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Phonics vs. Whole Language

Widely debated back and forth for years has been the phonics, or breaking words up into sounds versus the whole language approach, or reading words as a whole.

I've seen many students through the years come through my classroom doors as excellent readers. I've also seen my fair share of students that have great difficulty reading when they come to my room. Naturally this happens because of many different reasons.

Whole language, also known as "look-say" or "sight" reading, is the most widely used method of teaching reading in the U.S. and other countries. Researchers have determined that experienced readers grasp the meaning of entire words at a time. When children talk they use whole words, without conscious thought about the sounds that make up these words. The founders of whole language felt the same way about reading, that children can be taught from the beginning to read whole words.

Whole language also presumes that after seeing words enough times, children will recognize the words and understand the meaning.

Phonics relies on drill and practice, which is said to get boring. However, it also teaches children to sound out words, and thus are able to read words they've never encountered before.

Which is what I really noticed when I taught junior high language arts. I had students that had not encountered many words. Some of them had phonics, either while at home, or somewhere in their background. Some had whole language the whole way through. I could easily tell the students that were able to sound out these new words. It made things a lot easier for them. The ones who had whole language could not sound out the words, and I had to tell them the word. I wouldn't guess they'd remember it the very next day, but it would take multiple times of seeing the word before it made the connection.

The comparison between the two has been debated for years. I've kind of sided with the phonics, even though the drill and practice approach can get tiring. Phonics worked for me...

As another author put it, in comparing the two:
A friend once complained to me that she didn't want to teach using phonics because the memorization necessary to learn phonetic rules for English is so repetitive and boring. It struck me then that whole language is nothing more than rote memorization of every word in the English language.

You be the judge of which method is more compassionate.

As far as I'm concerned, both have proven to work. It just seems that one takes more drill and practice, and one is on-going for years to come. Phonics takes skill-building, to be able to sound out the words. Whole language is kind of a never ending process, because there seem to be words coming up all the time that are unknown.

What do you think?


At 5:16 PM, Anonymous taranicole said...

I agree that phonics is a better way to teach language. As a speech therpaist I've seen kids at the high school level who are performing at the third grade level ("normal" kids... no special needs) because they weren't taught the building blocks of language.

At 9:29 PM, Blogger MsAbcMom said...

I think that the choice should be student driven. Some kids benefit from one and some from another. I know that it is hard to do that in our rooms though. I prefer to use guided reading to reach the kids' needs. Some of the groups are more phonics driven and some are more whole language driven. Unfortunately, this is not the way that many schools and districts want us to teach. Because of NCLB mandates we have become skill/drill masters and number crunchers instead of putting the kids' needs first

At 12:08 AM, Blogger Tachizuno said...

The NCLB is a program that is not kids first. It is looking at trying to keep the U.S. competative Educationally. It is a status thing.

It would seem more logical that government just keep its nose away from education and let the professionals that are trained and experienced in it do their jobs. Schools, individually, should hire teachers that have high expectations. If a teacher isn't gaining ground with his/her students, then they should be let go.

Thanks for the input... you got me on my soapbox again talking about other issues. Sorry for the brief tirade.

At 4:19 AM, Anonymous Anne said...

I think a healthy mix of both is best. I was trained in the whole language approach but found that in the classroom the kids were enormously literate, but couldn't actually read and lacked the ability to decode unfamiliar text. Phonics alone doesn't cut it because whatever it may or may not be the english language is not phonetic. A balance of both in the classroom gives kids the best basis for reading.

At 3:46 PM, Blogger happychyck said...

As a secondary teacher, I am not well versed on language acquisition, but from my, my children, and my students' experiences, I agree with Anne. A balance of both seems like a sensible approach.

At 6:02 PM, Anonymous Laura said...

You make a reasonable case for phonics, but let em add a twist: dialect. None of the words look like what they sound like to my rural Carolina students.

I took part in a reading tutoring program in the Appalachians in college, and I remember one friend telling me how difficult it was to get a kid to spell right because he spelled exactly how it sounded to him. For example, at sounds more like an elongated ate, and ate sounds more like it should phonetically be spelled et.

It seems to me phonics must also be accompanied by rigorous Standard-English-as-a-Second-Language training for it to help my young'uns.

At 8:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some links of interest...

In England, they are replacing their Marie Clay inspired “searchlights” (multiple-cueing word identification strategy) approach with an evidence-based synthetic phonics first approach.

The Effects of Synthetic Phonics Teaching On Reading And Spelling Attainment: A Seven Year Longitudinal Study

'Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading'

Final Report, Jim Rose, March 2006


Like the searchlights model, Clay proposed that readers have to use four sources of information, which she describes as cueing systems, in order to read texts. These she labelled as: phonological (the sounds of oral language); syntactic (sentence order); visual (graphemes, orthography, format and layout); and semantic (text meaning) (Clay, 1985; Clay and Cazden, 1990). According to Clay, children have to use all four cueing systems to develop multiple strategies for processing texts.

Early Reading Instruction
What Science Really Tells Us about How to Teach Reading

Diane McGuiness

Early Reading Instruction is a comprehensive analysis of the research evidence from early writing systems to computer models of reading…Finally, she argues, because phonics-type methods are consistently shown to be superior to whole-word methods in studies dating back to the 1960s, it makes no sense to continue this line of research. The most urgent question for future research is how to get the most effective phonics programs into the classroom.

The following links/excerpts give some insight into how “Balanced Literacy” continues to be a vehicle for whole-language pedagogy.

Whole Language Lives On: The Illusion of “Balanced” Reading Instruction

By Louisa Cook Moats, Ed.D.

October 2000

The International Reading Association (IRA) and the National Council for Teachers of English vigorously promoted the philosophy and practices of whole language.

Dr. Moats will deliver her speech: “Research-Based Instruction: Are We There Yet?” on Thursday, October 12, 2006 at the 20th Annual Illinois Branch of the International Dyslexia Association Conference.

A Is for Apple, B Is for Brawl
Why New York’s Reading Wars are so contentious.
The combatants in the Reading Wars.

Mad About Whole Language
Michael Bloomberg, Joel Klein, Carmen Fariña, Diana Lam


Hooked on Phonics
Diane Ravitch, Sally Shaywitz, Sol Stern

At 4:17 PM, Blogger Nancy said...

Phonics does not have to be boring. Our reading lab uses a variety of methods to help students acquire the phonemic awareness and language skills needed to be successful readers. Our students are never bored. If students are "bored" then teachers need to rethink their methods so that students understand why a task is important. Goal-setting is important, too. While some drill and practice is needed, students become very engaged and excited when they are able to chart their progress and see their accomplishments. The National Reading Panel and the Florida Center for Reading Research have a wealth of research articles and resources for teaching reading.


At 8:08 PM, Anonymous Jo-Anne Gross said...

I agree,balanced literacy is a nice excuse to not use systematic explicit synthetic Phonics.That method teaches kids to read and spell.
The other just teaches memorization.
I ran a reading clinic for years and saw how many kids with no L.D. couldn`t read.They guess!

Jo-Anne Gross
RemediationPlus Systems


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