Portuguese: Teach to Read Using the Phonetic (Synthetic) Method

Usually it is assumed that the insufficiencies of the Portuguese system of school education may be resolved already tomorrow, provided today we manage to take the "correct" action. The reality is that these insufficiencies result from 30 years of the irresponsible experiments conducted in this country. There experiments have created fundamental problems, which will require many years to be resolved. This Chapter is devoted to one of the most urgent of these problems: how do we teach to read in the Primary School (1st Cycle of the Basic Education).

Evaluation of the Basic and Secondary School

We shall evaluate the school system in terms of the key competences acquired by the pupils. We shall stress one of the most important of these competences – to be able to read, understand and interpret a written text. At the National Exams in Portuguese of the 12th (final) year, out of the total of 200 points, 80 are given for the interpretation of a written text. As everyone (of the Portuguese readers) knows, the average grade at these Exams is around 7 (the Portuguese grading scale runs from 0 to 20, 10 being the lowest "pass" grade). Thus, we conclude that on average the pupils who take the National Exam in Portuguese have acquired the respective key competence at only the 30% level, as a pupil who is excellent in this competence would never fail completely in the rest of the Exam. Therefore, average pupils at the end of their 12th year at school even fail to achieve the level expected of excellent primary school pupils.

Indeed, even between the students who enter into the university system, there are a lot who fail in the same key competence, to be able to read, understand and interpret a written text, which does not surprise us too much, as some of these students have their average school grade below 10.

Therefore, our evaluation of the Teaching of Reading and Portuguese Language in Portugal is "Bad" (Fail).

Teaching to Read

In Portugal they teach to read using the so-called visual (or global) method: the pupils are taught to recognise entire words by their visual appearance. This method was first proposed by a U.S. educator, being radically different from the phonetic (or synthetic) method: learn the letters – build syllables – words – phrases. In fact, the educator was quite successful in appropriately combining the two methods, as his pupils learned to read easier and quicker. However, the usage of his ideas in the Portuguese school system elevates the visual component to the absolute.

As a consequence, in a large majority of cases the pupils are taught to read using the official global method, with disastrous results: they don't learn to read when they should, failing to read even in their 4th year of school (the last year of the Primary, or of the 1st Cycle of the Basic School). Most unfortunately, there are countless examples demonstrating that this is a rule and not some isolated cases only.

The visual (global) method of teaching to read

The nations who have the visual method as the only way to teach reading are the Far Eastern nations, who use ideograms for writing. The ideograms are simplified drawings, each of which represents a word, all ideograms being different one from the other, although some of the concepts are constructed using more than one ideogram. A well-educated Japanese high-school graduate knows about one thousand ideograms. This translates into about one hundred ideograms per school year, or two ideograms per week, which does not look too much. Nevertheless, a Japanese pupil, to be successful at school, has to study many more hours per day as compared to a Western pupil.

Thus, Portuguese pupils have to recognise the words by their visual appearance, without knowing letters or syllables. Looking at the pages full of text, they quickly loose any confidence in their own abilities, as every day they are required to learn ever more words, at a pace that by far exceeds the two ideograms per week required of a Japanese pupil. However, whereas the Japanese pupils know they need to work real hard, the Portuguese pupils have no such notion, as they are never required to work seriously at school during the classes. Having lost their hopes, the pupils give up and don't learn to read when they should, with disastrous consequences for their entire school life, and serious consequences for the rest of their lives.

The difficulties of the visual method for an average pupil may be easier understood if we think of the information processing in our brain. Indeed, a great majority of persons is able to reason based on the notions expressed by words, which are build of sounds or phonemes. Therefore, the phonetic (synthetic) method is naturally applicable to teaching to read. On the other hand, only the most gifted painters or architects are able to reason based on images. Everyone knows the difficulty of learning to recognise all the traffic signs, although these are much less numerous than the Japanese ideograms, and were designed to be easily comprehensible. It is true that the persons who are able to read very quickly use the visual method for this purpose. However, such persons are relatively few, and usually acquire this ability after they have learned to read very well, using the conventional phonetic method.

Thus, we must not complicate uselessly the life of a great majority of our pupils, trying to impose them the visual (global) method in the primary school.


Our Primary School pupils (1st Cycle of the Basic School) are unable to learn to read when they should, because they are mostly taught to read by the visual (global) method, which does not work and can not possibly work, with the results of this pedagogic folly easily noticeable in the National System of Education.

We must note that there are no incompetent teachers or bad pupils in the primary school, instead, there are incorrect teaching methods imposed by incompetent Ministries.


The pupils should learn to read by the end of the 2nd year, that is, at 7 to 8 years of age, fluently, at about 100 words per minute. It would be to much to ask for the same targets to be achieved by the end of the 1st year, as the pupils are already overloaded with all the new things they need to get in touch with and learn. The first year should be dedicated to the integration in the class, and learning disciplined behaviour during the classes, learning safety rules, study visits to where the parents work, to historic places, the earlier the better. We may start to study the alphabet and the numbers, building syllables and learning sums up to 20; however, we should avoid the temptation to teach everything in the first year, if we don't want the pupils, overloaded, to get disappointed and disillusioned already in the first year of their school life.


The visual method must be substituted by the synthetic method, the textbooks of Reading for the primary school must be conveniently republished to be used for the synthetic method, already for the next school year, as every year lost represents one more generation of our pupils, victims of the system of educations. The teaching of English should not begin before the 3rd year, in order to let the pupils learn to read fluently in Portuguese first. Otherwise, the pupils will be overloaded during their 2nd year, and will fail to learn to read, let alone learning English.

Notes Added in Proof
  • The French Ministry of Education has prohibited the visual (global) method already in 2006.
  • In November of 2007 a piece of news appeared on BBC detailing the plans for the British children to be taught to read, already at the age of 6, using the synthetic (phonetic) method.
  • Rhetoric question: when will the other EU countries follow?

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