by saying that I was taught to read on strict phonics. After all, phonics is the more LOGICAL way: words are made up of letters, and each letter represents a certain sound, and reading is about decoding symbols and discovering what those words say, right? Wrong. Let me show you what I mean:

Acdicorng to a rcesearh at Cbmraigde Uinsiertvy, it deson’t mtaetr waht odrer the lteetrs in a wrod are in, the olny ipmroatnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat lteter be in the rgiht plcae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can slitl raed it wtiuot a porlbem. Tihs is bceasue the mnid deos not raed erevy lteter by isteslf, but the wrod as a wohle, and the barin fgiuers it out aynawy. Cool!

If you can read the paragraph above, that means that you’re a decent reader. The letters are all mixed up, but you can read it anyway because the first and last letter are in the right place. That’s because our brains read whole words and even whole sentences at once, not letter by letter. That is why there are many words that you can read just fine but you cannot spell: reading is not about “reading” and decoding letters, but about the brain taking in whole words and interpreting the written symbol:

“Very young children can and do learn to read words, sentences, and paragraphs in exactly the same way they learn to understand spoken words, sentences, and paragraphs.
Again the facts are simple – beautiful but simple. We have already stated that the eye sees but does not understand what is seen and that the ear hears but does not understand what is heard. Only the brain understands.
When the ear apprehends, or picks up, a spoken word or message, this auditory message is broken down into a series of electrochemical impulses and flashed to the unhearing brain, which then reassembles and comprehends in terms of the meaning the word was intended to convey.
In precisely the same manner it happens that when the eye apprehends a printed word or message, this visual message is broken down into a series of electrochemical impulses and flashed to the unseeing brain to be reassembled and comprehended as reading.
It is a magical instrument, the brain.
Both the visual pathway and the auditory pathway travel through the brain and where both messages are interpreted by the same brain process.
Visual acuity and auditory acuity actually have very little to do with it, unless they are very poor indeed.
There are many animals that see or hear better than any human being. Nonetheless, no chimpanzee, no matter how acute his vision or hearing, has yet to read the word “freedom” through his eye or understood it through his ear. He hasn’t the brain for it.” -Glenn Doman, How to Teach Your Baby to Read

Reading is a brain function that humans are born with. You do not have to have a knowledge of phonics or even know the alphabet in order to read, just as you do not have to have knowledge of grammar or spelling in order to speak.

Although some children start off “reading” by slowing [and painfully] decoding letters to figure out what word is trying to be portrayed (by the phonics method) all children who are successful readers eventually learn to read entire words and even entire sentences at once. (I.e., an adult who still “sounds out” every word and is unable to quickly and easily READ the page is considered functionally illiterate)


Another important fact parents should take into consideration when making an informed decision about how their child should learn to read is the fact that THE ONLY REASON THAT BABIES AND TODDLERS HAVE NOT ALREADY LEARNED HOW TO READ IS BECAUSE WE HAVE MADE THE PRINT TOO SMALL. Indeed, we speak LOUD and CLEAR so that the baby can hear what we say and learn to speak. If we were to make printed words LARGE and CLEAR then babies would read what we write and learn to read.

Indeed, there are many cases where small preschool children HAVE taught themselves to read perfectly fine. The television has made this more common (think of the words “GULF” flashing on the screen as the broadcaster loudly and clearly says, GULF! GULF!). No one ever thought these children were going to damage their brains when they picked up a book and started reading it by themselves: they thought the children were geniuses. Indeed, they are, as all little children are.


I have heard phonics proponents say that whole word reading causes dyslexia. And when I first heard about teaching babies to read, I highly feared that I might possibly cause my child harm. No one wants to harm their child, and if reading is going harm them, then we should avoid it at all costs.

But is this the case? Looking at the proof about WHAT READING REALLY IS, that

1. It is a brain function that humans are born with
2. We read whole words and even whole sentences at onces
3. All babies would learn how to read all by themselves, just as they learn how to talk by themselves, if we had not made the print so small

I understand that these claims [about whole-word reading causing dyslexia] are impossible. How can something that babies have a natural aptitude for harm them? Certainly, if we spoke in whispers and babies never learned to talk, when we found a baby who could talk we would find it strange and think the parent was harming him. This has been the same way with reading: although babies have a natural aptitude for it and their brains are PROGRAMMED to read words, since babies we know do not read, we find it strange and think that the parent is harming the child.

So, parents must consider all the facts and understand what reading really is when they make the choices about teaching their child. The age of your child makes a big difference in their ability to read, as the results in teaching a six-year-old will be much different than teaching a six-month-old. If we waited until a child was six before teaching him to speak, we could expect to have some difficultly. So it is therefore reasonable to understand where some of these studies about reading problems associated with whole-word reading have come from. Indeed, these studies are based out of public school instruction which begins at six or seven years of age, and teaching a six- or seven-year-old how to read is going to have a lot more problems, since his brain is virtually done growing and his ability to absorb information quickly and easily has diminished significantly. You cannot read into these studies and think the results will be the same for a young child being taught at home.

I hope that this information has helped you. Please feel free to leave your comments, remarks, and responses.


  1. reading_is_a_skill

    Hi Alenka,

    The research that has been done shows the opposite of what you say. For example, good readers read every letter of every word, very quickly. They don’t guess.
    A lot things you mention have also been proven, by research, to be wrong. You make many of the same assumptions that have resulted in grief for many children.
    I made the wrong assumption myself – that my son was being taught in a logical way to read. He started when he was 4, in so-called early-learning program. He learned how to memorize all the words in the small childrens’ books the teachers were reading to him, in order. I didn’t realize it, but he thought reading was learning to memorize. When he would come home and we would read together, I was puzzled that he had such difficulty making out words I pointed to. I didn’t understand that he was receiving no instruction, practically, in deciphering words. He was being confused in other ways. My son was being taught to guess at words, and then to move on quickly. He developed bad habits that he needed to break because his reading was becoming more and more difficult. We worked at home to help him understand parts of words and to spell. I met another child- second grader – who was supposed to be a really good reader, but he started to choke on words. He was probably reaching the limit of his ability to memorize: he felt very insecure and nervous. When I was a child, I learned how to read fast and guess at words. In 5th grade, my reading comprehension was so poor I was put in the remedial reading group. Luckily, I learned to slow down and make sure I was reading, not guessing at words. Even the kids who look like they are successful through whole-word reading can suffer consequences because of it.

  2. Alenka Post author

    Thank you very much for sharing your story! There are many different researches and different opinions. I strongly believe that every kid and parent are different, so different systems work for different kids. You can look into dyslexia resources on this site, for a great body of work in opposition to the whole word method. Nevertheless, there are plenty of parents and kids who reach great success with this method without suffering consequences. Most schools usually introduce a mixture of sight words and phonics. Yet, I believe that every parent should evaluate all the options to see what works best for his/her kids. At this point, my older one, Sunshine, figured the phonics out and reading totally phonetically, rather then guessing the whole word. It is slower, but whatever works well for him – is fine by me!

  3. Bruce Deitrick Price

    Well, you discuss all the sides so well that no one will ever be able to make a decision!
    Bottom line, phonics teachers say they teach virtually all children to read by the end of first grade, while whole-word teachers say they teach children to memorize 100-200 words a year, with the result that their students will be semi-literate up into high school. That’s an horrific fate.
    (Please Google “40: Sight Words — The Big Stupid”)

  4. Kevin O'Neill

    I teach English to Japanese students in Japan. I’ve been doing so for over 16 years and the fact is Japanese need phonics to learn to read English. My students come an average only once a week for a 50 minute English class. It is phonics which has enabled them to read in less than 2 years time. Unlike native English speakers, Japanese kids don’t hear or see English words everyday. In addition, because the Japanese language has been romanized, Japanese kids will not decipher English correctly without proper phonetic training.
    For those who haven’t been taught phonics they will read this sentence (Do you want to eat a hamburger?) as
    Doe yoh-oo wantu toe eato ah hambaga? or something like that. Japanese is closer to perfection phonetically than is English and when Japanese see English they naturally try to read it according to how romanized words appear in their language. The only way to teach them to properly read English is through a phonics system that distinguishes how English must sound when it is read or spoken.

  5. Alenka Post author

    This is a very interesting perspective! Thank you very much for sharing it!!! It must be really frustrating…

    I am very curious: do you struggle only with spelling or with other subjects as well? I am very sorry to hear that whole word reading turned out into such a negative experience for you…

    On the other hand I have quite a few kids around me, who “figured out” how to read all by themselves and their spelling seems a lot better then kid’s who learned phonetically. My guess, it might depend on what type of learner these kids are: visual learners, probably, are more suited for it.

    Yet, there is me – a visual learner, who was taught using phonics as a child… and I am terrible-terrible at spelling, even misreading some words as I go! Go figure…

    I’d love to hear about more experiences with it. Please drop a line and all of us can benefit from adult’s perspective after years of learning left behind!

  6. Kim

    I disagree with your article. I was taught whole reading as a child and now as an adult find it increasingly difficult to function. If there is a world I have spoken and know the definition of but have never seen it written I am almost unable to sound it out and it can be extremely frustrating. My spelling is atrocious and this is because of whole word reading. To me, growing up, it never seemed to matter the exact spelling as long as I was conveying the right word. This causes me many problems in the work world and often makes me seem dyslexic to others (although I am not). The comments above by reading_is_a_skill mimicked my experience as a child but no one ever stepped in to counteract the way I learned. I quickly went from being hand picked for a gifted class, to middle of the road despite how hard I tried. I only wish my parents had recognized the situation while I was still young enough to alter it. At my age my brain is now hard wired and I can’t seem to overcoming my reading difficulties no matter how hard I try.

  7. Maeve

    There are different types of learners and readers. Some are able to sound out words like with phonics, some look at the whole word and others use a combination when learning to read. Myself I could not read completely and fluently until I was 9 years old. My mother who has an advanced degree in educaiton was frustrated because I did not learn to read phenitically like my brother (who was reading at 4 years old). Long story short, At 9 years old I went to a “reading clinic ” at the University, and they told my parents that I read by looking at the whole word…. and I was able to learn to read with the right tools. As my brain matured I was able to “figure out” phonics, but I still basically read the same by looking at the whole word. I read normally and have achieved at a very high level (I have two degrees, BA and an ADN).

    My point is that there is not ONLY one right way to learn to read, there are many different types of “learners”. I think most research supports this statement.

    (Both my brother and I are horrible at spelling, and we read differently, so I dont know that they have much to do with each other)

  8. Alenka Post author

    What an experience!!! I couldn’t agree more – different learners need different tools. We just have to try and see what works for our kids the best! I guess, the mix of techniques works quite well for my older one, Sunshine: he remembers a lot of words visually, we read regular books and he is picking up the new, unknown words very fast, but when the word is new he’ll actually break it down into phonetic units (often getting lost some of them along the way)… Yet I am amazed how many words he just figures out by himself!

  9. Anne

    I was taught in the UK using the whole word method back in the late 70s. I currently have a 6 yr old child who is being taught via Letters and Sounds (DfES Phonics system). Yes he can read proficiently, but his spelling is atrocious. This is a big failing of the Phonics system. The general misconception that the decoding and encoding are fully reversible = they are not. The English language has a plethora of sight words that need to be taught – not phonetically spelled out. I believe that there has to be room for both systems to work concurrently.

  10. Brenda

    This whole reading concepts are so new to me. I am a 58 years old grandmother. I raised three children and feel I must have missed 10 years of their lives and my own because I honestly cannot remember them learning to read. Maybe its because they had no problems not sure, but now I have a seven year old grandson that I am helping my son (single dad) raise and he is having a hard time in school with reading. I am trying to help him with it. He sounds everything out (phonics). and he is having a difficult time of it. I didnt learn to read that way 50 years ago. We had Dick and Jane. I never had a problem with reading, however I knew kids that did. I am an excellent reader and writer and speller . I am assuming Dick and Jane was the whole word method. I don’t know. A lot of people today, come out of school not being able to spell at all. Perhaps the teachers should be using a combination of methods.

  11. liz

    just came across this, it’s a very interesting discussion, thank you all. My son has ASD and learning difficulties and he is (I think) gonna do much better with whole word recognision, we have been doing phonics for single sounds and he is getting those (he starts school in Sept) but I think blending is gonna be an issue for him. (his speech is only just starting, altho he has been signing for quite a while.) I understand that whole word recognision is used sucessfully for kids with ASD and also for kids with Downs.

  12. Chris

    I have been teaching reading to kids for a few years now and every student I come across with major reading difficulties in upper elementary was taught whole word approach. In my opinion, whole word is ridiculous! I am sure that there are “some” kids who can learn but as an approach to teaching I think it should be outlawed in the schools as an inferior teaching method. My kids in fourth who have been taught it cannot even spell “dog” due to the fact that they don’t know that /o/ says aww. I think you’re research is unfounded as well as much of what I read supports phonics and disproves whole word.

  13. AAB

    This is fascinating. I also learned to read using whole word in the early 1960′s. I am a very fast reader with very high comprehension. I’m also very good at spelling. I always thought that good spelling came from reading.

    I’m not good at figuring out the pronunciation of words that I haven’t heard. I think phonics is more useful in that regard.

    I’ve read a few of the arguments re:phonics/whole word. Most of them mention something along the lines of ‘whole word claims that a student will learn 500 words in first grade, therefore the student will learn 12*500=6000 words by end of high school which is only semi-literate’… But that is faulty reasoning.

    Horses for courses I think. Clearly one method isn’t going to work for every person that is learning to read. Find what works, combine methods, use one now and add the other later. It doesn’t matter as long as the person learns to read well and has a love of reading and learning.

  14. Melissa

    I’ve been reading about “whole reading” to understand the way I’ve started to read. I do not believe that I was taught using the whole reading method but I have adopted something like it naturally. The paragraph with letters mixed up shows that people eventually learn to recognize words without sounding them out.

    I rush though. I read 90% of a word and fill in the blanks. This can cause me to initially read the word “psychotic” as “psychic”. It takes place in less than half a second and then my left-to-right reading process catches up to it and I read the word a second time except I see that it is the word “psychotic”. Another example is international vs intentional.

    If I relied on a whole reading approach on it’s own I would never correct myself. I would never notice the details that looking at the overall shape of the word causes me to miss. Both processes seem to occur at the same time when I read and the slower phonetic process corrects the errors I make when I am trying to read quickly with a whole word approach. I would be a terrible reader without the phonetic approach.

  15. Alenka Post author

    Thank you for sharing your experience!! Sounds like your daughter is doing great with her reading and with your help, she’ll be really enjoying any books that she likes very soon!

    I don’t believe that learning to read can hurt anyone. Whatever is the method. That my a personal opinion.

    As parents, it is natural for us to worry. I worry too. Once my kids pass certain stage, it seems that new sources of anxiety are really serious, and the ones before – not as much. Well, this will pass too!

  16. Jess

    I don’t know how I learned to read. I had taught myself at 3 with no instruction from my parents at all, just seeing my older siblings read and picking up books left around. I don’t remember not knowing how to read or learning. I remember always loving books.

    I came here looking for advice because I taught my daughter phonics first but she hates it. She’ll use it for spelling but started to say she hated reading trying to use it. She loves learning whole world so I’m using that more now and her reading is improving a lot. Everything says phonics is better though, so despite her natural inclinations, part of me wonders if I’m hurting her. However, she is 5 and could only read early readers by herself with phonics and now she’s transitioned to at least level 1-2 depending on the book. She’s far from the chapter books I was reading at her age, but she is more math inclined than I ever was and there’s no doubt she’s improving now.

  17. Kris

    I am dyslexic. I was taught to read using phonics in second grade. I had a very hard time with it. Some sounds and letter combinations I understood, most I could not comprehend. My teacher and parents tried to no avail to help me learn this approach. Reading circle time was an absolute horror! To avoid embarrassment, I began to memorize whole words by sight and sound. Thank God I figured out how to do this myself at age 7 or I would be illiterate to this day. Reading by whole words came naturally to me when phonics did not. My brain adapted the only way it knew how. I am now a dyslexic with a masters degree because I taught myself how to read.
    Claiming there is only one “correct way” to teach dyslexics or any child to read is obviously not accurate. A good teacher teaches to the child by figuring out their strengths and weaknesses and then applying appropriate instruction. Adhering strictly to one form of reading instruction for all children in all cases is the perfect way to fail as a parent or teacher.