Among educators who specialized in reading instruction there has been a long controversy over how to teach students to read. Generally, the two main schools of thought are phonics on one side and the whole language approach on the other side. In this post, we will look at both of these approaches as well as a compromise position.
Phonics is an approach that has the students decode the words that they see by sounding out individual letters and letter combinations. By blending the individual sounds of a word together the students is able to read the word. This requires that the student know what sounds different letters make. Without this phonemic awareness there is no hope for reading.
The benefits of this is that it is clear if a student can do this or not. This makes it easy to provide the needed support in order to help the students. This means that it is easy to assess the students development. Another benefit of this approach is that it focuses on the smallest aspects of speech sound. This helps a child to keep track of one thing at a time.
Problems with a phonic-based approach is that the importance of the context is lost because students only focus on sounding out the words rather than developing reading comprehension. This can lead to students who can read and sound out well but have no idea what they read nor the meaning of the text. The idea of seeing the passage as a whole is lost.
Whole language is a literature based approach that emphasizes the relevancy for the student and culture. Activities used include oral reading, silent reading, journal writing, group activities, etc. Students do not focus on sounded out words but rather on knowing the whole word through a knowledge of the context. There is even allowance made for inventive spelling in which students make for up their own words for spelling to avoid discouraging them through frequent correction of misspelled words.
An extreme example of whole language approach is when students are allowed to use substitute words in a text they are reading rather than the word the author wrote in the book. For example, if in the story the author mentions the word “pony” and the student does not understand this word. The student can substitute the word “horse with “pony” in the author’s story and this is considered okay by whole language approach standards.
Some benefits of this approach is that it is much more enjoyable in comparison to the phonics approach. Students begin reading immediately content that is relevant to their lives and interesting and their prior knowledge supposedly helps with understanding.
The drawbacks of whole language is that at times students struggle to generalize their reading skills to new contexts. In addition, the replacement of unknown to known words of the student with their own words can make it difficult for the teacher to understand where the students are struggling. If all students are doing this, it becomes difficult for them to communicate with each other about a commonly read text. This may be one reason why whole language has been reject over the pass 30 years with an emphasis on phonics.
Currently, there is more of a push for a mixture of both methods. Phonics can be taught to enhance a bottom up approach while whole language is more of a use for bottom down approach to reading. By blending the two method it is possible to capture the strengths of both approaches without the corresponding weaknesses.
How this may look in the classroom may be relevant literature for the student with reading teaching that matches the needs of the students. If the student can reading without extensive phonemic awareness, training whole word might be more appropriate. When the student cannot read a word, phonics may be beneficial;.
It is better to match the system to the student than to match the student to the system. Whenever extreme positions are taken it helps some while hurting others. A teacher needs to have the flexibility to find the best tool for the context they are working in rather than based on what they were taught as students.