Search form

Whole Language and Phonics: Can They Work Together?

 The debate still rages among educators, parents, and experts. Whole language? Or phonics? Which approach to teaching reading works best? Is the pendulum swinging?

Whole language? Phonics? A combination of the two? Which is the best approach?

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.



The debate over the best way to teach reading isn't new. In fact, the question has been argued through much of the 20th century. A number of different approaches to teaching reading have dominated during that time span.

The "look-say" reading method was widespread for 30 years, from around 1940 to 1970. From around 1970 to 1990, phonics was popular. And whole language gained a foothold around 1990. Several other approaches have also been utilized for a briefer time before they were found wanting.

After a global approach, such as the "look-say" method, is popular for at time, the pendulum tends to swing in the opposite direction toward a more analytical approach, such as phonics. Proponents of one method are often extremely critical of another method, as if the effectiveness of each method precluded the success of another.



Writing in Principal, Marie Carbo asserts that "Children who do well in whole-language programs tend to have visual, tactile, and global reading styles." Global learners such as these, she maintains, tend to enjoy and learn from the popular literature, hands-on learning and peer interactions prominent in the whole language approach.

To analytic as opposed to global learners, however, the whole language approach can feel disorganized, Carbo says. If the systematic teaching of phonics doesn't take place, analytic learners can fall behind and fail to develop the tools they need for decoding words.

Using a single approach to reading generally doesn't work, Carbo concludes. Many combinations and permutations are necessary to provide an optimal learning environment for an entire class of readers. She cites an extensive body of research that backs "the global approach of whole language as a framework for teaching young children and poor readers -- but only as a framework." Within that framework, strategies from different approaches need to be utilized.



Carbo's 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.

Her 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.



Regie Routman, author of Invitations (Heinemann Educational Books, 1991), asserts that one key to a successful whole language program is teaching for strategies rather than simply teaching for skills. In teaching for skills, she says, the teacher decides what the learner needs, and the skill is taught directly, often in a predetermined sequence. The student then practices the skill in isolation.

In contrast, Routman maintains, teaching for strategies involves teaching skills in a broader context, after the student shows a need for specific skills. The teacher helps the student to determine the generalization of a skill and become aware of application of the skill to specific contexts. "Application of a skill to another context," she writes, "is far more likely to occur when the skill has been taught in a meaningful context that considers the needs of learners."

For this approach to succeed, teachers need to become observers of what strategies students use or do not use in reading. In this way, the need for a predetermined skills sequence will diminish.

In a whole-language program, Routman says, opportunities to teach phonics arise in shared reading, shared writing, writing aloud, self-selected writing, and guided reading.



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.

Article by Sharon Cromwell
Education World®
Copyright © 1997, 2016 Education World