What is the Reading Method in English Teaching?

The Reading Method, sometimes known as the Reading Approach, is an outdated way of teaching English, mainly as an additional language. The theory behind the method was that students could pick up the basics of English simply by learning to understand words and grammatical patterns from written text.

After it was first devised in the 1920s, the Reading Method was widely used to teach English as an additional language. It was also advocated for children struggling with language skills in the UK. However, due to its many shortcomings, the Reading Method has fallen out of popularity as a way of teaching English.

Here we explore the Reading Method of teaching English, how it was devised, why it ceased to be used, and the background of the man who invented it. We’ll also look at modern methods that have replaced the Reading Method in English teaching, helping to give today’s children the best start with spoken and written language.

Who invented the Reading Method of teaching English?

The Reading Method, also known as the New Method or the Reading Approach, was devised by Dr. Michael Philip West (1888-1973). During the 1920s, he worked as an English professor in India.

Dr. West believed that everyone around the world should learn English. As English was an international language, he argued that it could make it easier for people from different countries to communicate with each other. He thought this would have several essential advantages for people everywhere:

  • To broaden people’s outlooks;
  • To create a feeling of connection between people no matter which country they came from;
  • Many factual and fictional books at that time were written in English to help everybody access and understand the broadest possible range of reading materials.

Because he was a respected educator, his beliefs found a following. The Reading Method became widely used to teach English in India and French and German to American children. The Reading Method also gained some traction in the UK as a way of teaching children who were struggling with their linguistic development.

How did the Reading Method differ from other ways of teaching English?

When Dr. West was working, the most popular method of teaching English to students in other countries was the Direct Method, also known as the Natural Method. This method focused heavily on spoken words through students actively participating in class. They were encouraged to learn English words directly without translating them into their first language.

Dr. West thought this method was too time-consuming, as a lot of class time was taken with the teacher talking, so each student didn’t get much time to practice their speaking skills. He also believed that learning to read English was more essential than learning to speak or write it – he thought the skills of speaking and writing English would naturally come later if students learned how to read it first.

This belief was at the very core of the Reading Method in English teaching, as the approach focuses on the “passive” work of reading rather than the “active” job of speaking English. So it is because Dr. West believed that you couldn’t express yourself until you knew enough words, and reading was, in his opinion, the best way to learn them.

How did the Reading Method work?

The whole point of the Reading Method was to teach students just enough words to express themselves and basic sentence structure patterns, which Dr. West believed they could pick up through reading. He stated that people needed a minimum of 1158 words to be able to express their ideas in a normal conversation, and he categorized these words into two different types:

  1. Form words – these are the grammatical words that connect ideas and form the building blocks of English.
  2. Content words are the words we use to talk and express ourselves.

When it came to reading, Dr. West believed that the minimum number of words you needed to be able to read and understand was 2280. Again, he divided these words into different categories:

  1. Essential words (“a,” “is,” “it,” “that,” etc.)
  2. Common environmental words (“house,” “car,” “table,” “cup,” etc.)
  3. General terms (“good,” “bad,” etc.)
  4. Specific environmental terms (“tree,” “flower,” “sea,” “mountain,” etc.)

Using the Reading Method, these 2280 words would be introduced gradually to students and learned via a lot of repetition. Students would also be shown pictures to consolidate their understanding of the new words. The words they were taught tended to be as phonetically easy as possible, so they wouldn’t have much trouble pronouncing them when they eventually got to speak English.

Dr. West produced a series of graded reading books on a wide variety of different topics. Each grade of reader would introduce some new words. The reading materials were designed to be as enjoyable as possible by covering various issues and including factual and fictional texts. However, the vocabulary was strictly limited to the words that Dr. West thought people needed to learn.

Teachers were given handbooks with definite procedures and guidelines for them to follow. These handbooks also contained practice exercises teachers could provide the students to complete.

What are the advantages of the Reading Method in English teaching?

The Reading Method was almost totally focused on students reading individually and silently. Dr. West believed this would teach students the correct form of the language, and all the subsequent knowledge they needed could be built on this structure. He also thought that silent reading helped students to concentrate and absorb the material more effectively, improving their comprehension. In addition, this would get students into the habit of reading and encourage them to want to read more and more books, so they would essentially be teaching themselves.

Of course, at the time, this was seen as another excellent advantage of the Reading Method. With the Direct Method, teachers had to be very present with each student in the class, listening to they speak. This meant class numbers had to be limited so each student would have enough time to practice. As the Reading Method was focused on silent reading, the teacher didn’t have to give individual attention to each student, so there were no must-limit class numbers. You could technically have 100 students in one classroom, all reading silently without teacher intervention.

What are the disadvantages of the Reading Method?

The main reason the Reading Method fell out of popularity was that it had so many disadvantages compared to teaching methods incorporating writing, speaking, and reading. Some of these disadvantages include the following:

The Reading Method goes against educational principles

One of the education principles is that work should start simple and gradually increase in complexity. With the Reading Method, the words and grammar that students learn don’t get any more difficult as time goes on.

Students’ vocabulary is limited

The Reading Method limits students’ vocabulary to the 2280 words that Dr. West thought were essential to learning to read English; this makes the students’ work lack meaning because once someone knows all these words, they can’t progress. It also means that they use the exact words repeatedly, creating a false-sounding, limited speaking and writing style.

Students don’t learn to express themselves properly

As students don’t know any idioms or do any writing composition under the Reading Method, this makes it difficult for them to learn how to express themselves. They also don’t understand accurate grammar or complex sentence structure, as they focus on learning basic patterns and putting everything together.

The Reading Method is educationally unsound

This method of teaching English is unsound for several reasons:

  • Students might not necessarily grasp the structures of the language or the meanings of words;
  • The teacher has no natural way of checking students’ progress when they’re all reading silently;
  • Reading alone can be dull and monotonous, affecting students’ ability to concentrate;
  • The Reading Method doesn’t consider people’s different learning styles – it only caters to those who enjoy reading.

What are some more modern ways of teaching English?

Today, it is widely recognized that children learn in different ways. Therefore, they need many engaging activities to help them learn English and plenty of teacher attention to ensure they progress. There are numerous ways you can help children learn English, whether they’re learning it as native speakers or as an additional language. These include:


It is where a written word is sounded out so it can be understood as a spoken word. In addition, a word can be split into separate syllables to make it easier to say.


Increasing children’s vocabulary is an excellent way to help them express themselves more effectively. You can do this through conversations, reading, or flashcards for the child’s age group.


Comprehension is about teaching children how to understand a text and then be able to talk or write about it; this is often done by giving children a factual or fictional passage to read and then having them answer questions about what they’ve read. When they’re young, it can help if the texts are short so they don’t have to analyze as much information.

Guided Reading

Guided reading is led by a teacher and is usually done with small groups of children rather than the whole class. The teacher will talk about the text with the children, encouraging them to answer questions and think about what the author might have meant. Children can also use their prior knowledge of the topic to get more meaning from the text.

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