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The Beginning of the Ability to Read: Whole Language vs. Phonics February 22, 2007

Posted by waldrup49 in English311.

I have an 11 month old daughter and like most new parents my wife and I are constantly worrying about bench marks. We worry about when she will crawl, walk, use her fingers as pinchers, when she is babbling, how she is babbling, when she says her first word. All these things fly through our brains and conversations on a daily basis. Believe or not we have already discussed how we will prepare her for school and whether our day care has the best curriculum. Soon my daughter will be in school and ready to start to learn how to read. So the question to ask at this point is: How do we teach a child how to read? 

Here is where my status as parent and future educator converges. In education there is a battle in this area of teaching reading. Many teachers believe in a whole language approach while others believe phonics is the best way. I want to use this post to cover the basics such as definitions and a little bit of history so that I (or we) at least have a starting point in my effort to come to a conclusion. 

So what is the difference between whole language and phonics? Jenny Curtis writes on Superkids.com:

What’s the difference?
The traditional theory of learning established in the 19th century draws on the notion that children need to break down a complex skill, like reading, into its smallest components (letters) before moving on to tackle larger components (sounds, words, and sentences). Phonetic reading instruction applies this theory; children are taught to dissect unfamiliar words into parts and then join the parts together to form words. By learning these letter-sound relationships the student is provided with a decoding formula that can be applied whenever they encounter an unfamiliar word.

Whole language learning is less focused on rules and repetition than is phonics. It stresses the flow and meaning of the text, emphasizing reading for meaning and using language in ways that relate to the students’ own lives and cultures. Whole language classrooms tend to teach the process of reading, while the final product becomes secondary. The “sounding out” of words so central to phonics is not used in whole language learning. Instead, children are encouraged to decode each word through its larger context.

The stance of educators on this subject, like many others, seems to vacillate. To give a brief (Very, very brief) history of teaching reading methodology, I have used this excerpt from an article by Sharon Cromwell in Education-World:


The debate over the best way to teach reading isn’t new. In fact, the question has been argued through much of the 20th century. A number of different approaches to teaching reading have dominated during that time span.

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.

After a global approach, such as the “look-say” method, is popular for at time, the pendulum tends to swing in the opposite direction toward a more analytical approach, such as phonics. Proponents of one method are often extremely critical of another method, as if the effectiveness of each method precluded the success of another.

After reading this, what do think is the best approach? I can’t come to a conclusion from the tiny bit of information I have sited here but at least I understand what the different approaches are at a base level.

Jenny Curtis
SuperKids Software Review – Phonics vs. Whole Language: Which is Better?

Sharon Cromwell
Education World
Whole Language and Phonics: Can They Work Together?



1. mandy777 - February 24, 2007

Well thanks for writing this blog! I have always wondered too! I am still a bit confused. I like the idea behind the whole language approach, but I do not get how kids actually learn to read. I mean do you have to take the phonetic approach to start out with? I do not get how a kid could figure out words based on context if they do not know any of the words? It just does not make sense to me. I am ignorant on this topic, but I think we all need to learn about it. I will be interested in reading your blog and you have inspired me to do a little research of my own! As a very premature opinion I think it would work if we taught kids how to sound out words at the phonetic level so they can tackle words they do not understand, but take a whole language approach to get meaning from the text. I guess I have a lot to read up on. I do think it is important to always press for meaning and try to relate things to our students’ lives. The phonetics part seems really skill and drill to me and I think that is superficial learning. I think students could get a lot more out of something like the whole language approach.

2. mandy777 - February 24, 2007

By the way, that picture is ADORABLE! 🙂

3. kooikema - February 25, 2007

Wade, I am really glad that you are looking into this topic! It is very difficult to find the “best” way to teach students to read. Personally, I think that phonics is one of the best. I remember when I was younger I used to help my little brother with his homework (he is a year and a half younger). We would sit together and take turns reading each paragraph. He has dyslexia and reading is SO difficult for him. It was really hard because I would whip through my paragraphs and then we would take FOREVER trying to piece through his. When he would get stuck on a word, I think that it would be difficult to try and use whole language learning “Now look at the other words in the paragraph to divulge the meaning of this word!” However, when I would break it down into smaller units by covering the other parts of the word with my hand or a piece of paper he could figure it out because he understood the smaller bits. Does that make sense? I am all for phonic based teaching, but I know that it is not perfect too. For example, when we teach kids to make a “t” sound—what exactly does that mean? A “t” sounds different from one word to the next: tock, stick, button, etc. Have you taken Linguistics? That class teaches a lot of different ideas about the phonology of the English language. Anyway, the different ways to pronounce a letter is not really detrimental to native speakers, but it does get very confusing to ESL students. Overall, I still think that phonics based teaching is the best for learning, but that does not mean that I think our kids should not learn how to put words in context with others to gain meaning.

4. mcgoverj - February 26, 2007

Do you have to choose one way over another? With the English Language there are so many exceptions! Personally, I would start out at least with phonics! There is a fun approach used in many daycares and child development centers called zoo phonics. You have probably heard about his already, but each letter has a name and an animal of that same letter. And fore each letter, there is a specific motion and a sound that coordinates. You look ridiculous doing Alli Alligator a..a…a…., but I worked in a daycare center and I saw the toddlers move on to young preschoolers, then to preschoolers, and it works!

5. eternaltreasure - March 1, 2007

I agree with someone else’s comment up there, that it would depend on the child. Some child may learn to read better by the memorization techniques of the phonetic approach. Others may be more contextual to need to use the Whole Language apprach. I’m thinking, though, that most will be in between! Or begin nicely with one approach, and finish with another! It is my opinion that we are all still trying to learn how to read. Not in the sense that we are still trying to make meaning out of the letters and symbols we see, but that we still have to learn HOW to read certain pieces of writing. For example, reading science articles for one of my classes, I know what each individual word means in a paragraph ( the phonetic approach), so I CAN readit, but all together sentences are baffling. Only by searching the context of the statement and re-reading can I make out the meaning, which I think would be the whole language approach. So, my advice: BOTH will work…one will probably work better at different times and for differently-abled children.

6. my comments « Keeping Learning Fun - March 1, 2007

[…] Filed under: Uncategorized — mcgoverj @ 4:07 am Here are my comments: one two three four five six […]

7. Comment Links « One Sweet World - April 8, 2007

[…] Comment […]

8. Liz Ditz - April 12, 2007

It’s Liz from I Speak of Dreams. Most teachers are incapable of teaching phonics accurately–because they do not have sufficient instruction in the structure and development of the English language. See Louisa Cook Moats’ Speech to Print (ISBN: 1557663874) for the antidote.

There are several good phonemic awareness/phonics curricula — Funnix being the newest.

For a debate on the weaknesses of the whole language approach, see this week’s Edspresso debate between Nancy Creech (Whole Language Teacher) and Ken DeRosa (Direct Instruction advocate).

Whole Language has never been an effective, efficient method of getting most kids to read well. For some kids, it is an absolute educational disaster. However, the WL ideology is deeply imbedded in the schools of education, so I see no particular chance of improvement on the horizon.

9. On commenting... « accidental songs… - April 17, 2007

[…] Comment 4 […]

10. uglypoet - May 6, 2007

HI There

personally I believe the best approach to langiage learning is the eclectic approach – combinations of approaches / methods. whole language learning should be combined with phonetics. knowledge of phonetics help the elementary reader to brakdown the word and thus enable the reader to pronounce the word and read on – thus not causing a hindrance or interruption to the reading process. language is an ‘art’ and ‘phonetics’ is one of the many tools needed to be competent in mastering that ‘art’. the natural progression for the study of languages – phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics; these are the hierarchical levels in linguistics.

and to add to whole language learning; it would be helpful to start off with a book that uses repetitive words throughout the story.

Well, I hope this helps.


11. Bill Compton - June 4, 2007

Hi Jim. Photos i received. Thanks

12. Izrul - August 6, 2007

Wow, you have started to worried about your daughter future even though she is just 11 months (cute photo by the way). I have a 2 year old daughter myself. Of course, most parents want the best for their children. For me, I take it slow and steady. I don’t want to force my daughter to read or learn how to use computer. If she wants to play, I let her play. Children need to expose their minds and love to explore new things. If I force her to do something which she doesn’t like, she ended up sitting at the end of the room and do nothing.

13. Jason - August 26, 2007

Children are really fun to be with, right? Having children really change the way on how you look to the world. Really is amazing.

14. jameswillisisthebest - September 8, 2007

This is my first post
just saying HI

15. Joe - January 25, 2008

Reading is a Magical Process that no one knows about. If people could really teach reading, the world would have no reading problems, everyone processes at different rates and differemt ways. Some people do it fast with not much help and others never seem to get it. Cognitive, family and other factors all figure in the Magical Procrss.

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Hi sirs 😉
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P.S. Вот уроды…

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