Do You Want to Learn to Read by Memorizing Word Shapes?

Content below quoted from “Children Learning Reading Newsletter,” October 19th, 2015, written by Jim Yang, Teach Your Child to Read (

Let’s Pretend English Was an Ideographic Language

theyHow do children learn to read? In fact, if you have school aged children, how does their school/teacher go about teaching them to read? Using some phonics learning? Learning sight words? Or maybe a mixture of both. This will depend on the child’s teacher, but generally, it is more heavily weighted towards the teaching of sight words – emphasizing the learning of “word shapes”. Despite all the evidence to suggest otherwise, the whole language method of teaching still dominates how reading is taught at schools. Just have a look at the image above. This was from a “reading strategy” handout my oldest child brought home at the start of her school year in grade 3. Most of the “strategies” outlined on that handout were not very useful – to put it nicely, and to put it bluntly, encouraging children to learn to read through looking at word shapes is completely asinine.

I have written extensively about the problem of teaching sight words and word shape memorization. But here I am, writing about it again, because you just can’t make this stuff up! When children learn to read by focusing on word shapes, they focus on the protrusions in the shapes of words. Their visual pattern response is to look at words as “pictures”, just like Chinese characters – except the main difference here is that English is alphabet based, and there are simple strategies that allow you to effectively “decode” and read alphabet based languages.


Word Shape Confusion

Why do so many children have reading problems? Most are perfectly smart and bright students – there is nothing wrong with our children, but the fault lies with how reading is taught at schools. What happens when children come across words with very similar shapes? Which is which? How do they know? Well, they don’t, and these poor sight readers will end up guessing, replacing, or simply skipping over these words. The unfortunate fact is that there are countless words with very similar shapes! Have a look at just a few examples:

  • hat vs. bat


  • hunt vs. hurt vs. bunt vs. brat
  • barn vs. born vs. burn
  • there vs. three vs. tree vs. free vs. here vs. hear
  • fear vs. tear vs. dear vs. dare vs. bare vs. tare

If you had a lot of time, you can come up with a huge list of similar shaped words. Is this really how reading should be taught?! Is this how you want your child to learn to read? Those are rhetorical questions.

The unfortunate reality is that, this is in fact, how reading is taught at schools, and it is reinforced in all the earlier grade levels. When my second child was in kindergarten, he brought home a similar “info sheet” for suggestions to help parents help their children to learn to read. The “info sheet” specifically recommended parents to encourage their children to look at the pictures in storybooks to “guess” and “predict” unfamiliar words. In the full kindergarten report card, the very first item for grading is this:

predicts and confirms unknown words by using picture clues and text

What ever happened to good ol’ phonics and phonetics? Why must children learn to read by looking at word shapes or guessing what words are? If schools brought back phonics, specifically synthetic phonics and teach it along with phonemic awareness development, we would have far fewer students with reading difficulties. It’s really not that difficult to teach a young child to read. With the proper teaching methods, children as young as 2 and 3 years old can learn to read phonetically, and older early grade school children with reading difficulties can learn to read the RIGHT way and catch up and even excel beyond their expected levels.

Be Sociable, Share!