Phonics Vs
Whole Word Reading

© 2003 Steve Waller, All Rights Reserved

Updated September 18, 2003

The Whole Word Reading Vs. Phonics Reading Debate


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.

An Interesting Example:

"Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at an Elingsh uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer are in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae we do not raed ervey lteter by it slef but the wrod as a wlohe and the biran fguiers it out aynawy."

It seems to work for words you already know, but what about new words? I think we eventually get to the level demonstrated above only AFTER the core is established.

I tried to find the source for this misspelled paragraph but all I found was people, LOTS of people, talking about it online. The source is unknown. It may just be a joke and is often described that way. Even so, it is apparently spreading like wildfire in the net. Whether it is a joke or not, it is still interesting.

Problems with Whole Word Reading:

New Spoken Words

Whole word readers have a hard time looking up new spoken words in the dictionary because they cannot spell spoken words phonetically. Spoken words cannot be defined unless someone defines them or spells them for the whole word reader. Dictionaries are harder to use for whole word readers.

New 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. They must hear someone speak the word to pronounce it. 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. Many English words are adopted from other languages. Phonics can resolve most spelling challenges with far more success than can be expected from whole word readers.


Since dictionaries are harder to use and don't help with word pronunciation anyway, they have low value to whole word readers. 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.

Information Sources for Whole Word Readers

The difficulty of learning new words influences the whole word reader's information sources (books and other media) to those that use words the whole word reader is comfortable with, essentially common words that do not require a great effort to learn. New difficult words are a chore to read or hear because the resources that would make pronunciation or comprehension easier (dictionaries) are not very helpful for whole word readers. New spoken words cannot even be noted down for later investigation because it cannot be spelled. The written word can be defined with a dictionary, but despite dictionary pronunciation keys, it still cannot be pronounced.

Whole word readers need spoken words written for them and written words spoken for them.

New words are a challenge and therefore are avoided. This, I suspect, is an important factor in why so much has to be written for the public at basic writing levels and why this will not change in the near future.

Teach phonics!