Look and Say Teaching Method

The look and say teaching method, also known as the whole word method, was invented in the 1830s and soon became a popular method for teaching reading.

By the 1930s and 1940s there was a very strong focus on teaching children to read by this method. In the 1950s, however, it was fiercely criticised in favour of phonics-based teaching. The debate still continues today.

The look and say method teaches children to read words as whole units, rather than breaking the word down into individual letters or groups of letters. Children are repeatedly told the word name while being shown the printed word, perhaps accompanied by a picture or within a meaningful context.

Eventually children learn to ‘sight read’ the word, recognising it through pattern recognition without any conscious attempt to break the word down into its parts. Over time children build up a larger and larger vocabulary of whole words which they can recognise.

Try playing one of these commercially available early reading games designed to practice sight-word recognition and rhyming and help to introduce new vocabulary. There are also some fun word-based literacy games using the look and say method you can play with your child to help them start to recognise whole words.

Teaching Principles

  • New words are systematically introduced to the child by letting him see the word, hear the word and see a picture or a sentence referring to the word.
  • Flashcards are often used with individual words written on them, sometimes with an accompanying picture. They are shown repetitively to the child until he memorises the pattern of the word.
  • Progressive texts are used with strictly controlled vocabularies containing just those words which have been learned.
  • Initially the child may concentrate on learning a few hundred words. Once these are mastered new words are systematically added to the repertoire. Typically a child would learn to recognise 1,500 to 3,000 words in his first three or four years of school.


  • Ultimately all children need to be able to recognise whole words to become fluent readers, even those taught initially by phonics-based methods. Whole word recognition is used by literate adults to read all familiar words.
  • A child can learn to recognise any word using the look and say method. In contrast, numerous words in the English language are not phonetically regular and cannot be learnt using a solely phonetic approach. These ‘tricky’ words are often also high frequency words which children encounter regularly when reading and writing.
  • This teaching method is easy to grasp for the parent as it is based on words rather than individual sounds. It can also be more interesting for the child than learning sounds and their blends, as required in phonics-based methods.
  • This method particularly lends itself to teaching infants and young toddlers to read. They have been seen to enjoy such activities.
  • Children taught with the look and say method initially show higher reading levels than children learning phonics, because they learn to automatically recognise a small selection of words. However, later tests demonstrate that the look and say method performs less well when children start to learn longer and more complex words.


  • In many cases if a child is faced with a word he has not already been taught, he will not be able to read it.
  • The child is limited to reading books which contain words he has already memorised. If he wants to read even a simple book, he could be disappointed because it could contain many words he has not yet been taught.
  • It is estimated that the human memory cannot memorise more than around 2,000 abstract symbols. The number of words that are in everyday use is about 50,000. Therefore memorising whole words as abstract symbols, as is the case with the look and say method, will eventually fail. When this occurs it can be harder to ‘re-train’ the child in a different reading methodology.

Examples of Programmes

  • Flashcard system Large flashcards with one of more words written on them in big, clear letters are shown to the child in rapid succession while the words are read aloud to the child. The method was highly publicised by Dr Glenn Doman, Founder of ‘The Institute for the Achievement of Human Potential’. Dr Doman wrote a book on his methods called ‘How to Teach Your Baby To Read’. It was first published in 1964 and has since become a bestseller. In Dr Doman’s system:
    • The child is taught to associate the written word with how it is pronounced, but is not specifically taught the meaning of the word. When the child can speak he is able to say and read the words aloud.
    • Very short teaching sessions are recommended which should be dispersed throughout the day. You should stop before your child wants to stop.
    • Five words are shown to the child in one session. They should be shown as quickly as is physically possible and in a very enthusiastic and ‘joyous’ manner. Speed is essential to stop the child getting bored, since he can absorb the information very quickly.
    • A group of five words should typically be shown three times a day for five days. They are then considered to be ‘learned’ and should be retired and new words introduced. The child is therefore exposed to a large number of words in a relatively short space of time.
    • Although there seem to be plenty of stories of success from parents who have taught their children to read using this method, there is still a lack of evidence for a number of assertions made in the book (eg ‘beyond two years of age, reading gets harder every year’).

  • Multi-Sensory Learning This method was pioneered by Dr Robert Titzer, a respected infant researcher and University professor. He has produced a series of DVDs and books based on his approach entitled 'Your Baby Can Read'. They are focused on teaching babies, toddlers and pre-schoolers to read.
    • Dr Titzer’s method advocates stimulating as many of the child’s senses as possible while he is being taught a word, helping the child to associate familiar images with the written form of the word. It exploits the latest theory of brain development which says that children learn better if they learn through more than one sense at a time.
    • When following the DVD, the child sees the word, sees a picture of the word, says the word and performs an action related to the word (eg touches his ‘nose’), or sees further pictures of the word (eg ‘tiger’ prowling around a zoo).
    • The variety of stimuli make this approach interesting for the child and should appeal better to children with different learning styles.
    • More emphasis is also placed on understanding the meaning of the word, compared to the flashcard system. The rate of learning new words is, however, slower.

Have Your Say

If you have tried teaching your child to read using this, or any other, teaching method, please do share your experiences - good and bad - with other visitors of this site.

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