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Phonics emphasizes word analysis. Children learn letter sounds (b = the first sound in "bat" and "ball") first and then blend them (bl = the first two sounds in "blue") to form words. This is seen to be an improvement on the previously used method of learning the letter sounds (b=buh) first and then blending them (bl=bluh). This newer method eliminates the extraneous "uh" sounds which were unavoidable in the older method. Children also learn strategies to figure out words they don't know.

Phonics is considered an "analytical" approach where students analyze the letters, letter combinations and syllables in a word; in an effort to "decode" (1) the speech-sounds represented by the letters and (2) the meaning of the text. The advantage of phonics is that, especially for students who come to schools with large English vocabularies, it enables students to decode or "sound-out" a word they have in their speaking vocabulary.

Phonics proponents led by Rudolph Flesch in his book Why Johnny Can Read attacked the whole word approach because (1) it did not get students into reading children's stories that did not have carefully controlled vocabularies and (2) it theoretically required the students to memorize every word as a whole.

Phonics advocates focus their efforts on the primary grades and emphasize the importance of students having phonemic awareness, that is an understanding of the alphabetic principle that the spelling of words relates to how they sound when spoken.

A problem with teaching the reading of English with this analytical approach is that English words do not have a one-to-one speech-sound to symbol relationship. If they did have a one-to-one relationship, reading would be easier. In general, with a few common exceptions, the consonants do have a one-to-one speech-sound to symbol relationship but the vowels do not. For instance the letter "a" has one sound in the word "say", a second sound in "at", a third sound in "any", a fourth sound in "are", a fifth sound in "all", a sixth sound in "about", a seventh sound in "father", an eighth sound in "orange", and a ninth sound (silence) in "bread". The speech-sounds are sometimes influenced by (a) the letters surrounding the target vowel, (b) by the sentence containing the word and (c) the stress, or lack thereof, given to the syllable containing the letter.

Almost any combination of three letters with a central "a" can reasonably be pronounced in a number of different ways. For instance the "a" in "pag" could be pronounced as in "page" (long "a"), "pageant" (short "a"), creepage (short "i") or decoupage (short "o" as in "dot"). It therefor follows that beginning students wil have a difficult time picking the appropriate sound when sounding-out words which are not in their speaking vocabularies.

Fortunately, most readers quickly develop a subconscious word sense which helps them fluently pick the right sound based on the structure of the word and how that stucture is related to other similar words they know.

Some very common words do not follow any described phonic pattern, so those words have to be memorized. Some books refer to these words as "sight words", but it is probably better to refer to them as "memory words" because some books refer to sight words as those words which are so common they do not have to be analyzed or "sounded-out". It does not seem like a good idea to have "sight-words" mean two different things when "memory-words" is available.

The many homonyms in English such as to, too, and two create difficulties for students, even at the university level in regard to spelling.

Drawbacks: Some phonics programs use low-interest reading material and too many boring worksheets. Those "drawbacks", of course, are not unique to a phonics program. Martirc 13:57, 17 August 2006 (UTC)

Whole Language[]

"Whole language" is a teaching method which emphasizes literature and word meanings. Students use critical thinking strategies. In the younger grades, children use invented spelling to write their own stories. Whole language is a currently controversial approach to teaching reading that is based on constructivist learning theory and ethnographic studies of students in classrooms. With whole language, teachers are expected to provide a literacy rich environment for their students and to combine speaking, listening, reading, and writing. Whole language teachers emphasize the meaning of texts over the sounds of letters, and phonics instruction becomes just one component of the whole language classroom. Whole language is considered a "top down" approach where the reader constructs a personal meaning for a text based on using their prior knowledge to interpret the meaning of what they are reading. Problems associated with whole language include a lack of structure that has been traditionally supplied by the scope and sequence, lessons and activities, and extensive graded literature found in basal readers. Whole language puts a heavy burden on teachers to develop their own curriculum.

Drawbacks: Some whole language programs place too little emphasis on word analysis or phonics. When that's left out, young readers may guess or skip over words they don't know and some children may not learn how to read. Martirc 19:58, 16 August 2006 (UTC)

The Phonics vs. "Whole Language" Controversy[]

The educational tragedy in Rockford, Illinois, now making national headlines, echoes a larger tragedy. At Lewis Lemon elementary school, with a student body described by The New York Times as "80 percent nonwhite and 85 percent poor," third graders scored near the top in statewide readings tests. Their results were bested only by students at a school for the gifted. How were the results achieved? Teachers used reading lessons "heavy on drilling and repetition, that emphasize phonics--that is, learning words by sounding them out." This approach, however, is deemed too extreme by the new school superintendent, who is phasing it out.

In discarding success, Rockford is following the demands of the still-dominant voices in the nation's schools of education. They insist that phonics instruction be balanced with its antipode, the whole language "method." Because "reading is such a complex and multifaceted activity," explains Dr. Catherine Snow, professor of education at Harvard, "no single method is the answer." This is like saying that because eating is "such a complex and multifaceted activity," no single method can guide us, and that a proper diet must therefore contain a mixture of food and poison.

The controversy over how to teach reading is not a narrow, technical dispute. It is a broad, philosophic disagreement, with crucial educational implications. The phonics proponents maintain that human knowledge is gained objectively, by perceiving the facts of reality and by abstracting from those facts. These proponents, therefore, teach the child directly and systematically the basic facts—the sounds that make up every word—from which the abstract knowledge of how to read can be learned.

Supporters of whole language, by contrast, believe that the acquisition of knowledge is a subjective process. Influenced by John Dewey and his philosophy of Progressive education, they believe that the child must be encouraged to follow his feelings irrespective of the facts, and to have his arbitrary "opinions" regarded as valid. On this premise, the child is told to treat the "whole word" as a primary, and to draw his conclusions without the necessity of learning the underlying facts. He is taught this—in spite of the overwhelming evidence, in theory and in practice, that phonics instruction works and whole language does not.

In learning to speak, a child has already performed a tremendous cognitive feat. To read, he must now grasp the connection between the black marks he sees on paper—which to him are like hieroglyphs—and the spoken words he already understands. Systematic phonics instruction teaches a child to break the code of written language. Spoken language is made up of discrete units of sound, called phonemes, like the b sound in "bat" or "boy." Phonics teaches a child to break down spoken words into their phonemes and to symbolize them by written letters. The child learns how to sound out each word through its component letters. Reducing reading to a manageable set of rules quickly enables a child to read almost any word—and to experience reading as something easy and pleasurable and mind-opening.

This is what supporters of whole language condemn as "constraining" and "uncreative." Analyzing language by abstract rules that connect phonemes to letters, one of them says dismissively, imposes "an uptight, must-be-right model of literacy." Instead, they argue that the child ought to focus on an entire written word, like "hospital" or "boomerang," and learn it as the teacher pronounces it. Having no method to reduce the tens of thousands of written words to a manageable set of rules, however, the child must treat each word as a unique symbol to be memorized—an impossible feat.

What is the child to do when he encounters a word he has not yet memorized? He must guess. Here is what some whole-language advocates suggest the child do:

  • "Look at the pictures" (what if the book does not contain pictures?);
  • "Ask a friend" (is reading not a solitary activity?);
  • "Look for patterns" (why not systematically teach him "patterns," that is, phonics?);
  • "Substitute another word" (is this teaching?)

Conspicuously absent is:

  • "Look in a dictionary"—because the child crippled by whole language cannot read a dictionary.

Whatever twisted mental processes the child is supposed to go through, it is a linguistic corruption to call this a method of reading. The use of whole language results in nothing but illiteracy. (California, for example, which tried this approach in the late '80s, abandoned it after reading scores plummeted.) The seeming "successes" of whole language occur only when phonics is smuggled in—that is, when the child (on his own or with the help of teachers or parents) secretly decodes written language by discovering that, say, the words "banana," "boat" and "box," which he has memorized, have a similar initial sound and begin with the same letter.

What our schools need is not "moderation," but phonics instruction. We would consider it child abuse to add contaminated food to a child's diet for the sake of "balance." We should consider it the same when educators add whole language to reading instruction.

Proponents of each maintain their particular approach is the key to engaging children in reading. As arguments over methods—arguments often based on politics as well as education—intensify, the ability to read well is more critical than ever. Indeed, the ability to read is vital! Children who don't succeed at reading are at risk of doing poorly in school. That's why teachers and administrators are under increasing pressure to raise students' reading test scores. But actually guiding students to improve reading strategies and performance can be more difficult than simply recognizing the need. And then the haunting question remains: Which approach is best?

Simply stated, supporters of the whole language approach think children's literature, writing activities, and communication activities can be used across the curriculum to teach reading; backers of phonics instruction insist that a direct, sequential mode of teaching enables students to master reading in an organized way. Emerging from the conflict over whole language and phonics is the increasingly widespread view that each approach has a different but potentially complementary role to play in the effective teaching of reading. Many educators now look for ways to use phonics as part of whole language instruction, striving to teach meaningful phonics in the context of literature.

In a recent International Reading Association (IRA) position statement—a statement that shocked many in the reading community who, rightly or wrongly, had seen the IRA as a bastion of the whole language movement—the organization took a stance supporting phonics within a whole-language program. In "The Role of Phonics in Reading Instruction," the IRA maintains that: "The teaching of phonics is an important aspect of beginning reading instruction. Classroom teachers in the primary grades do value and do teach phonics as a part of their reading programs. Phonics instruction, to be effective in promoting independence in reading, must be embedded in the context of a total reading/language arts program."

"Early, systematic, explicit phonics instruction is an essential part, but only part, of a balanced, comprehensive reading program," maintains John J. Pikulski, IRA President. The organization's position is that no one approach to teaching reading and writing is best for every child.

Learning Theories Compared[]

Behaviorism (Official Theory) Constructivism (Classic Theory)
Teacher-Centered Direct Instruction Student-Centered Instruction
Transmission (Friere's Banking Model) Experiential Interactive
Phonics Emphasis Whole Language Emphasis
Sound & Skills Emphasis Meaning Emphasis

Students who come from "high literacy" households—where young children are read bedtime stories on a regular basis, there are lots of children's books, and adults read regularly—tend to learn to read well regardless of the teaching approach used. These students tend to enter school with large vocabularies and reading readiness skills (and sometimes they already can read).

Students from "low literacy" households are not exposed much to reading in their homes and tend to have smaller vocabularies. They may speak non-standard dialects of English such as Ebonics and can be unmotivated students, especially if they see teachers as enemies trying to change how they speak and act, in other words their language and culture. It is argued that standard phonics approachecan be unsuccessful for these students. Whole language approaches encourage teachers to find reading material that reflects these students language and culture.

Publishing basal reading textbooks is a multimillion dollar industry that responds to the demands of purchasers. Two populous states, California and Texas, do statewide adoptions of textbooks, and whatever they want in their textbooks, publishers tend to supply. Currently publishers are including systematic phonics instruction, more classic and popular children's literature, and whole language activities. This compromise generally goes under the rubric of a "balanced approach" to teaching reading. Advocates of balanced reading instruction should supplement a school's adopted reading program with materials that reflect the experiential background and interests of their students.

Various approaches to reading presume that students learn differently. The phonics emphasis in reading draws heavily from behaviorist learning theory that is associated with the work of the Harvard psychologist B.F. Skinner while the whole language emphasis draws from constructivist learning theory and the work of the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky.

Behaviorist learning theory is based on studies of animal behaviors where animals such as pigeons learned to do tasks when they received rewards and extinguished (stopped) behaviors that were not rewarded or were punished. Most of us can point to things we continue to do because we are rewarded for doing them. Rewards can be the pay we get for jobs we do, desired recognition like "A" grades for doing excellent school work, and praise from our friends when they like what we are doing. Likewise, we can point to things we stopped doing because we were not rewarded or were punished for them. Behaviorist learning theory tends to look at extrinsic rewards like money, grades, and gold starts rather than intrinsic rewards like feeling good about successfully accomplishing a difficult task.

Constructivist learning theory is based on the idea that children learn by connecting new knowledge to previously learned knowledge. The term is a building metaphor that includes students using scaffolding to organize new information. If children cannot connect new knowledge to old knowledge in a meaningful way, they may with difficulty memorize it (rote learning), but they will not have a real understanding of what they are learning.

Vygotsky identified a "zone of proximal" development where children can learn new things that are a little above their current understanding with the help of more knowledgeable peers or adults. This new knowledge is incorporated into their existing knowledge base.

Combining phonics with whole language programs[]

Recommendations for teachers using primarily phonics include:

  • Balance your reading program by focusing on literature and fun.
  • Read to students often, choral read with them, and give them time to read both alone and in pairs.
  • Guard against boredom.
  • Spend only a brief time each day on phonics and do no more than one worksheet daily.
  • Use many word games in your teaching. For most children, phonics is easier to learn if they are having fun. If students are not able to learn phonics easily, try other reading approaches, like recorded books or story writing.
  • Develop a classroom library.
  • Have children browse, read, and discuss books.

Suggestions for teachers using whole language include:

  • Balance the reading program by providing as much structure as needed and some step-by-step skill work, especially for analytic students, while emphasizing literature and fun.
  • Provide sufficient tools for decoding words, using small amounts of direct instruction in phonics for auditory and analytic learners.
  • Tape-record phonics lessons so that students can work independently to improve skills.
  • Don't use invented spelling for long periods with highly analytic learners or students who have memory problems.

Careful combination[]

Which approach wins the debate then? Phonics or whole language? The majority of experts now contend that neither approach by itself is effective all the time but that both approaches possess merit. What does succeed then, many experts say, is a carefully designed reading program that employs part whole language approach and part phonics, and takes into account each student's learning style and demonstrated strengths and weaknesses. Parental involvement is vital to reading success no matter which approaches are used, reading experts assert. Many parents follow debates like phonics vs. whole language in the media, and form opinions on one side or the other. Explaining why and how phonics, whole language, or another method of instruction is used will help bring students' parents on board and support the classroom teaching of reading.

See also[]

Related Resources[]

  • Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print by M.J. Adams. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990.
  • The Reading Wars: Who Will Be the Winners, Who Will Be the Losers? by R.T. Vacca, Reading Today, October/November 1996.
  • Becoming a Nation of Readers: Pursuing the Dreamby J.J. Pikulski. Paper presented at the meeting of the Wisconsin State Reading Association, Milwaukee, WI.
  • Phonics Phacts by Ken Goodman, Heinemann, 1993.
  • The 'Great' Debate—Can Both Carbo and Chall Be Right? by Richard L. Turner, Phi Delta Kappan, December 1989.
  • Myths of Whole Language by Judith M. Newman and Susan M. Church, The Reading Teacher, September 1990.

External links[]

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