Clueless: Reading Turned Into Detective Work

Clueless: Reading Turned Into Detective Work

Think of a detective investigating a crime scene. He moves tensely, searching for clues. The detective does not know what happened, and must deduce it from many little signs and traces. He can never relax–he might miss that crucial spot on the carpet.

Finally, after years of trying to understand Whole Word (a/k/a Sight Words, Dolch Words, etc.), I realized that the process the education professors were so in love with was like what the police do in a criminal investigation. Obviously, this is tedious work, with many false starts and dead-ends. It’s hard, exhausting work for mind and body.

At that instant Whole Word, the dominant theory for 80 ruinous years, was so clearly silly, time-consuming, and draining, so blatantly without a scrap of merit, that no one should take it seriously. The professors are prescribing hard, unpleasant work, not reading as you and I understand this term.

Think, for contrast, how adults read. It is the most effortless activity of the day. It is easier than eating or driving. Hundreds of millions of people read for pleasure. They sink into a book the way an exhausted athlete settles into a hot bath. We have to use up all our words for effortless, restful, restorative, enjoyable, and just plain fun. Reading is all those things if, here’s the rub, one can actually read.

Now let’s look back at Whole Word, which requires that children memorize the shapes of words, an endless, agonizingly tedious process in itself. But even if on schedule, these children can hardly read at all, even in middle school. To compensate for this bizarre deficiency, the children are told to guess, to predict, to figure out meanings from context, in short, to play detective.

Finally it was the phrase “picture clues” that broke the case open for me. The only way you can look at a picture is to look away from the words. That’s the last thing a real reader wants to do, or needs to do.

All the techniques taught in Whole Word basically involve collecting clues in order to solve an endless series of little puzzles. Kids search frantically from letter shapes, to context, to pictures, to predictions made initially, to new guesses, and back around again. Their eyes bounce about like dice on a craps tables. All this takes time. Many puzzles are never solved.

Imagine a child showing up to learn to read. As part of the deal, he must become, in effect, a regular little Sherlock Holmes–fingerprint expert, forensic photographer, crime scene investigator, medical expert. He must master all these investigative skills and employ them simultaneously against the dark mystery that is English. It’s almost guaranteed that such hapless victims will say they hate reading.

Bottom line, Whole Word is quackery. It has created 50,000,000 functional illiterates because it never touches reality. Not surprisingly, it has generated some of the finest cloud-cuckoo-land blah-blah-blah ever written.

Here are the kinds of nonsense one easily finds on the internet. All nine quotes are more or less equally preposterous. Read as much as you can stand:

1) “Reading is not just pronouncing words–it requires understanding. Most experienced readers use a variety of strategies to understand text: Make Predictions; Visualize; Ask and Answer Questions; Retell and Summarize; Connect the Text to Life Experiences, Other Texts, or Prior Knowledge.”

2) “In the course of fluent reading, and when coming upon unknown words, children rely on the use of four cueing systems: phonological (letter-sound relationships), semantic (meaning in context), syntactic (structural and grammatical), and pragmatic (usage and the purpose of the text) to make meaning. Miscue analysis can determine which system is more heavily used, and explicit instruction in each of the systems can make the process much more efficient for struggling readers.”

3) “Word-attack strategies help students decode, pronounce, and understand unfamiliar words….Connect to a Word You Know: Think of a word that looks like the unfamiliar word….Reread the Sentence: Read the sentence more than once; Think about what word might make sense in the sentence. Try the word and see if the sentence makes sense….Keep Reading:Read past the unfamiliar word and look for clues; If the word is repeated, compare the second sentence to the first. What word might make sense in both?…Use Prior Knowledge: Think about what you know about the subject of the book, paragraph, or sentence; Do you know anything that might make sense in the sentence? Read the sentence with the word to see if it makes sense.”

4) “Predict and Confirm: Ask yourself, “What word do I expect to see?”, “What do I think will happen next?”, “Did that make sense?”, or “Am I finding the answers to my questions about this topic?…Skip, Read On, and Go Back: Sometimes you can skip an unfamiliar word and read to the end of the sentence or paragraph, thinking about what would make sense. Then, using the context, go back and reread…”

5) “Integrating Use of Cueing Systems into Daily Reading Activities –Objectives: Students will develop emerging abilities to: use combined knowledge of context, syntax clues, sight words, word structures, and graphophonics to draw meaning from print; employ a variety of problem-solving strategies when confronted with an unfamiliar word….Cueing systems are sets of cues or clues built into the structures and patterns of the English language. They are called systems because the English language is systematic in the ways that words are ordered to create meaning, letters and sounds are related, punctuation is used, and in the ways that the English language is used to communicate. When children are taught to recognize and use these relatively predictable language patterns within texts, they have the means to become independent readers and writers.”

6) “The numerous studies which indicate that the [guessing] strategy is effective provide validation for a strategy that is in itself intuitively appealing and appears to offer many advantages over laborious, time-consuming, methodical instruction in vocabulary and collocation. Another claim in support of the guessing strategy is that it involves generalizable skills of interpreting surrounding text, predicting, and testing predictions while reading, which enhance reading skills as a whole….In addition, guessing has been advocated instead of dictionary use because stopping to use a dictionary interrupts the flow of reading.”

7) “The use of contextual clues can be one of the best ways to improve students’ reading skills. Unfortunately, students often insist on understanding each word when reading. Realizing that a text can be understood in a general sense by using contextual clues can go a long way towards helping students cope with increasingly difficult texts. At the same time, the use of contextual clues can also provide a means by which students can rapidly increase their existing vocabulary base.”

8) “I can’t believe it! Right in the middle of our conversation, Peter turned around newkily and walked out of the room!” What does newkily probably mean? A) formally; B) slowly, in no hurry; C) suddenly, without notice;  D) quietly, in an unusual manner.” [They always try to rig these little context quizzes so the answer seems obvious. So I made up a nonsense word for the word they had. I can make a case for all four answers.]

9) “Various kinds of evidence suggest that many emergent and less proficient readers find it easiest to learn whole words, and to derive phonics knowledge from them. In order to do this, they have to spend a lot of time reading. And as they read to become more proficient readers, they will still need to use context as a temporary support to get words they don’t recognize. Part of what needs to happen is a chain reaction: using context will help less proficient readers get the words; repeated exposure to words will make the words identifiable on sight; an increased repertoire of sight words will facilitate knowledge of letter/sound relations; and the ability to use sight words, phonics, and increasingly sophisticated aspects of context will enable children to become more involved, proficient, effective, and competent readers: to actively learn and achieve through reading.”

Note the requirement that kids who can’t actually read must spend a lot of time reading! All this rigamarole is required because the professors won’t teach the kids to read with phonics, an approach which actually enables kids to read in the first year or two of school. No clues required.

(For more on this topic, see “42: Reading Resources” on

Bruce Deitrick Price is the founder of, an education and intellectual site. One focus is problems in the schools; see “56: Top 10 Worst Ideas in Education.” Price is an author, artist and poet. His fifth book is “THE EDUCATION ENIGMA.”