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Why don’t children just learn whole words?

Why don’t children just learn whole words?

Research favors phonics for kids because the “whole word” approach is inefficient. Children cannot store tens of thousands of words in their memory. Eye movement research has shown that, when reading, both children and adults rapidly read through the letters of words, looking at every single letter for even milliseconds. Importantly, the whole word method does not give children the tools to sound out new words on their own.

There are over 170,000 words in use in the English language. The average adult has a vocabulary of about 30,000 words. Our brains are programmed to hold between 30,000-40,000 words in memory. All other words have to be rapidly decoded in order for us to access them. If we had to learn to read every word by remembering how it looks on the page, even adults wouldn’t be able to read! It would be like learning the sum of every combination of numbers to 1 million by heart, instead of learning how addition works.

By contrast, learning how to read through phonics is extremely efficient and effective. There are only 44 phonemes and 250 graphemes which make up words. While it may sound like a lot, it is easier to learn the phonemes (sounds) and graphemes (letters or letter groups) and the correspondences between them than it is to learn 170,000 unique words.

By mastering the phoneme-grapheme correspondences, phonics instruction builds on itself. A child who can read pet and rat can also read words like trap and rapt even if they do not know the meaning of the words. Efficient decoding frees up a child’s brain to focus on learning the meaning of unfamiliar words or comprehending the text they are reading. Ultimately, children who learn to read using phonics are better prepared to read and spell unfamiliar or tricky words.

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Blah Blah Blah Phonics Card Game

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Deep Dive

Read our report on the Science of Reading. Research-based reading instruction must incorporate the 5 pillars of reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. This report provides an easy to understand overview of each of these pillars and explains the important connection between how the brain learns to read (the Neuroscience of Reading) and how we teach children to read (The Science of Reading Instruction). It also explains why helping children build connections between letters and sounds, through phonics and phonemic awareness, is so crucial for the developing reading mind. This report is perfect for sharing with colleagues and friends!