Whole Language Vs Phonics
Apr 5, 2013 Pronunciation/Phonics 2968 Views
One hot button issue in education is the debate over whole language vs. phonics instruction in reading (and it has been for several decades). Both sides of the debate can cite research which suggests one side is better than the other. This article is intended to clear the muddled waters of reading instruction, and help parents see how they can use the best of both approaches for the benefit of their children.
"Whole Language" Reading Instruction
"Whole language" or "whole word" reading instruction is a top-down approach to reading. This term is used to define a broad range of reading strategies. The rote memorization of Dolch sight words is often included in this category, although many contemporary "whole language" advocates would discourage any form of rote memorization of words. "Whole language" is focused primarily on making meaning out of the text.
Many who advocate for "whole language" instruction insist that phonics-based reading focuses too much on the process and not enough on the product. Essentially, their point is that a child can read words all day, but just because the sounds are coming out of a child's mouth does not mean they are reading. (Think of seeing all the trees but not being able to see the forest.)
Additionally, "whole language" proponents insist that most of the rules used in phonics-based instruction have too many exceptions to be useful. This is a valid point given the variety of language families that have influenced English.
Proponents of "whole language" reading take a simple stance; the best way to teach a child how to read is reading with said child and providing interesting, comprehensible texts. They advocate that phonics and comprehension skills come naturally as a child experiences written text over time, some faster and some slower than others.
Phonics-based Reading Instruction
Phonics-based reading instruction is basically a bottom-up, or building block, approach to reading. It focuses on teaching individual sounds each letter makes, the sounds certain letters make together, and then the exceptions to the rules.
Most who advocate for phonics instruction propose that if "whole language" instruction worked the way it is said to work, then no one would have difficulty learning to read. Most of the opposition to "whole words" keys in on the negative effects of rote memorization of a set list of key words (e.g. Dolch sight words). They propose that although memorizing these words might give results that are satisfactory immediately, the long-term effects are negative on a child's reading ability. If a child does not have the phonetic skills to decode new words, then the child's reading ability will be crippled the more advanced texts the child takes on. Proponents of phonics-based instruction assert that 90% of words in English follow normal phonetic rules, although no research was cited to support this fact.
Both sides of this debate seem to be deeply entrenched, not willing to play to the middle at all. Through my experience as a reading teacher, I have encountered more than my fair share of students who struggle with reading. Many know key sight words but do not have the phonics skills necessary to tackle unfamiliar words. Also, many can read every word on a page but have no comprehension of the meaning of the text. I think a less polarized approach is necessary if we are going to help EVERY child learn to read. Let's face it; if it works for your child, why would you do it differently?
Do NOT drill-and-kill through rote-memorization of sight words. Although you may experience immediate results, there is solid research that shows the long-term negative effects of this approach. The reasoning here is that if a child learns sight words first through memorization, then the learning is similar to learning shapes. The recognition of the word "walk" is more about the shape of the letters as a whole, than it is about the parts of the word. Essentially, when a child who has learned sight words this way, then when a new word is encountered, it looks like this: "sldfkja" "eworpu" "xcmcp". I am not saying we don't have sight words-we do. We just acquire those sight words by the natural exposure to them, not by rote memorization.
What to Do
Everyone wants to help their children read. Everyone wants to help their children read better. The magic bullet to make this happen (if there ever was one) is simple: read. Read a lot. Expose your child to a wide variety of texts. Find texts your child is interested in. Read together with your child. Let your child see you read. Read, read, and read.
Most children will acquire reading skill naturally as they watch you read, hear you read, and experience texts themselves. No advanced, graduate-level research required. When you are reading with your child and come across a word that is new, sound it out and talk about what it means. Remember, always pair words with their meaning. If you feel like your child is struggling, then by all means, contact an educational expert who can assess the needs of YOUR child: phonics, "whole language," or something else might do the trick.