A "phonetic" method teaches sounds to be associated with letters and combinations of letters. Students memorize these associations. They learn to sound out and then blend sound combinations to produce words. This method requires direct teaching of "sounding out" methods, and memorization of pronunciation rules. One method that teachers use to develop students' ability to sound out words and blend sounds is Elkonin boxes. The most perfect phonetic system is Orton phonography, originally developed to teach brain-damaged adults to read. Orton described 73 "phonograms", or letter combinations, and 23 rules for spelling and pronunciation. By following these rules one can correctly pronounce and spell all but 123 of the 13,000 most common English words.
Advocates of "look say" teaching argue that it is the method used by literate adults to read all familiar words. Also the method is said to be easy to teach, and pleasant for students. Critics charge that a "look say" student can only speak and spell words that they have been taught, therefore, the critic says, they are permanently crippled when compared to phonetically-taught students. Also, it is established that this method requires an expensive set of textbooks for each student. It is therefore very popular with textbook companies. Critics have charged that for this reason, book companies may have found methods to bias experts and institutions to favor this method.
Advocates of phonetics cite the large reading and spelling vocabulary that phonetic students can theoretically obtain. However, critics of phonetic methods talk of students that fail at each one of the method's many mandatory skills. Almost all students learn letter-sounds. Many students find it difficult to "blend" the letter sounds to produce sensible speech. Some students also fail to apply rules to select letter sounds. Also, critics charge that in phonetic programs, students can learn to pronounce a sentence without ever learning to understand it. The same, of course, holds true for "look say".