Part 3 – Problems with memorising whole words

Further problems with whole-word memorising are dealt with, including potential difficulties for children who have good visual memories.

Part 3: Problems with memorising whole words


A further problem with memorising words rather than decoding them is that it is rarely possible for anyone, even those with reasonably good memories, to learn more than about five thousand words in this way. This limited number, which would normally take many years to learn, would only give children and adults an approximate reading age of 9 years. This is not nearly enough for coping well with secondary education and adult life, especially when it is known that we have over a million words in English and at least 170,000 are in use. So five thousand words is pathetically few. However, when words are blended a few times they become known and can be read easily and fluently. There is no limit on the number of words that can be stored in the brain when the words have been processed through blending.


Good readers are good at blending unknown words and this enables them to read an infinite number of words. Sadly, there are many English-speaking adults who are stuck on a low reading age because they have reached their limit of memorising five thousand words and they have not mastered or been taught the phonic knowledge to work out the words they cannot read.


We know that the children with an excellent memory and good auditory skills can learn through the whole-word method by cracking the code themselves. However, there is a danger that some children might have a superb memory for whole words but a poor ability to hear the sounds in words. This means they cannot crack the code by themselves. These children initially progress quickly and appear to be good readers: until their memory starts to run out. Then, if they have not learnt or been taught to decode the words, they start to struggle. It usually shows up when these children are given books [samples shown] that have hardly any pictures and far more words on the page, which are longer and in smaller print. It is a terrible blow for them; they had previously received praise for reading so well and now it has all gone wrong. It has become much harder and very unpleasant for them. Therefore it is safer to teach all children through synthetic phonics: that is, by using the alphabetic code and blending route. The children who are lucky to have good visual memories learn so quickly with synthetic phonics; it does not hold them back. It simply enables them to learn to read much faster, once enough letter sounds have been taught. It also ensures that they always try to decode the unknown words they come across.

  • Korean words

    If unfamiliar with the Korean language, try memorising these words. Whole-word learning is not easy!