Phonics-based Reading vs. The Whole Language Approach

Reading is an essential developmental skill. That is a statement that just about every educator can agree upon. However, in terms of reading instruction, that’s about as far as the agreement goes. Over the past three decades a “reading war” has waged on in the field of education, leaving many parents confused as to what theory they should subscribe to for their child’s development.  The two most popular terms tossed around in this reading war are phonics-based reading and the whole-language approach. But what do these terms mean and how does it translate to not only the early childhood but to the college classroom as well? What are the long-term effects of both methods and is one better than the other? To get started, let’s examine these two ideas:

Phonics-based Reading

phonics-based reading

In short, phonetic-based reading attempts to break written language down into small and simple components. It is taught by having children use letter sounds and letter symbols. Using this technique, children identify letters with certain sounds and piece them back together – a process is called decoding. This allows children to see a new word, take what they previously knew about the sounds that each letter makes, and put it together to sound out the new word. Think of phonics-based reading as playing with letter blocks. It allows a student to switch out a “h” with a “c” to get either “how” or “cow”. If the child were to combine the first two words, he would get “chow”, and so on.

Whole Language Approach

In the simplest terms, the whole-language approach strives to teach children to read words as whole pieces of language. Influenced by the Constructivist Theory, proponents of the whole-language methodology believe that children draw from their perspective and prior experiences to form the framework for new knowledge. This form of instruction is taught using a holistic approach, meaning that children do not learn to break down sounds individually but to take words at face value and associate them with prior knowledge. Think of it as the way we learn to speak a language. So, if a child sees the word “dog” written enough times with a picture of a dog he or she will then associate that word, in its entirety, with the idea of a dog.whole language reading

The two methods are apparently different, but what are the long-term effects of each approach? A study done in Scotland showed that young students who learn to read using only a phonics-based program read at a significantly slower pace and understand less than those who are in a classroom that utilizes a blended approach. This trend continued when the students were 11 years old, with many of them years behind their peers in identifying new words. The difference was even more pronounced when these students were in university, many of them years behind their peers in fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary. Meanwhile, it is rare to find any classroom in the US using only the whole-language approach.

Many parents of young children feel that selecting a school that identifies with one over the other can severely impact their child’s educational future. In an attempt to settle the debate between the two approaches, the National Reading Panel began a study in 1997. The study found that there are five essential components that must be taught to develop effective readers. These skills are: phonemic awareness, phonics, reading fluency, vocabulary development, and reading comprehension.

What the Research Says about Reading

Though the panel’s study hoped to settle the debate, it only left proponents of both approaches with more fuel to their fire. Those in support of phonics-based learning argued that phonics was an essential skill; therefore the whole-language approach was null and void. Those in favor of the whole-language technique argued that phonics were useless if a child could not comprehend what he or she read.

This led many educators to subscribe to the blended approach, which research most supports. A blended approach to reading allows students to start with a phonics-based program and then transition to the whole-language approach as they develop their reading skills. This allows students to learn phonemic awareness and phonics through a phonetically based program when they are younger and develop reading fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension when they are older. Research has shown that students who are taught to read using a blended technique grow up to be stronger readers and writers.

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