In the mid-1880s, a German researcher at the University of Leipzig named James M. Cattell published a paper titled “The Time Taken Up in Cerebral Operations,” in which he found that adult readers could recognize words as rapidly as letters. Students were shown letters and words with a device called a tachistoscope—a piece of equipment that used a tiny shutter as found in many cameras to expose words and letters to a viewer at various speeds and for varying amounts of time. From these early experiments, coupled with results of research in the mid-1920s and early 1930s showing that many children were failing first grade because they were not learning to read successfully, a new approach to teaching reading called the whole-word method was born in the late 1930s.

It was thought that children could be taught to recognize whole words by sight, without any analysis of letters or sounds. Learning to read words not only would be more interesting and motivating for young children, but, as was shown in Cattell’s research, could be done without the dull, boring, and needless trek through learning letter names and letter sounds.

As a part of the whole-word or sight-word approach to teaching reading, researchers undertook studies of “word frequency” (i.e., how often words appear in most writing) in printed texts. Lists of the most frequent words in the English language were developed. The most frequent words in English were taught first to young children. Words like the, and, a, and look were taught using word lists displayed on walls and in little reading books. Children practiced reading these words until they were memorized. Some of the most famous of these early reading books were known as the New Basic Readers or the Dick and Jane readers, originally published in 1941.

Once children learned to recognize the frequent words by sight, teachers were to teach children to “discover” how the sounds and letters within known words worked. In doing so, children could then figure out unknown words. So, once a whole word was recognized, the parts of the word could be studied to determine how the parts contributed to the whole.

A more recent variation on the whole-word instructional approach was an approach to teaching reading called whole language (Heymsfeld, 1989). With whole language, teachers and researchers believed that students would learn to read as naturally as they had learned to speak. The central unit of meaning, the sentence, was thought to be the smallest unit of meaning for teaching children to read in whole language approaches. Children were immersed in print-rich classrooms where they would hear stories read aloud, and they would repeatedly read the same story or poem, typically within the pages of a “big book” or on large chart paper, again and again with the assistance of the teacher. All this was to proceed without invasive, meaningless drills and skills and the use of decodable texts often associated with phonics-first instruction (K. S. Goodman, 1986; Rayner, Foorman, Perfetti, Pesetsky, & Seidenberg, 2002). Notice how top-down theories of the reading process influenced whole language reading instruction by examining the information in the below figure. Do you see the connection between first comprehending the whole, whether it was a word, a sentence, or a text, and then interpreting the parts of the whole?

Connecting top-down theories of the reading process and whole-word reading instructional practices

Top-Down Theories of the Reading Process

  • Duirng reading and learning to read, language is processed from the whole to the parts, as in taking a completed jigsaw puzzle apart.
  • Learning to read is based on "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts", as asserted by Gestalt psychology.
  • Learning to read is accomplished naturally and holistically through immersion in print-rich and language-rich environments.
  • Repetition in reading is focused on practicing phrases, sentences, or stories again and again until the text elements are internalized,
  • Language stimuli in beginning reading material are not controlled but represent naturally occurring patterns of language such as "run, run as fast as you can..." in the "Gingerbread Man" story.
  • Learning how to read stories, sentences, or phrases is assumed to lead to a perception of the parts and their relationship to the whole text and meaning.
  • Repeated readings of authentic books of interest with help or independently are assumed to lead to an ability to read fluently with comprehension.
  • Mistakes or miscues are seen as positive indicators of students' willingness to take risks.
  • Having a large oral language base gives students access to printed language.
  • Comprehending texts provides access to new vocabulary words and increased insights into how the sound-symbol system works for decoding unknown words.

Whole-Word, Sight-Word, or Holistic Reading Instruction

  • Reading instruction begins by engaging children in an abundance of stories and books read aloud to and with children.
  • Instruction proceeds to demonstrate during the reading of various sizes and types of books how good readers sound when they read.
  • Guessing the identity of a word based on the pictures, the meaning of the text, or the first letter clue (minimal cues) is encouraged so as to leave large amounts of attention capacity available for meaning or comprehending.
  • Children are encouraged to learn many words by sight without further decoding or analysis.  Using letter sounds to unlock words is seen as the strategy of last resort.
  • Children are taught to read with patterned books and authentic children's literature stories to optimize the chance that children will have something to read of worth and something that will make sense.  Controlling the language too strictly is viewed as having a detrimental effect on the comprehensibility of the language.
  • Children practice reading a story again and again to internalize the language, structure, and meaning of stories.  Analyzing story language too closely (sound-to-letter blending) is viewed as unnecessary to produce skilled, fluent readers.
  • Control over the reading of the stories or books is gradually released from the teacher model to the children.
  • Decoding ability is the product of language insights gained as children construct the meanings of a variety of texts and text patterns.

We want to alert you to the fact that as a teacher you will probably experience these extreme theories of the reading process—bottom-up and top-down and their attendant instructional practices (phonics first and whole word/whole language) at least once during your career as a teacher. These extreme views have and continue to provoke heated debates, “reading wars,” and political mandates. Whether it was the adoption of phonics-first reading instruction in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s or the turn to whole language from the 1980s into the 1990s, these extreme instructional approaches are never likely to be as effective as approaches in which these extremes are combined (Rayner et al., 2002). Attempts to combine these theoretical extremes have resulted in interactive theories of the reading process.