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Cambridge University Reading Test

Every few years the Cambridge University Reading Test goes viral once again. The “test” purports to disprove the explicit and systematic phonics approach to reading and to plunge us back into the reading wars of the 1980s and 1990s.

Although the reading wars have died down since the death of the “whole language” movement of the 1980s and 1990s, the two opposing camps remain garrisoned behind an unstable DMZ. The “whole language” holdouts still believe that we learn to read naturally from “whole word to part” through exposure to lots of text, memorization of whole words or onsets and rimes (e.g., c-ake and b-ake), and the use of context clues.


The “phonicators” believe that we learn to read “part to whole word” by learning and applying the alphabetic code to decipher the English sound-spelling system.

The unknown author of the Cambridge University Reading Test specifically designed the test to support the “whole language” approach to reading and to debunk the phonics-based approach. Let’s take a look at the test and then see how its author manipulated the test format to get the casual reader to accept its premise.

Cambridge University Reading Test

Aoccdrnig to a rseearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a total mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

According to a researcher (sic) at Cambridge University, it doesn’t matter in what order the letters in a word are, the only important thing is that the first and last letter be at the right place. The rest can be a total mess and you can still read it without problem. This is because the human mind does not read every letter by itself but the word as a whole.

At first (or second) read, the above example seems to validate the whole-word method. You can read the words above with just their first and last letters. Phonics are bogus!

But, wait a minute… There never was such a reading test developed at Cambridge University. The Cambridge University “reading test” is a hoax. The trick behind the hoax is that not only are the first and last letters in the same place, but most of the consonants appear in the exact order of the word. Only the vowels are all removed, rearranged, and replaced.

Text-messaging proves the point. Try texting this sentence to a friend:

Tgouhh pprehas ploepe rlleay cluod cphoreenmd, gievn uteimlnid tmie,  ecfecfniiy sfruefs gatelry.

Though perhaps people really could comprehend, given unlimited time, efficiency suffers greatly.

A bit more challenging? Your friend will certainly have more difficulty reading your message because even though the first and last letters are in the same place, the consonants and medial vowels are not. So, the Cambridge University “Reading Test” actually points to the fact that readers really do look at all of the letters and apply the alphabetic code to read efficiently.

In fact, the English sound-spelling system is remarkably consistent and well-worth learning, especially for remedial readers. Yes, there are exceptions, but better to learn the rules and adjust to the exceptions.

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading StrategiesDesigned to significantly increase the reading abilities of students ages eight through adult within one year, the curriculum is decidedly un-canned, is adaptable to various instructional settings, and is simple to use–a perfect choice for Response to Intervention tiered instruction. The program provides multiple-choice diagnostic reading and spelling assessments (many with audio files), phonemic awareness activities, blending and syllabication activitiesphonics workshops with formative assessments, 102 spelling pattern worksheets, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 644 reading, spelling, and vocabulary game cards, posters, activities, and games.

Also get the accompanying Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books. These 54 decodable eBooks (includes print-ready and digital display versions) have been designed for older readers with teenage cartoon characters and plots. Each book introduces focus sight words and phonics sound-spellings aligned to the instructional sequence found in Teaching Reading Strategies. Plus, each book has a 30-second word fluency to review previously learned sight words and sound-spelling patterns, five higher-level comprehension questions, and an easy-to-use running record. Your students will love these fun, heart-warming, and comical stories about the adventures of Sam and his friends: Tom, Kit, and Deb. Oh, and also that crazy dog, Pug.

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books BUNDLE

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books

Or why not get both programs as a discounted BUNDLE? Everything teachers need to teach an assessment-based reading intervention program for struggling readers is found in this comprehensive curriculum. Ideal for students reading two or more grade levels below current grade level, tiered response to intervention programs, ESL, ELL, ELD, and special education students. Simple directions, YouTube training videos, and well-crafted activities truly make this an almost no-prep curriculum. Works well as a half-year intensive program or full-year program.

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  1. Sandra Fulton
    October 2nd, 2010 at 18:26 | #1

    Re: The “Cambridge University Reading Test” … yes, it’s bogus, and the message that “the human mind doesn’t read every letter by itself” is a blanket generalization that doesn’t hold across reading contexts. But neither does your claim that the test “actually points to the fact that readers really do look at all of the letters and apply the alphabetic code to read efficiently.”

    The phenomenon illustrated by the “test” is called the Reicher-Wheeler effect. It demonstrates the role of top-down cognitive processes at work during reading. Of course, the closer the misspelled word is to the standard (familiar) spelling, the less effort it takes to decode. When then first and last letters are intact, it’s even easier. This is because words have overall contours, not just features, and get processed by both sides of the brain (not just the left). When reading becomes automatic, and comprehension is the goal, readers often don’t even notice when the surface code is inconsistent with what they are accustomed to seeing.

    It may be true, in the case of the “test”, that comprehension is improved by the position of the consonants. But readers can use any number of strategies to decode text at the word level – only one of which involves bottom-up processes (i.e., “looking at all the letters and applying the alphabetic code.”)

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