Early Reading

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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