"Real Books"/Whole Word Reading Instruction
What is the “Real Books” or whole word method?
Over the 200 years or so of mainstream education, literacy has been a constant point of failure. While people often believe there was a golden time when “children at least learnt to read” at school, it is not true. Our current situation of 1 in 5 children being unable to read well at the age of 11 is as good as it has ever been.
And over the years almost everything has been tried.
So, desperate to find a solution, educators and politicians are seduced by the arguments of the believers in Real Books literacy and Look and Say. That is natural because the logic is attractive.
What they say is that:
“Phonics is very boring. If children are bored it is difficult to teach them anything.There is such wonderful stuff within a book that we must get them involved in that, using great content and intriguing pictures. Then, through natural curiousity, the child will begin to pick up the way text works.”
So, this involves using interesting picture books, putting labels on everything in sight and a bit of Look and Say coaching.
Look and Say is effectively flashcard coaching of frequent words. It is a form of whole word sight-memorization. And it does not work.
The problems with whole word reading
The idea is lovely and, as with any reading system, around 50% of children will pick up literacy in this way. But for the rest of the class it is a disaster. Literacy levels in Real Books classes can drop to 60% because it feeds into the most common error many children make when learning to read – sight-memorization.
Many bright children can sight-memorize all the simple little words presented in “early reader” books. And they think that is reading, naturally enough.
However, once the vocabulary being used increases, this approach begins to collapse in on the child. And they usually reach the age of 7 or 8 on a reading plateau, with a declining sense of confidence.