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Phonics vs. Whole Language
Which is Better?

by Jenny Curtis


Related Links

Kidsource A digest discussing some of the ways children develop functional phonics knowledge, as well as some of the ways teachers can foster such development.

America Tomorrow A stage by stage guide of ways to help your child with their reading skills development from infants to school age children, by the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

EdWeek A more in-depth look at the debate.

The Phyllis Schafly Report Another look at the debate.

Promoting Literacy through Whole Language And the other side...

Beginning to Read by Marilyn J. Adams is one of the seminal pieces on the topic.


Do you know how your child is learning to read? Do you understand the two approaches to teaching reading in the classroom? Read on to learn about both sides of the great debate...

The ongoing debate over the best way to teach children to read focuses on two methods: phonics-based and whole language reading programs. There have been countless arguments on each side, but never any strong enough to convince people that one is clearly better than the other.

What's the difference?
The traditional theory of learning established in the 19th century draws on the notion that children need to break down a complex skill, like reading, into its smallest components (letters) before moving on to tackle larger components (sounds, words, and sentences). Phonetic reading instruction applies this theory; children are taught to dissect unfamiliar words into parts and then join the parts together to form words. By learning these letter-sound relationships the student is provided with a decoding formula that can be applied whenever they encounter an unfamiliar word.

Whole language learning is less focused on rules and repetition than is phonics. It stresses the flow and meaning of the text, emphasizing reading for meaning and using language in ways that relate to the students' own lives and cultures. Whole language classrooms tend to teach the process of reading, while the final product becomes secondary. The "sounding out" of words so central to phonics is not used in whole language learning. Instead, children are encouraged to decode each word through its larger context.

There are pros and cons to both methods of teaching.
Phonics-based reading programs tend to build better pronunciation and word recognition. The phonics formulas can be applied again and again, and will help a child with spelling far more than the memorization and guesswork of whole language. If only taught phonetically, however, a child may have difficulty understanding the full meaning of a text, due to the constant breaking down of words into parts. Phonics critics also state that the rules and rote learning it entails are stifling and may cause children to develop the attitude that reading is a chore.

Whole language learning is thought to provide a better understanding of the text, and a more interesting and creative approach to reading. However, whole language learning may come at the expense of accuracy and correctness. A child might be awarded high marks for "overall language use," even if he or she has misspelled many words.

Which is best for your child?
Small children tend to fall into the categories of either visual or auditory learners. Visual learners, on the one hand, are more likely to benefit from the whole language approach since their strength is in recognizing words and word sequences that they have seen before. On the other hand, auditory students learn what they hear so they rely more on phonetics.

Does that mean you should try to categorize your child, and push for one teaching method? Probably not. Despite the differences in how children learn, most learn through a combination of techniques. That fact, plus the different strengths that each method offers, suggests that a mixed approach for each child will probably be most beneficial.

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