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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Why Is Reading So Hard for Some Kids?

Picture two students, side by side, reading a fairytale from a storybook.  One student easily reads with expression and enthusiasm, “Once Upon a Time”.  The other student slowly reads “On up a tim.”  Both students live in the same neighborhood, have educated parents that read to them at night, and were exposed to literature at a young age.  So why can the one read and the other cannot?  Is it a fairytale story to think that reading is a natural process?  The answer is “yes”.

How Prevelant Is the Problem?

Almost 20% of children have a reading problem that impacts their ability to learn to read through traditional teaching methods. Most reading instruction in American classrooms is taught through the whole language approach where students are expected to learn to read naturally through exposure to literature.  While this methodology works with many students, it doesn’t work for all.  Critics of the whole language approach state that students also need phonics-based instruction.

Reid Lyon, the former head of National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, makes a valid point by questioning why there are so many illiterate adults and children if reading were a natural process.  According to a recent article in TIME magazine, there are almost 3 million students in special education classes specifically because they cannot read.

Most have a reading disorder, such as dyslexia.   In many instances, the student demonstrates strong reading comprehension, but there is a specific glitch in sounding words out (decoding). Because reading is a combination of decoding and comprehension, a student’s decoding skills are vital to the reading process. To learn to decode a student needs to be able to understand that individual sounds make up words.  Thus, a reading disability that is not based in comprehension is occurring at the basic letter/sound level.  Students aren’t able to quickly pull apart sounds and blend them together.  And interestingly, because reading and spelling are related, a red flag for dyslexia is poor spelling.

What’s Causing Such Difficulty?

Scientific data points to specific neurobiological differences between normal readers and those with dyslexia.  Brain scans show that those with a reading disorder process information from the frontal lobe, while normally-functioning readers process information from the posterior region, the part of the brain that makes reading automatic.  When this occurs, students compensate by relying heavily on memorizing words because they can’t sound them out fast enough.  While this compensatory strategy helps get kids through a school year, without proper treatment, these children flounder as they encounter new, more challenging text.  As students age, they will continue to struggle to decode, however, this does improve with time.  The most significant residual effect of their untreated reading problem is very slow reading.

What Can Be Done?

Twenty years of research demonstrates that we can remediate almost all reading disabilities.  Assessment of a student’s letter/sound knowledge as early as the kindergarten and first grade is key.

Too often the excuse of a developmental lag is given and that eventually Johnny will “catch up”.  Statistics state that 76% of students with an untreated reading problem never do catch up.  Waiting to seek help is not the answer.  When help is given in 4th grade rather than in kindergarten when weaknesses were first spotted, it takes four times as long to improve the same skills by the same amount.  Although it may take longer to remediate a reading problem in a middle or high school student, we do know it can be done.

One-to-one reading instruction or small group instruction is considered the best approach. Explicit instruction is the most powerful way to improve reading. The focus should be on decoding, fluency, and ultimately, comprehension.

In the 1930s, Dr. Samuel Orton and Anna Gillingham developed an approach to reading, a ‘course of action’ if you will, to provide reading instruction.  Their method is still the gold standard used today.  The Orton-Gillingham approach is multisensory (instruction taps into the visual, auditory and kinesthetic domains) because this approach aids the processing, retention and application of information.

Although scientific evidence proves that reading is not a natural process for many, obstacles can be overcome.  With the right instruction, these students will be able to open up their books and be whisked away to magical lands.