Comparing Fantastic Phonics | research from 700 schools

Phonics Vs Whole Language – the Analysis

A Serious Debate

Over the last 20 years a serious debate has raged, between Phonic and Whole Language teaching methods.

After 30 Years of research and testing, Phonics has been shown to be superior.

Phonics works more closely with the brain's natural learning habits, which is to break complex concepts into their basic building blocks.

This is how Phonics approaches the challenge of reading – in harmony with a child's thinking.

However, most schools combine the two teaching methods to adapt for childrens' different learning preferences.

What is the Whole Language Philosophy?
The last two decades has seen the rise of the "whole language" movement. This philosophy rejects the dominant role of phonics in learning-to-read. The whole language philosophy rejects phonics teaching on principle because it teaches reading using units less than the whole word, that is, via letters, syllables and morphemes.

The Whole Language approach tries to teach a 'generative' strategy, one which enables the reader to decode words previously unseen. This strategy does not make learning to read as easy as can be, for two major reasons.

Compare phonics to others
First, the letter sounds differ (especially consonants)depending on the sounds around them in a word. So the sound for /d/ in "dim" is a different sound from /d/ in "bid", and from /d/ in "dose". If a teacher tries to teach the sound for /d/ it will come out /duh/ which is not the sound of /d/ in any of the preceding examples.

Because adults long ago mastered the alphabetic principle (that a written symbol represents a sound), we no longer notice the discrepancies, but children can be confused by the variation. It takes time and practice for children to appreciate that the phonic strategies allow an approximate speech sound, one sufficiently close to the actual phoneme, from which correct pronunciation follows.

The second problem is that our vowel letters carry responsibility for one, two or three different sounds. For example, "bar", "bat", "bake" each use the letter "a" for a different sound. The system is not chaotic but rule-governed; however, there are exceptions to most rules.

Phonic And Whole Word Approaches
Reading is an intellectually challenging task regardless of the way it is presented to children. The question is whether teaching the alphabetic principle and some rules (phonics) is more effective in the long run than using a Whole Word recognition strategy, and/or a process of guessing from the meaning of surrounding words (as whole language advocates would prefer).

Over the last thirty years or so, the bulk of research has supported the superiority of an initial phonics emphasis. This does not mean that there must be an either/or choice between meaning-emphasis approaches (such as whole language) and code-emphasis programs (phonics).

Some Whole Language purists consider phonic cues have no place at all in a reading program, though most would view them as of secondary importance. They view reading as primarily a linguistic, not a visual, exercise; one of only sampling segments of the print and actively predicting what the words will be. If children need assistance they are taught to guess more wisely. This approach is disastrous for children in difficulty, and has been thoroughly discredited by research over the last fifteen years.

The role of phonic cues in whole language approaches has been reduced to those needed to identify a letter or two of a word so as to aid the confirmation of the guess. Whole language advocates argue that these phonic cues can and should be learned without explicit teaching. Further it is claimed that exposure to meaningful, authentic literature is all that students need in order to learn to read because learning to read is much the same as learning to speak – a natural process. Since we learn to speak without formal instruction, so we should learn to read the same way.

Unfortunately it isn't so. Mastering a written language is an achievement which far outweighs the requirements of speech production. Written language is an artificial, visually-based device quite distinctly more challenging than biological sounds-based processes of speech. Many children need careful, systematic teaching of decoding skills, but will not receive it in a pure Whole Language program.


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Early Grade Reading Assessment

(EGRA) Plus: Liberia

Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) Plus: Liberia

EdData II Task Number 6

Contract Number EHC-E-06-04-00004-00

Strategic Objective 3

July 2009

This publication was produced for review by the United States Agency for International Development. It was prepared by the Liberian Ministry of Education, Liberian Education Trust, and RTI International.

  Prepared for  USAID/Liberia and Ministry of Education, Republic of Liberia with partial funding from the Presidential Initiative for Expanding  Education

Prepared by
RTI International
3040 Cornwallis Road
Post Office Box 12194
Research Triangle Park, NC 27709-2194

Reading program prepared in Collaboration with
Early “Fantastic Phonics”.

RTI International is a trade name of Research Triangle Institute.

This publication is made possible by the support of the American People through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID.) The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of RTI International and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.


In September 2008, the Liberian Ministry of Education (MOE) organized a week-long workshop during which a draft Scope and Sequence for teaching reading in English for Liberia was started and has now been developed. The MOE representatives and other participants provided the authors with sufficient written material to develop a teacher manual that is custom-made for Liberia. The workshop was funded by the World Bank and facilitated by RTI International and the Liberian Education Trust. The finalization of this teacher manual, the training in the use of the manual, and the overall implementation of the EGRA Plus: Liberia project is made possible by USAID/Liberia, the Presidential Initiative for Expanding Education, and the generous support of the American people.

The EGRA Plus: Liberia Project was requested by the Ministry of Education, and funded by the World Bank between June and September 2008. As of October 2008 and until October 2010, the Project will be funded by USAID/Liberia with partial funding from the Presidential Initiative for Expanding Education.

Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) in Liberia The ability to read and understand a text is the most fundamental skill a child learns. Without literacy there is little chance a child will escape the inter-generational cycle of poverty. Yet, in many countries, students enrolled for as many as four years, are unable to read and understand even simple texts. Psychometric evidence indicates that learning to read both early and at a sufficient rate are essential for learning to read well. Acquiring literacy becomes more difficult as students grow older; children who do not learn to read in the first few grades are more likely to repeat and eventually drop out, or will fall behind others for the rest of their lives, and countries where the population cannot read well will tend to lag behind the more educated countries.

What is EGRA?

Concerned with the state of reading in early grades in developing nations, international agencies decided to fund an early-grade reading assessment (EGRA). Most national and international assessments are paper-and-pencil tests used in grades four and above; they essentially assume students have already master the basics of reading. For the few low-income countries participating in international tests, the median child performs at about the 3rd or 4th percentile of a developed country distribution. From these results it is often difficult to tell whether the most basic skills are absent or present to enable the student to understand the test, or whether the children cannot perform the tasks in the test. EGRA was designed to assess the foundation skills for literacy acquisition in grades 1 through 4 orally, including pre-reading skills such as listening comprehension.

The utility of EGRA (and its ramifications) lies in two areas. First, it highlights reading problems, drawing policy makers’ attention to the issue, and helps teachers track performance. Second, early grade reading is a “leading indicator” for the functioning of a school or school system. If reading is not being taught well in a school or a district, it is a safe bet that other things are not being taught well. Moreover, lack of reading instruction and skill is relatively easy to detect, as opposed to a lack of appropriate instruction and skill in, say, social studies.

EGRA in Liberia

While EGRA started out as a measurement tool, many countries have shown an interest in using it as a springboard to improving reading and teacher training around reading. EGRA Plus: Liberia is a good case. The tool itself will be used to lay a baseline on reading. But the main emphasis of EGRA Plus: Liberia will be to improve student reading skills by implementing evidence-based reading instruction. The tasks and activities that would provide information on causes of poor reading levels similar to the opportunity-to-learn literature will be included. Systematic training, support, and supervision will be provided to teachers, along with toolkits and plenty of reading materials for the students. The project will also include training and collaboration with Ministry of Education staff in areas of early grade assessment, development of skills in early grade reading improvement, and the use of data to drive teaching improvement. The project will work on a pilot basis using a thorough evaluation approach.

EGRA Plus: Liberia began in October 2008 and will end in October 2010. It is implemented by RTI International and Liberian Education Trust, with leadership from the Liberian Ministry of Education. EGRA Plus: Liberia has been funded by the World Bank and USAID/Liberia and the Presidential Initiative for Expanding Education. For further information, contact us at

How to Use the EGRA Plus: Liberia Teacher Manual and Other Resources

Teachers in Grades 2 and 3 in participating schools of EGRA Plus: Liberia project will use the following four main sources for teaching reading.

A.        EGRA Plus: Liberia Teacher Manual – Volume 1 + 2

The EGRA Plus: Liberia Teacher Manual – Volume 2 presented here consists of two main parts: (1) overview of Scope and Sequence for teaching reading for a year, and (2) weekly lesson plans with detailed daily sequences and instructions on what to teach that day and how to draw on other resources that have been provided to teachers (e.g., decodable books and supplementary materials).

Finally, the EGRA Plus: Liberia Teacher Manual will include the following teacher resources: pocket charts, letter cards, and flash cards.

B.        Decodable books

The EGRA Plus: Liberia project will provide every child in Grades 2 and 3 in participating schools with a number of decodable books. The books are compiled into three compilations and each compilation provides the weekly schedule for the use of these books. This schedule can be also found in this manual (see “Scope and Sequence”).

C.        Library books

The EGRA Plus: Liberia project will provide Grades 2 and 3 with a sufficient number of books to build small libraries. These books are to be used by students in Grades 2 and 3 for reading at home or during school hours for “independent” reading. Teachers will be provided with ‘reading-at-home’ log of books as well as library logs to keep track of the books’ use.

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