For many adults, reading a book or newspaper seems effortless. Yet reading effortlessly comes from constant use of basic skills learned at an early age. Once children learn these basic skills, they can eventually read complex books like War and Peace.
What are these skills? To read, one must recognize thousands of words. Since all English words are built from only twenty-six letters, huge task of recognizing letters and their sounds and putting them together to form words becomes greatly simplified. An English-speaking child only has to sound out letters and then put sounds together to read word.
I do not wish to over-simplify complexity of our rich English language, however. Like other western languages, English has its peculiarities. For example, many vowels have more than one sound, and many sounds can be spelled more than one way. However, even with these complexities, English is far easier to learn than Chinese, where children have to memorize thousands of word pictures, rather than twenty-six letters and their sounds.
Reading is difficult at first, but, once learned, process becomes automatic and unconscious. When we can read quickly without sounding out every letter of every word, all knowledge of world opens to us. However, like learning to drive a car, if we donít learn basic skills, we donít learn to read, or we read poorly.
Enter public-school education theorists who think otherwise. Don't adults read without sounding out every letter of every word, they ask? So why teach children phonics? Why put children through alleged boredom, drudgery, and hard work of learning letter-sounds? How can reading be joyful if literature becomes drills? If children memorize whole words instead of putting together letter sounds, all this pain will be gone. Rather than teaching kids alphabet and how to sound out M-O-T-H-E-R, teach them to recognize MOTHER and other whole words in a book, like Chinese word-pictures or ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Have child read simple books that repeat each word over and over, so that they come to recognize word. Do this for each word, they claim, and child will learn to read. This is called "whole-language" reading instruction.
The only problem is that whole-language doesn't work. It is a disaster. Most young children are only able to "memorize" a few hundred relatively simple words. Even an adult's mind can only memorize at most, a few thousand words. That's limit of human mind's capacity to memorize abstract symbols. In contrast, children who learn to sound out letters of words with phonics can read tens of thousands of words, and eventually read ANY word, because they can sound out each letter in word and put sounds together.