Saturday, April 27, 2013

Phonics and Whole Language: A Debate?

Learning to read. Zambia
Learning to read. Zambia (Photo credit: GlobalPartnership for Education)
by Scott T Sharp

I am always bemused that the phonics versus whole language debate is, well, a debate.

Education systems swing back and forth between the two, much to the annoyance of many educators and to the detriment of children.

First I will give you an overview (admittedly simplified) of each approach.


The 'phonics approach' to learning to read can be likened to climbing a ladder. Children build their skills and knowledge one step at a time. Under this approach, children begin by recognising and learning the sound-letter relationships; that is, recognising letters and their corresponding sounds.

The next step in the 'phonics ladder' involves understanding that these sounds can be combined to make words and represent meaning, and learning more complex letter patterns.

Whole Language

In the whole language approach, the path to learning doesn't involve children learning to combine sounds to read words. Rather it involves immersing the learner in literacy as a whole; that is: reading, being read to, and writing.

The focus is on making meaning from texts and using language in authentic contexts. Spelling and grammar will come in their own time and of their own accord.

When educators subscribe exclusively to only one approach, children miss out. To become a competent, well-rounded reader, a child needs exposure and opportunities to practise the skills both philosophies offer.

Either Or?

A robust reading curriculum involves aspects of both approaches.

To begin, children need to understand that the letters on the page carry with them sounds, and that the sounds can change depending on placement and letter patterns.

They need to know that these sounds combine to represent words. This is a very important base for reading, but it is only part of the skill set of a competent reader.

Children must learn sight words as whole units, not broken into their individual sounds. Yes, most of these sight words follow phonetic patterns and can be decoded (worked out) by applying learnt rules, but that is missing the point.

A whole language approach to sight words teaches children immediate recognition of these words, thus increasing reading fluency.

Here it is important that we look again to the phonics approach, because not all words need to be learnt by sight. It would be folly to force beginning readers to attempt to learn all words by sight.

When beginning readers encounter words they don't know by sight, they need to be able to access their phonics knowledge to decode the word. To do this they need a good understanding of phonics.

Throughout the process of learning to read, children need to be immersed in literacy. Children must read, read, read and write, write, write. They need exposure to fiction, non-fiction, brochures, magazines, posters, menus; they need to write stories, lists, diaries and book reviews.

They must understand texts, realise the purpose of different texts, and most importantly enjoy reading; all things which the whole language approach heavily advocates.

Children who are lucky enough to learn within a system that recognises the value of each approach will have a greater chance of finishing with a finely tuned skill set and a love of books. These are children who will become life-long readers.

We need to give our children a well-rounded approach to reading. Scott runs the completely free website aimed at helping parents assist their children's reading. It also includes a free tutoring service at

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