Saturday, May 19, 2012

Phonics or Whole Language: Which is Right?

Reading programs boast that they can teach your child to read in a few months.  Professional tutoring businesses guarantee that they can raise your child’s reading ability one to three years.  What is the best way to teach reading?


Phonics and Whole Language are the two prominent methods for teaching this basic skill.  The two systems are complete opposite ends of a wide spectrum, yet both have been very successful with children and adults.  Heated debates continue in Teacher’s Lounges and in classrooms all over the world, supporters of each side holding to his preferred method being the best.  It is not new – the debate goes back over 500 years (click here if you’d like more about the history of phonics vs. whole language argument).  The real difference is the person who is learning and the way his brain is wired. 

Phonics is a system where each letter is assigned a sound, and some of them, like vowels and the letter c, are given more than one sound with accompanying rules to explain the difference.  These letter sounds are then added together to create a word.  As the student progresses, he begins to learn more patterns with letter combinations, such as “when two vowels go walking, the first one says its name.”  The problem with learning such rules is that the English language has so many exceptions that it can be confusing to a new reader.  In public schools which support this type of instruction, it is taught from the earliest years, pre-k or Kindergarten, until about third grade. 

Whole Language instruction, on the other hand, takes a very different approach to the same skill.  This method teaches that the reader should look at the entire word and memorize the word.  This begins with a set of high-frequency words, such as the Dolch word list, as well as signs placed near common objects in order for the student to mentally connect the object with its written word.  As the student progresses to more difficult words, they learn word origins and basic spellings and meanings of root words (also called base words).  Latin, Greek, and Old English origins are taught so they can recognize these influences in larger words, which they can break down into chunks of recognized portions and put together to make new meaning.  They memorize affixes (prefixes and suffixes) and use those meanings to add to the understanding of the word.

Which is right?  As you have probably recognized, most reading systems use a combination of the two methods.  This is called an integrated approach to reading, and this is my preferred style of teaching.  You will notice in my other posts about reading instruction that I use the Dolch word list and other whole language methods to teach automaticity with the language, while I supplement phonics instruction to be able to sound out the various sounds and letter combinations.  However, the fact is both styles have been very successful, but the person learning is really the one to determine the best method. 

My daughter, as hard as I’ve worked for my normal, integrated method, learns through the Whole Language method.  When I start breaking a word down into phonics, she panics.  I recently talked to a mother whose son read very early, but he had reached a plateau.  He was diagnosed with a form of dyslexia and could not seem to progress in his ability, which was very frustrating for both of them.  She had tried several phonics courses over the years, and none of them seemed to help.  I suggested she try using more Whole Language.  Use sight words on flash cards (or with technology today, I use PowerPoint). Learn parts of words with their origins, also teaching affixes.  She immediately recognized that when they did those activities, he had done well, so she was very excited to try this approach.

Know your child and help your child learn to read through the method which suits him.  Phonics, Whole Language, and an Integrated Approach all have the potential of teaching your child to read well or confusing them to the point of tears.  Find what is best for him.