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The "look say" method, also known as the whole word method, sight method, or configurational reading, is a 'spatial-holistic' method to learn a language; it is the same method used to acquire literacy in languages such as Chinese, which is based on ideograms. Its application to learning a primarily phonetic language such as English is of questionable value and has been associated with artificially inducing dyslexia.
Students who learn English using this method are taught to memorize the appearance of words or to recognize words by looking at their first and last letters; these words come from rigidly selected vocabularies in progressive texts (such as The Cat in the Hat). Often, this method is taught by using slides or cards, each with a picture next to a word, teaching children to associate the whole word with its meaning.
Preliminary results often show that children taught English with this method have higher reading levels than children learning through a phonetic method, as they learn to automatically recognise a small selection of words. However, later tests demonstrate that literacy development becomes stunted when these students are hit with longer, more complex words later in school life. It is known that "look say" students do not naturally learn to spell or write unless explicitly taught, not having learned to pronounce words phonetically; they are encouraged to guess them instead. However, they are able to learn the 5,000 most common words in roughly three years, which is sufficient for basic literacy. The classic implementation of this approach was the McGill reading curriculum, which was used to teach most baby boomers to read in the U.S.
The method was invented by Rev. Thomas H. Gallaudet, the director of the American Asylum at Hartford, in the 1830's. It was designed for the education of the Deaf and Dumb by juxtaposing a word with a picture. In 1830, Gallaudet described his method to the American Annals of Education, which included teaching children to recognize a total of 50 words written on cards by sight; by 1837, the method was adopted by the Boston Primary School Committee. Horace Mann, the Secretary of the Board of Education of Massachusetts at the time, favored the method, and it soon became the dominant method state-wide. By 1844, however, the defects of the new method became apparent to Boston schoolmasters, who issued an attack against it, urging a return to an intensive, systematic phonics. Again Dr. Samuel T. Orton, a neuropathologist in Iowa, in 1929 sought the cause of children's reading problems and concluded that their problems were being caused by the new sight method of teaching reading. (His results were published in the February 1929 issue of the Journal of Educational Psychology, “The Sight Reading Method of Teaching Reading as a Source of Reading Disability.”)
This approach to learning English has fallen out of favor and has been replaced by the whole language approach.