teaching reading

Teaching reading: Whole Language and Phonics

"Whole language" is a method of teaching reading that emphasizes literature and text comprehension. Students are taught to use critical thinking strategies and to use context to "guess" words that they do not recognize. In the younger grades, children use invented spelling to write their own stories.

In contrast, "Phonics" emphasizes the alphabetic principle -- the idea that letters represent the sounds of speech, and that there are that there are systematic and predictable relationships between written letters and spoken words. Children learn letter sounds (b = the first sound in "bat" and "ball") first and then blend them (bl = the first two sounds in "blue") to form words.

Both instructional methods use elements that are emphasized in the other; the differences between the methods are largely related to what is emphasized and the sequence of skill instruction.


Phonics is seen to be an improvement on the previously used method of learning the approximate sounds represented by letters (b=buh) first and then blending them with other sounds (bl=bluh) to decode and encode words in written form. This newer method attempts to eliminate the extraneous "uh" sounds which were unavoidable in the older method. Children also learn strategies to figure out words they don't know.

Phonics is considered an "analytical" approach where students analyze the letters, letter combinations and syllables in a word; in an effort to "decode" (1) the speech-sounds represented by the letters and (2) the meaning of the text. The advantage of phonics is that, especially for students who come to schools with large English vocabularies, it enables students to decode or "sound-out" a word they have in their speaking vocabulary.

Phonics proponents led by Rudolf Flesch in his book Why Johnny Can't Read attacked the whole word approach because (1) it did not get students into reading children's stories that did not have carefully controlled vocabularies and (2) it theoretically required the students to memorize every word as a whole.

Phonics advocates focus their efforts on the primary grades and emphasize the importance of students having phonemic awareness, that is an understanding of the alphabetic principle that the spelling of words relates to how they sound when spoken.

A problem with teaching the reading of English with this analytical approach is that English words do not have a one-to-one speech-sound to symbol relationship. If they did have a one-to-one relationship, reading would be easier. In general, with a few common exceptions, the consonants do have a one-to-one speech-sound to symbol relationship but the vowels do not. For instance the letter "a" represents one sound in the word "say", a second sound in "at", a third sound in "any", a fourth sound in "are", a fifth sound in "all", a sixth sound in "about", a seventh sound in "father" , an eighth sound in "orange", and a ninth sound (silence) in "bread". The speech-sounds are sometimes influenced by (a) the letters surrounding the target vowel, (b) by the sentence containing the word and (c) the stress, or lack thereof, given to the syllable containing the letter.

Almost any combination of three letters with a central "a" can reasonably be pronounced in a number of different ways. For instance the "a" in "pag" could be pronounced as in "page" (long "a"), "pageant" (short "a"), creepage (short "i") or decoupage (short "o" as in "dot"). It therefor follows that beginning students wil have a difficult time picking the appropriate sound when sounding-out words which are not in their speaking vocabularies.

Fortunately, most readers quickly develop a subconscious word sense which helps them fluently pick the right sound based on the structure of the word and how that structure is related to other similar words they know.

Some very common words do not fully follow common phonic patterns, so those words have to be memorized. Some books refer to these words as "sight words", but it is probably better to refer to them as "memory words" because some books refer to sight words as those words which are so common they do not have to be analyzed or "sounded-out". It does not seem like a good idea to have "sight-words" mean two different things when "memory-words" is available.

The many homonyms in English such as to, too, and two create difficulties for students, even at the university level in regard to spelling.

Drawbacks: Some phonics programs use low-interest reading material and too many boring worksheets. Those "drawbacks", of course, are not unique to a phonics program

Whole Language

Whole language is a currently controversial approach to teaching reading that is based on constructivist learning theory and ethnographic studies of students in classrooms. With whole language, teachers are expected to provide a literacy rich environment for their students and to combine speaking, listening, reading, and writing. Whole language teachers emphasize the meaning of texts over the sounds of letters, and phonics instruction becomes just one component of the whole language classroom. Whole language is considered a "top down" approach where the reader constructs a personal meaning for a text based on using their prior knowledge to interpret the meaning of what they are reading. Problems associated with whole language include a lack of structure that has been traditionally supplied by the scope and sequence, lessons and activities, and extensive graded literature found in basal readers. Whole language puts a heavy burden on teachers to develop their own curriculum.

Drawbacks: Some whole language programs place too little emphasis on word analysis or phonics. When that's left out, young readers may guess or skip over words they don't know and some children may not learn how to read. In addition, extensive reading of regular texts exposes students to many overlapping spelling rules at the same time, and may confuse students. They may come to doubt the applicability of basic phonics rules and instead revert to a whole-word memorization approach that is more mentally taxing and limited than a phonic decoding approach. Some scholars have estimated that a whole-word memorization approach puts severe limitations on the number of words that children can learn to read.

Learning Theories Compared

Behaviorism (Official Theory) Constructivism (Classic Theory)
Teacher-Centered Direct Instruction Student-Centered Instruction
Transmission (Friere's Banking Model) Experiential Interactive
Phonics Emphasis Whole Language Emphasis
Sound & Skills Emphasis Meaning Emphasis

Students who come from "high literacy" households--where young children are read bedtime stories on a regular basis, there are lots of children's books, and adults read regularly--tend to learn to read well regardless of the teaching approach used. These students tend to enter school with large vocabularies and reading readiness skills (and sometimes they already can read).

Students from "low literacy" households are not exposed much to reading in their homes and tend to have smaller vocabularies. They may speak non-standard dialects of English such as Ebonics and can be unmotivated students, especially if they see teachers as enemies trying to change how they speak and act, in other words their language and culture. It can be argued that a standard phonics approach might be unsuccessful for these students. Whole language approaches encourage teachers to find reading material that reflects these students language and culture.

Publishing basal reading textbooks is a multimillion dollar industry that responds to the demands of purchasers. Two populous states, California and Texas, do statewide adoptions of textbooks, and whatever they want in their textbooks, publishers tend to supply. Currently publishers are including systematic phonics instruction, more classic and popular children's literature, and whole language activities. This compromise generally goes under the rubric of a "balanced approach" to teaching reading. Advocates of balanced reading instruction should supplement a school's adopted reading program with materials that reflect the experiential background and interests of their students.

Various approaches to reading presume that students learn differently. The phonics emphasis in reading draws heavily from behaviorist learning theory that is associated with the work of the Harvard psychologist B.F. Skinner while the whole language emphasis draws from constructivist learning theory and the work of the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky.

Behaviorist learning theory is based on studies of animal behaviors where animals such as pigeons learned to do tasks when they received rewards and extinguished (stopped) behaviors that were not rewarded or were punished. Most of us can point to things we continue to do because we are rewarded for doing them. Rewards can be the pay we get for jobs we do, desired recognition like "A" grades for doing excellent school work, and praise from our friends when they like what we are doing. Likewise, we can point to things we stopped doing because we were not rewarded or were punished for them. Behaviorist learning theory tends to look at extrinsic rewards like money, grades, and gold starts rather than intrinsic rewards like feeling good about successfully accomplishing a difficult task.

Constructivist learning theory is based on the idea that children learn by connecting new knowledge to previously learned knowledge. The term is a building metaphor that includes students using scaffolding to organize new information. If children cannot connect new knowledge to old knowledge in a meaningful way, they may with difficulty memorize it (rote learning), but they will not have a real understanding of what they are learning.

Vygotsky identified a "zone of proximal development" where children can learn new things that are a little above their current understanding with the help of more knowledgeable peers or adults. This new knowledge is incorporated into their existing knowledge base.

Combining phonics with whole language programs

Recommendations for teachers using primarily phonics include:

  • Balance your reading program by focusing on literature and fun.
  • Read to students often, choral read with them, and give them time to read both alone and in pairs.
  • Guard against boredom.
  • Spend only a brief time each day on phonics and do no more than one worksheet daily.
  • Use many word games in your teaching. For most children, phonics is easier to learn if they are having fun. If students are not able to learn phonics easily, try other reading approaches, like recorded books or story writing.
  • Develop a classroom library.
  • Have children browse, read, and discuss books.

Suggestions for teachers using whole language include:

  • Balance the reading program by providing as much structure as needed and some step-by-step skill work, especially for analytic students, while emphasizing literature and fun.
  • Provide sufficient tools for decoding words, using small amounts of direct instruction in phonics for auditory and analytic learners.
  • Tape-record phonics lessons so that students can work independently to improve skills.
  • Don't use invented spelling for long periods with highly analytic learners or students who have memory problems.

Careful combination

Which approach wins the debate then? Phonics or whole language? The majority of experts now contend that neither approach by itself is effective all the time but that both approaches possess merit. What does succeed then, many experts say, is a carefully designed reading program that employs part whole language approach and part phonics, and takes into account each student's learning style and demonstrated strengths and weaknesses. Parental involvement is vital to reading success no matter which approaches are used, reading experts assert. Many parents follow debates like phonics vs. whole language in the media, and form opinions on one side or the other. Explaining why and how phonics, whole language, or another method of instruction is used will help bring students' parents on board and support the classroom teaching of reading.

See also


Related Resources

  • Adams, Marilyn Jaeger, Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990.
  • Vacca, R.T. The Reading Wars: Who Will Be the Winners, Who Will Be the Losers? Reading Today, October/November 1996.
  • Pikulski, J.J. Becoming a Nation of Readers: Pursuing the Dream. Paper presented at the meeting of the Wisconsin State Reading Association, Milwaukee, WI.
  • Goodman, Ken. Phonics Phacts, Heinemann, 1993.
  • Moats, Louisa C. Teaching Reading IS Rocket Science,
  • Wren, Sebastian, Ten Myths of Reading Instruction. Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, retrieved from October 19, 2007.
  • Turner, Richard L. The 'Great' Debate--Can Both Carbo and Chall Be Right? Phi Delta Kappan, December 1989.
  • Newman, Judith M. and Susan M. Church, Myths of Whole Language, The Reading Teacher, September 1990.

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