Phonics or Whole Language? A Balanced Approach

Phonics or Whole Language ApproachEven as a child who was homeschooled, I cringed when I heard the mommies begin to discuss learning to read. It meant some pretty strong opinions were about to be shared. And my quiet mother, despite being an elementary school teacher who was very good at teaching children to read, would offer her bit of input, but she wouldn’t put those other bossy mommies in their place! It frustrated me. I nearly did it for her a few times.

On one side of the octogon, you had the Phonics Mommies. Those mommies were adamant that phonics were the only way to teach reading.

“Really!” They would cluck their tongues. “The reason our children can’t read is because they’re not being taught phonics! How can children learn to read if they don’t know the sounds?” On the other side of the ring, however, the Whole Language Approach Mommies weren’t daunted by all that fierce talk.

“Sure, teach phonics!” They would snicker, “If you want your child to grow up trying to sound every single word out for the rest of their lives.”

The debate still goes on today. Phonics or Whole Language? What on earth can we do to get our kindergarteners reading sooner? Or better yet, to give our readers a foundation upon which they can build as they grow and develop? In order to make an informed decision, I belive, we need to understand the basics behind both approaches first.

The Phonics Approach

Teaching children to read with phonics is where children learn to read using the sounds in the words. In order to read using the phonetic approach, children need to have a good grasp of the sounds that the letters make. These are called phonemes.

“Sound it out,” is the name of the game. For example, if a child was reading, and came across a word she didn’t know, flat, she might stop and carefully sound out each letter.

Reading  with Phonics 1If the child learned to read using phonics, she’ll point at each letter with her finger and say each sound separately.

Reading  with Phonics 2*Note: The u-shaped symbol above the a indicates the short vowel sound.

This strategy of breaking words up into individual sounds is called segmenting, and can be extremely useful. Reading phonetically is a great way for children to discover words they already know. It’s fun to watch students come to a word, sound it out, and then look up in delight when they realize they’ve just figured out a word on their own.

While phonics are definitely something students need to know, there are downfalls to using only phonics to read. Students who sound every word out will most likely lost the meaning of the text if they’re too focused on the sounds, rather than the words, sentences, and paragraphs as wholes. And if a child is reading without comprehending the meaning of a page, reading is  useless.

Also, there are many words in English that children simply cannot sound out, which leads us to our next form of learning to read: the Whole Language Approach.

The Whole Language Approach

“No matter how hard a child tries, he won’t be able to sound out the word, the,” my literacy professor in college always said. And it’s true. Recently, in fact, I was working with several students in a small group who were trying to sound out the word, the.

Whole Language Approach 1

Their attemps came out,

Whole Language Approach 2After trying to sound it out a few times, I got guesses such as ten, tan, and just plain, t-h-e. I had to pause the book we were readaing as a group, and I asked the students to see if there was an n in the word, or if there was such a word as, t-h-e. After a minute of thought, they admitted that there wasn’t, but then they delved right back into trying to sound the word out, unaware that there’s another way to read the word without having to break it apart.

The reason we have sight words is because there are words students need to read quickly without having to sound them out. With the commonality of words like, is, the, and, to, was, and of, students fair much better if they are able to see the words as whole words, not parts of a whole. None of those words really sound the way they look.

Why We Need Sight Words

The thought process behind using the whole language approach is to tie in the world around the student, to give language meaning based on previous knowledge. In the article, “The Reading Wars,” by Dr. Jon Reyhner of the University of Northern Arizona University, “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.”

With this kind of approach, students are expected to begin to recognize words as wholes, rather than multiple sounds. As Dr. Reyhner said, teachers might label items all around the classroom, use the same words in journaling, flashcards, and choose books with those same words in them. Because the words represent objects or actions the students associate with the classroom everyday, students are expected to begin to memorize those words because they hold meaning.

A challenge that arises with a curriculum that relies soley on the Whole Language Approach, however, can be that students can feel overwhelmed by the number of words they’re being given to memorize.

Another problem is that if a student comes to a word he hasn’t been exposed to yet, he’ll have no strategy to figure that word out. He might hold it in his vocabulary, but without a strong foundation in phonemes (letter sounds), he’ll struggle to decode the word, and might well be unable to match the written letters to the word that’s in his vocabulary.

A Balanced Approach

When asked about phonics, my mom (who has taught third through eighth grade, homeschooled three children, and ran a home daycare center) always chuckles, shakes her head, and mentions the pendulum.

“Education is always a swinging pendulum,” she says. “Someone discovers something new, and everyone flocks to it. Then they come up with something else, and everyone runs to that, when really, a little of everything is what kids need most.” Education World agrees. In their article, “Whole Language and Phonics: Can They Work Together?” they say,

“The “look-say” reading method was widespread for 30 years, from around 1940 to 1970. From around 1970 to 1990, phonics was popular. And whole language gained a foothold around 1990. Several other approaches have also been utilized for a briefer time before they were found wanting.”

Believe it or not, decades of studies have shown that students are often more successful…when they learn both! There are two main reasons for this:

  • Different children learn differently.
  • Children have multiple strategies from which to pull when they come to an unfamiliar word.

According to K12’s article, “Balanced Literacy Instruction:  A Truce For The Reading War?”, “Children who are analytical and auditory learners” often seem to learn better with phonics, while Whole Language Learning seems to appeal more to children who are “tactile and visual learners.”

I’ve found in my work with children that some kids can surprise you, too. Rather than forcing children into a box of, “This is how I learned to read,” we need to allow them to approach in the way they find easiest, and then supplement that with the other approach. As with all teaching, main idea is to give the child a supply of strategies available to use when the prefered method of learning doens’t apply.

Phonics Learner Example:

Kathy can sit down and sound out nearly everything. She’s only in first grade, but she already has a strong grasp of her

  • basic phonemes (letter sounds),
  • diphthongs (sets of letters that when combined, make one sound together, such as th, sh, ph, gh, wh, and ch),
  • blends (sets of letters that when put together, make separate sounds, but are common in occurance, such as bl, cl, sp, and st).

Kathy can usually sound letters out quickly, but every once in a while, she comes to a word that just doesn’t sound right, such as, people. Because Kathy has been practicing her sight words, however, she recognizes the word, and can continue reading because she has seen it so many times.

Whole Language Learner Example:

Peter learns best through memorized sight words. He has a high vocabulary for a kindergartener, so he has mentally assigned meanings for many of the words his teacher has placed around the classroom. When he gets a new book from the library, however, he comes to a word he’s never seen, milk.

Peter might not have learned this word in his classroom, but because he’s learning to sound things out, he falls back on this strategy. Slowly, he makes each sound individually, and then begins to blend them, faster and faster, until he recognizes the word the sounds make together. Peter has just learned to read a new word because he was able to match the combined sounds with a word already familiar to him.

Don’t Give Up

It’s frustrating when children are taught everything a parent or teacher knows how to teach, and they still don’t understand. Something important to remember, however, is that our young children develop at different ages. When most parents look at the homework their kindergarteners are bringing home, they say,

“Wow, this is harder than the stuff I learned when I was five!” It’s true. We’re really pushing our kiddos harder than we did thirty years ago. Just because a child can’t magically read by the end of kinder, however, doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Children might soak up these lessons on reading for years before showing signs of significant understanding.

Dr. Jon Reyhner speaks to this point when he says, “Another issue in teaching reading is the brain development in children. Countries like Finland that do very well on international tests, including tests of reading, do not start to teach reading until students are seven years old when their cognitive development is more advanced.”

BalancedLiteracyApproachWe don’t want to burn out kiddos out. Forcing them to use only one reading strategy will burn many children out, particularly when they don’t learn that way. Another way to burn kids out is to make them feel like failures because they’re not learning it as fast as we’d like them to. This isn’t reason to give up, however. By being patient, and searching for the way each student really learns, we can help our children become readers in their own terms. By teaching them different strategies, we’re giving them a quiver full of arrows with which they can face the challenge of reading when ready.

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  • Vic Charlton on February 20, 2015 at 4:39 am said:

    The Great Debate, as it is now called, began with Chall in 1967; in reality, nothing has changed in over 100 years, which is why we have so many functional illiterates (42% 16-65 in Canada). Because there is no such thing as a learning style, modality matching, or trying to teach to a preferred modality is nonsense. There is only one way to teach reading…and there will always be only one way.

    • on May 15, 2015 at 9:13 pm said:

      I have to say that I respectfully disagree. While we shouldn’t throw out the old way entirely, I’ve seen different children learn to read in different ways. Even in my own family, I was much better at learning words by sounding them out than my brother, who learned by memorizing words as whole pieces, rather than parts. I think children need to learn both ways, but then educators and parents need to focus on the way their students learn best.

  • Peter J. Brancato on October 18, 2016 at 8:45 pm said:

    You erroneously identified digraphs as diphthongs. Diphthongs are two VOWELS that blend together in speech (and sometimes writing). Your examples included no diphthongs. The vowel sound in “boy” is a diphthong. It slides from /o/ to /i/.

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