What is reading? According to Wikipedia, reading is a complex cognitive process of decoding symbols in order to construct or derive meaning.
So, is reading simply memorizing a few key words? Well, I guess it could be. If the only things in life you were ever able to read were those few key words though, you likely would not derive much “meaning” from your reading. Looking at the above definition, reading is described as decoding symbols. So, letters and letter combinations should be your focus.
Have you ever seen those “teach your baby to read” sort of packages? PLEASE, I beg you, PLEASE do not fall for these! What you see these small children doing is not reading. They are memorizing a few words, not decoding symbols. Any programs that focuses on whole words, vs. breaking words apart by learning the sounds of various symbols (individual letters and letter combinations) should be avoided.
You may think there is no harm in teaching a child to memorize a few words prior to learning phonics or decoding skills. I do not believe this is true at all. There can be significant harm done because the child thinks that in order to read they have to look at the whole word. They will try and use this strategy later on. They will try and memorize words that are commonly used instead of decoding them. Some kids will be very successful using this strategy early on. They might be great memorizers, and they will learn many words and will be able to do quite well reading most of the introductory readers used in classrooms today. However, as the vocabulary in their books increases, they will not be able to memorize all the words. They will have to be able to decode them. At this point, a child who has been used to memorizing will begin to have great difficulty with reading. In schools this usually takes place around the second or third grade.
So please, focus on breaking words apart piece by piece. Do not have your child memorize whole words.
* As with most things in life, there are exceptions to this. There are a FEW key words that should be memorized early on in order to begin reading some basic sentences. Words like “the” “a”, and “said” can be memorized as a whole word early. I still believe it’s a good idea to have children decoding simple words though prior to even the introduction of these words.