The English language is based upon 26 individual letter sounds or “phonemes”. There are combinations of the letters that when combined create new sounds of course. Reading and writing English was traditionally taught using a phonetic approach. This means, children would be taught the sound to say each time they looked at a symbol (e.g. ‘h’ or ‘t’). The beauty of this phonetic system of learning to read and write is that power is given to the child to then use this knowledge of individual phonics to decode any word they encounter. Essentially, the words and vocabulary you can acquire when you have a strong knowledge of phonics is potentially endless. Children are able to decode unfamiliar words by remembering the phoneme that matches each letter in the word. The Montessori method teaches reading and writing using this phonetic system.
The other method of teaching children to read and write that has become popular in the USA is the “Look Say” method. This was introduced and championed by John Dewey.
The “Look Say” method is an approach that teaches children to read and recognise whole words. For example, a child may be shown the word “cat” on a flash card and is told, “This says cat”. The child, over time, then learns that when they see the symbol (cat), they are to say the word “cat”. Essentially, the Look Say method treats the English language as if it were Chinese. The Chinese written language is a Logographic language, meaning there are thousands of detailed symbols that represent individual words. The failure is however, that the English language is supposed to be a phonetic script. When we fail to teach children phonics properly, and if we teach them using the whole word approach, they are required to memorise thousands and thousands of words by rote and are incapable of decoding new words they come across independently. Instead of their brain having to remember only approximately 26 letters and their matching phonemes, children who are taught the Look Say method have to use their memory space to remember each and every word as a symbol.
This can also have the effect of drastically reducing a child’s vocabulary because they have no way of decoding new words they have not been explicitly taught to recognise.
Many educators in America blame the widespread use of the Look Say method in American schools as the reason behind the increasingly declining literacy and numeracy rates in the USA.
Written language has always been a tool for human kind to express their thoughts and record their beliefs and history. The phonetic approach to reading and writing enables children to have the power to use language to express their own ideas, expand their vocabulary and read new words independently.