kitchen table math, the sequel: Brian Mickelthwait explains look-and-say

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Brian Mickelthwait explains look-and-say

Not long after teaching me to read, my mother got to know some teachers and found out about the “look-and-say” method for teaching reading, and from then on, whenever education was mentioned, she would complain about this doctrine.

This look-and-say method of “teaching” is to me so absurd that even now I am handicapped when describing it by sheer incredulity.... Instead of looking at letters, you look at entire words, and try to remember what each word, viewed as a single indivisible pattern, says. Look-and-say turns the deciphering of English into a project as daunting as the deciphering of Chinese or Japanese.

To make this daft process easier, you are given incidental clues. A sentence about a pig is shown next to a picture of a pig. If you get stuck at P I G, you guess — guessing being much encouraged — either from the picture or from the face of whoever is reading along with you. Then, while remaining confused about what you just “read” and how you did it, you bash on. The one thing you are not told is that P spells puh, I spells i and G spells guh, which means that P I G spells puh-i-guh pig, and you don’t need to guess about it. The one thing, in other words, that you are not told about, when subjected to the look-and-say method for learning to read is: reading.

On the harm done by "look-and-say": A reaction to Bonnie Macmillan's Why School Children Can't Read (pdf file)

And let us not forget: Thank you Whole Language.


LexAequitas said...

I don't think Mickelthwait's post is entirely fair -- to Chinese or Japanese.

Kanji are graphical representations. The connections are often a bit strained, but they're there, and the way students learn is through repeated graphical elements that have somewhat stable meanings. Japanese also uses a fair number of phonetic characters.

In look-and-say, an "f" never has a consistent semantic meaning. There is no semantic connection between words like "find" and "food", while there is between 言 and 語 ("speak" and "language").

That's not to imply the Asian languages are in any way easy, just that pure look-and-say is even worse than that.

Catherine Johnson said...