What are some of the common less effective approaches to reading instruction?



We know that the most effective reading programs for teaching children to read are direct systematic phonics programs. Effective programs have a strong phonics first approach (teach reading based on decoding the sounds that the letters make), use direct instruction (directly teach necessary knowledge instead of having kid pull information out on their own) and teach in a systematic (set, planned sequence) and complete (teach all the necessary sounds including the complexities) manner.


The effective direct systematic programs can be compared to common programs and approaches that are much less effective.  Common approaches including ‘whole language’, ‘literature based’ and ‘integrated’ or ‘balanced’ programs routinely have significant failure rates. In this article, reading failure is measured and defined by the actual number or % of children that learn to read at a proficient level. Although some children do learn to read quite well with these less effective methods, the results based evidence shows us that these approaches are not effective in teaching most children how to read.  Under these types of programs and approaches, you will find that frequently that 60-70% of the kids do not learn to read proficiently and even worse is approximately 30% do not even reach the most basic level.   


While some of the elements of these approaches are definitely worthwhile, these approaches are not effective in teaching children HOW to read. The following description gives you a brief overview of some of the instructional methods of the less effective ‘whole language’, ‘literature based’ or ‘integrated’ programs.


A ‘whole word’ or ‘whole language’ program approaches reading by teaching to child to acquire rapid word recognition by sight based on what the word looks like and what the word means.  These methods teach the child to ‘recognize’ the word instead of phonetically decoding the word. These techniques were formerly called ‘whole word’ or ‘sight word’ reading. Specific teaching approaches that indicate the use of  ‘whole language’ approach to reading instruction include:

ü      The child is not taught the direct letter = sound phonetic code.

ü      Your child is taught to ‘read’ words before he has been taught the sounds that make up the words.

ü      Your child is given a list of sight words to ‘learn to read’ or memorize such as the Dolch or other high frequency word lists.

ü      He is told to read words the ‘fast way’ instead of slowly sounding them out. Sounding out words ‘the slow way’ is often discouraged.

ü      Often finger tracking is discouraged as the child is directed to quickly look at the entire word instead of carefully sounding out the word.

ü      The books rely on a lot of predictable and repetitive text and repeated reading/memorization in order for the child to ‘read’.

ü      Your child is encouraged to ‘guess’ the word when reading instead of sounding out the word.

ü      Your child is encouraged and frequently prompted to think of what the word looks like instead of sounding it out when he doesn’t ‘know it’. 

 ü      Your child is given activities that teach him the shape and size of the letters in the word (sometimes short and tall boxes are used to emphasize size or shape patterns).


A ‘literature based’ program is an expanded whole language approach. Reading is viewed and taught as a natural language process. The approach emphasizes the use of engaging literature to develop reading skills.  It embraces the concept that if a child is surrounded by wonderful books and interesting literature they will become ‘engaged’ and learn to read. Context and comprehension are emphasized instead of decoding.  You will see frequent references to thing such as ‘reading is a language process’, ‘the child must experience the power and beauty of language’. While it is hard to argue against these worthy goals and lofty statements such as ‘children need to discover the joy of reading’, the fact is these programs do not work. They fail because they never teach the child HOW to read. Some typical elements of ‘literature based’ programs include:

ü      The child is not directly taught the letter=sound phonetic code. Instead, phonics is taught primarily in an embedded manner where sounds are addressed only as your come across them in ‘authentic reading experiences’  (For example instead of directly teaching m=/m/, the teacher covers ‘m’ during a shared learning experience of reading a story about Marvin the  messy monkey) 

ü      Your child is encouraged to ‘read’ words by looking at the illustrations or by context clues or by guessing what it should say.

ü      Context and meaning is emphasized over accurate decoding. Children are allowed and even encouraged to just say a word that means the same thing if they cant read the word (ie say big for large or fast for quick).

ü      The children are taught to only use phonics, sounding out, as a tool to help you figure out the word if you don’t ‘know’ it and other strategies have failed.

ü      A wide selection of ‘engaging’ books is emphasized. (This is not simply the teacher reading a terrific story to the children but where books with complex vocabulary are used to teach the children how to read from the very beginning.)

ü      Even at the very early learning stages, the books are not decodable by a beginner reader. The initial books that your child is ‘reading’ will contain absurd vocabulary like elephant, rhinoceros, feather, laugh,  and frequent use of complex vowel combinations, r-controlled vowel combinations, irregular words and multisyllable words. While these stories are more ‘exciting’ than ‘the cat sat on the mat’ these complexities can not be decoded by the beginning child.

ü      The focus on teaching the child to ‘read’ is by using techniques such as story mapping, storytelling, discussing and predicting. Often books are read to the class and discussed in length before the child ‘reads’ the book.

ü      Sustained silent reading (SSR) is an important teaching method from the very beginning. (This is not simply where children get to spend time reading but where the SSR is an key instructional element used to  ‘teach reading’ and ‘develop skills’.

ü      ‘Authentic writing  experiences’ and invented spelling are  often incorporated into the literature based approach.


The “integrated” or “balanced” programs rely on a little bit of everything. These programs, teach children to read by using a little bit from all methods and approaches. Generally they throw in a little bit of incidental phonics with the overall literature based approach.  There is frequent reference to statements like ‘all children learn differently’, we address ‘multiple learning styles” and ‘we use a balanced approach’ and references to ‘a overall classroom literacy program’.  While all of this sounds wonderful, the problem is that it does not work. While the overall concepts are true that children are different, they do have different strengths and learning styles..ect.. the fact is these ‘integrated’ or ‘balanced’ programs have high failure rates. The theory sounds great but the reality is that teaching with multiple ineffective methods will not help the child learn and often just increases confusion (You teach with a bunch of different methods and the child happens to pick up and learn the incorrect approach!)

ü      These balanced programs usually incorporate all the aspects of a ‘literature based’ program.

ü      They usually include some phonics instruction. However, the phonics instruction is often analytical or embedded.  This type of ‘phonics’ instruction is NOT as effective.  “We do teach phonics” is NOT the same as we teach with an effective direct systematic phonics program. Inclusion of phonics as part of the integrated approach does not meet the effectiveness criteria.

ü      Phonics and ‘sounding out’ is viewed as one approach or tool to use in reading instead of the primary way to read words.

ü      ‘Multiple Learning’ styles are often emphasized. The programs often contain ‘kinetic’ activities such as hand signs, a song or dance. For example slicing up apples, having an apple snack and painting apple pictures, and practicing hand signs for a.  The problem is that often the ‘multi-sensory’ or ‘kinetic’ activities are not teaching the child what he needs to know or developing the skills the child actually needs to read such as the printed letter a=/a/ relationship he must know to read.  Hand signs are a useful communication tool; however they do not teach the child how to read printed letters. Reading does not involve translating hand signals, it requires translating printed letters to the sounds of our language. The kinetic motion of forming/writing the letters is critical to helping a child learn his sounds. However, the kinetic motion must be tied to formation of the printed letter, not an unrelated dance or motion.  Just because an activity is multi-sensory does not mean it will be effective or develop necessary skills. The multi-sensory techniques must be tied directly to the skills the child needs to learn to read. For example, jumping up and down may help a kindergarten class get out some energy but will not help the kids learn to read unless they are jumping up and down while looking at a printed j and saying /j/ /j/ /j/.  


In summary, if you look at the factual effectiveness rates. If effectiveness is used as a criteria, there is a right way to teach children to become proficient readers. Direct systematic phonics programs are the most effective way to teach children to read.  Many of the commonly encountered programs do not meet the necessary criteria and have significant failure rates. The new scientific brain imaging studies actually  show the neural pathways that proficient readers use and help explain why direct systematic phonics programs work so well. These other methods often fail to teach the necessary phonological processing required for proficient reading. To better understand WHY direct systematic phonics programs work see the article How Reading Works: The Biologic Process of Proficient Reading and Exciting Scientific Proof - We Can Help Students Learn to Read.


Additional information, articles and resources on teaching children to read proficiently can be found on the Free Reading Information page of the Right Track Reading website.



This article was written by Miscese R. Gagen a mother, reading tutor and author of the reading instructional program Right Track Reading Lessons. The purpose of this article is to provide parents with general information and discussion on issues related to effectively teaching children how to read. More information is located at www.righttrackreading.com.  Copyright 2005 Miscese R. Gagen