Most helpful critical review
32 of 51 people found the following review helpful
on November 28, 2006
I read Smith's book as part of research on the reading wars, the history of education, and for an essay about Rudolph Flesch. This book--written to promote whole word and to discredit Flesch--convinced me, once again, that Flesch was right.
Smith is famous for asserting, in this book, "Readers do not need the alphabet." I keep wondering how they would use a dictionary.
Smith wants you to ignore the phonetic clues within each word. He wants you to look only at the shapes of words. English thereby becomes a vast chaos of nearly one million logos.
Smith writes what I take to be a brilliant kind of sophistry. Everything seems so clear, so sincere. You have to read a paragraph several times to realize that the meaning is slipping away. In an odd way, I would recommend this book for people who want their minds stretched.
Finally, you have to wait for those flat assertions that you can compare to a reality you know. Smith states that children can acquire vocabularies of 50,000 sight words! I had read years before that only the smartest Chinese can master even 20,000 of their ideograms. (Note that these ideograms come in only one form--no upper case, lower case, script, etc.)
Smith claims that learning new sight words is easy--as when you see new cars or meet new people. Sounds good until you try to imagine somebody memorizing 10,000 cars or faces. Perhaps people with photographic memories could manage it. But not the average kid in school. And 10,000 words is just the threshold of literacy.
People not in education should know that twenty years ago, whole word was king, and Smith was an ed god. But now even California has figured out that reading without phonics is nonsense indeed. I still puzzle over Smith's motives, but tend to suspect that this book is a modern equivalent of alchemy.
(PS at later date: I created 7 graphic videos for YouTube that explain the problems in Smith's thinking; search "Phonics versus Whole Word.")